Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) is a Bolivian nonprofit that has been rescuing hundreds of animals for almost 30 years. It takes care of animals rescued from illegal trafficking in its 3 sanctuaries. The organization also fights to end the animal trade through educational programs, research projects and public actions. We interviewed Andrea from the CIWY staff to learn more about the importance of volunteers for animal sanctuaries, and the challenges of a world without international travel.
The sanctuaries take care of dozens of animal species
What is your role at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi? How long have you been with the organization and what are your responsibilities?
My name is Andrea Benavente and I am the Director of Communications at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY). I started in 2017 as Administrator of the Machia sanctuary, one of CIWY’s three sanctuaries. I was keeping the accounting books up to date, writing monthly reports to the authorities, overseeing the sanctuary’s operations, organizing meetings, fundraising, managing social media content, in addition to working with the animals when there were not enough volunteers. In 2018, I became the Director of Communications; I am now in charge of publicizing our volunteer program, fundraising, staff recruitment, relationships with stakeholders, among others.
That’s impressive! Can you also tell us a bit about yourself? Where you come from, your background and how you became involved with animal protection in general and with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi Bolivia in particular?
I am Bolivian, a lawyer by profession. My life has always been very international. I have lived in different cities and even countries! I spent most of my career working in multinational companies and consultancies. In the later years, I started dedicating myself to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and private social investment. I was transferred to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I lived for 4 years. I eventually decided to leave the company I was working for and try to find an opportunity that was closer to my passion for animals. That’s how I found out about CIWY.
I was struck by the work they were doing for 25 years, caring for many species, some of them in a vulnerable and critical risk of extinction. I was interested in working on educational and research projects. Thus, I first volunteered for CIWY. After learning more and more about their work, I applied for the position of Administrator and returned to Bolivia with the hope of a new project in my life. When I arrived in Machia, I felt for the first time, after many years, that I was at home. Ever since, it has been a very humbling and rewarding journey, the greatest reward in this work being the gratification of seeing the animals happy for having a second chance at life.
How does Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi operate? How many volunteers do you work with on a regular basis? What are their roles and responsibilities?
CIWY’s mission is to provide the best quality of life possible to wildlife rescued from illegal trading, and to diminish animal trafficking through educational programs and public action. Through this work, we aim to inspire humankind to respect all living creatures, promote conservation, and protect biodiversity.
CIWY operates on a tight budget, financed primarily by volunteers who pay to stay and work with the animals in the sanctuaries, along with their on-site purchases, and additional fundraising and donations. These funds make up 95% of the funds available for the day-to-day operating expenses of each sanctuary. The current political crisis has led to a volunteer shortage, putting great strain on CIWY’s financial stability. We currently rely on grants and long-term to help finish current construction projects and pay salaries.
The CIWY team consists of Bolivian and international staff, as well as volunteers from around the world. Volunteers generally work with a specific animal for a few months, often establishing a life-long bond and remaining involved either through future visits or regular donations. We have high and low seasons. During the low season, we usually have around 5 to 15 volunteers, and during high season we reach 20 to 30 volunteers. Volunteers stay for a minimum of two weeks.
CIWY volunteer at work with a spider monkey
Can you describe the importance of wildlife rescue and care – what is the need/challenges/dangers and what challenges does Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi solve?
CIWY operates 3 wildlife sanctuaries in the Bolivian Amazon (Machía, Ambue Ari, and Jacj Cuisi), caring for a total of over 500 rescued animals of 39 different species. CIWY was founded by Tania “Nena” Baltazar, a Bolivian conservationist who has headed the organization for over 20 years. CIWY collaborates with the Bolivian government and law enforcement to rescue wild animals from illegal trafficking, circuses, homes, natural disasters, and other dangerous situations. A major aspect of our work is educating the public to respect wildlife and report illegal poaching and trafficking. We help make sure all animals in Bolivia are protected from illegal activities, especially endangered species that are already so vulnerable.
During a CIWY outreach education event
How has the Coronavirus crisis affected your work? What are the challenges it creates in the immediate, mid-term and long-term periods?
80% of our income comes from volunteers who come to our centers. Since last year, CIWY has been going through very difficult times due to situations that have occurred in Bolivia: first the Amazon fires, specifically in the Chiquitanía dry forests that were the victims of the forest fires. These fires happen annually, but in 2019, it got out of control, destroying more than 4,000,000 hectares.
Subsequently, a social and political conflict arose due to the presidential elections. Road blockades were set up, leading to shortages in our three sanctuaries and the price of food up quadrupled. Travel warnings were issued worldwide recommending not to travel to Bolivia, as it was dangerous, and we did not receive volunteers for at least 2 months.
Today due to the pandemic, strict quarantine measures have been applied, which meant the closure of borders and the suspension of internal transport. In compliance with security protocols, CIWY closed its doors to new volunteers on March 19, aiming not only to comply with regulatory restrictions, but also to ensure the health of animals, staff and the few remaining volunteers.
To date, we only have one volunteer in Machia and two in Ambue Ari, apart from the permanent staff. This translates into extensive hours of very hard work trying to maintain the same level of care of the animals that depend on us. The lack of income is causing us to raise funds elsewhere to cover the regular operation of the three centers. Now we depend solely on the solidarity of the people.
What consequences of this crisis are you most worried about?
To keep going without volunteers will not only cause a great economic loss that we’ll have to find alternative ways to cover our expenses, but will become even more problematic as we are also getting closer to the forest fire season. In Ambue Ari in 2018, we lost 400 hectares to these fires and experience shows us that each year the fires encroach closer to Ambue Ari sanctuary. Every year when these fires occur, it is the volunteers, guided by staff, who combat the fires inside and outside the sanctuary for days, until firefighters and further assistance arrive. If it were not for the strength of our staff and volunteers in those first days, the consequences of the fires would be fatal for the animals we protect.
Locals and volunteers trying to contain the fires around a sanctuary in October 2019
This year, we will not have the same number of volunteers. Therefore, we need other ways to be ready in face of this adversity; we need to equip ourselves with firefighting backpacks and other tools, so that we can contract locals from nearby towns to help us overcome the fires.
CIWY has launched a COVID-19 Fund on GivingWay to help maintain its sanctuaries and protect the animals from the upcoming fires. You can support the incredible work the CIWY Staff HERE. Your donation, no matter the amount, will directly impact the wellbeing of the 500 animals living at CIWY!
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