On August 15, 2011, the indigenous tribes of the Bolivian Amazon initiated a march from Trinidad, in the region of Beni with the goal of walking to La Paz, a distance of 650 kilometers (403 miles). The march was in defense of the TIPNIS, a pristine national park, that was originally created to protect and maintain the indigenous culture and the natural forest overflowing with endangered fauna and flora. Plans had been initiated to build a road, for the transport and export of coca leaves, that would run through the very middle of their sacred homeland. And so the march began… with families united, fathers and grandfathers, pregnant women and mothers with their children, day by day through rugged terrain with sparse supplies, a march that would last 66 days.
As the marchers neared La Paz, Hospital Arco Iris (HAI) went out to greet them, offering food, clothing and emotional and medical support. As the ambulances raced over the crest of the mountains I was struck by the calm solidarity of a people fighting for what they believed in. Tribe by tribe they marched with banners identifying their group. Here were people who had never left the warmth of their tropical jungle walking through the clouds at the height of 4600 meters (15,180 ft), holding babies and walking with toddlers. As the ambulance stopped, parents brought their children begging us to take the sick ones to the hospital. One by one we checked them and filled the ambulance with children who had fevers and coughs, all of whom were just exhausted and curled up in the back of the ambulance for some much needed rest. We transported them to our ER that was completely maxed out with patients and I watched our staff do it’s magic. We brought them into a treatment room and lined the stretcher with kids and Dr. Bedrigal, our outstanding Chief of Pediatrics, with his team triaged and treated all of the kids. Within what seemed like minutes, those who needed it were hospitalized and the rest were brought up to a private room and fed a warm meal. In the days to follow the staff of Arco Iris remained directly involved in meeting the needs of a tired, hurting people with deep compassion, concern and dignity.