Though the classic image of Bolivia seems forever tied to parched badlands, about a third of the country lies within the vast and often impenetrable wilderness of the Amazon basin, the same mind-bending expanse of swamp, savannah and tropical rainforest that first set Colonel Fawcett on his fatal quest to find El Dorado. Though deforestation has accelerated to a worrying degree in recent decades, it remains one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, with large areas virtually unexplored. Here, jaguars, tapirs and giant anteaters roam beneath the towering forest canopy; monstrous anacondas slither through the swamps; and the skies are filled by a kaleidoscopic variety of birds.
Often known as the Beni, after one of the rivers that are its dominant geographical feature, the Bolivian Amazon lies more than a thousand kilometres from the mighty Río Amazon as itself and contrary to what you might expect, not all of the region is covered by rainforest. Though the last foothills of the Andes are fringed with dense and humid premontane forest, the great watery plains that open up beyond are partially covered by a seemingly endless sea of savannah, dotted with islands of forest. Known as the Llanos de Moxos, these plains are flooded each year when the mighty rivers that meander slowly across them – the Beni, Mamoré, Guaporé and their tributaries – are swollen by innumerable Andean streams. Unsurprisingly, then, this entire region (similar in size to the whole of Great Britain) remains sparsely populated, apart from the great herds of semi-wild cattle that were first introduced by the Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century.
Sweltering quietly on the eastern edge of this area is Trinidad, the capital of the Beni and a bustling frontier outpost with few obvious attractions; for the adventurous, however, it’s the starting point for slow boat journeys down the Río Mamoré to the Brazilian border. Of far more interest to most travellers is the ecotourist epicentre of Rurrenabaque, on the banks of the Río Beni. Given its proximity to the stunningly pristine forests of Parque Nacional Madidi, together with its commitment to sustainable. community-focused tourism, it’s an obvious destination for anyone wanting to experience the Amazon’s flora, fauna and indigenous peoples up close.
Further north, around the towns of Riberalta and Cobija towards the Brazilian border, the savannah gradually gives way to the high-canopied Amazonian rainforest(known as selva) more characteristic of the Amazon region as a whole, and the department of Pando, where logging and the collection of wild rubber and Brazil nuts are the only industries of any size. Roads in the whole region are poor in the best of conditions and in the rainy season between November and April are often completely impassable.
Recent archeological evidence, suggests that the pre-Columbian Bolivian Amazon supported a populous and sophisticated society of between five and six million people, 95% of whom were decimated through the sixteenth century by smallpox and flu introduced by Europeans.
Failing to find the fabled El Dorado, the Spanish turned the region over to the religious orders, above all the Jesuits, in the hope that they might have more success in subjugating the forest tribes and securing the northeastern border with Brazil. In the late seventeenth century a handful of Jesuit missionaries did just that, accomplishing in 25 years what the civil and military authorities had been unable to do in over a century. In a precursor of the theocratic society they were later to establish in Chiquitos, the Jesuits founded a series of mission communities where the various indigenous tribes adopted Christianity and a settled, agricultural existence, raising cattle and growing crops. These missions flourished, and by the mid-eighteenth century were home to over 31,000 converts, supervised by just 45 European priests. But with the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767, the mission inhabitants were left at the mercy of Spanish landowners, with many being forced into slavery.
Worse was to come in the nineteenth century as a result of the growing international demand for rubber, a material derived from trees which were particularly abundant in the Bolivian Amazon. An unprecedented economic boom ensued, and the industry was quickly dominated by a small group of ruthless rubber barons who made overnight fortunes and subjected the indigenous population to a brutal regime of forced labour. The most famous of these was Nicolás Suaréz, who ruled over a vast rainforest empire and remains a legendary figure in the Beni.
The richest rubber-producing area, the Acre, was largely settled by rubber collectors from Brazil. When the Bolivian government sought to tax rubber exports, these Brazilians rebelled and declared independence. A short conflict – the Acre War – ensued, ending with Bolivian defeat, and in 1903 the Acre was annexed by Brazil. In the early twentieth century, the rubber boom collapsed after the English smuggled rubber seedlings out of the Amazon and established plantations in Asia, rendering wild rubber collection uncompetitive.
By the middle of the twentieth century the economy began to recover as large landowners began exporting cattle, transporting them by river to the growing markets in Brazil and in military surplus aircraft to the Altiplano. Some landowners also made great fortunes during the cocaine boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Strategically positioned between the coca-growing Chapare and the markets to the north, the isolated ranches of the Beni provided the perfect location for clandestine drug laboratories, and their private airstrips were ideal bases for the light aircraft that used to smuggle the cocaine north, leapfrogging through the Amazon to Colombia.
With ongoing road construction having opened up the Amazon’s natural resources for exploitation to an unprecedented degree, and with attendant settlement from the highlands continuing apace, the consequences for the environment have become ever more obvious over the last decade or so: during the record-breaking drought of 2005, slash and burn fires flared out of control, with the resultant incineration of around five thousand square kilometres. The floods of 2011, meanwhile, were the worst for decades. A government schedule of new dams, roads and oil exploration, moreover, presents ever more challenges both for the environment and for an indigenous population already part of an ongoing struggle between conservationists, coca-growers, settlers and loggers.
Long before the Spaniards first arrived in the Americas, the Incas told stories of a mighty civilization in the watery plains to the east of the Andes. In the fifteenth century the Inca Yupanqui sent a great army down one of the rivers of the Upper Amazon in search of this kingdom. Ravaged by the exigencies of the jungle, the depleted army finally met its match in the warlike Musu, or Moxos peoples, among whom the surviving Incas settled. Hearing tales of this mythical realm, known, variously, as El Dorado and Paitití, Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro led a huge expedition down into the Amazon in 1541. Though the gold dust of their fevered imaginings was nowhere to be found and the expedition ended – like so many others after it – in despair and death, Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal chronicled sightings of roads, riverbanks thronged with people, exquisite ceramics and, famously, “cities that glistened in white”. While his reports were initially shelved and later disparaged, recent archeological discoveries look, centuries later, to be finally proving him right.
Until about forty years ago archeologists doubted that any large, settled population could ever have survived in the Amazon Basin. The accepted wisdom was that the region’s thin, acidic soils made intensive agriculture impossible, and that the area could support only small, scattered communities practising slash-and-burn agriculture along with hunting and gathering. But subsequent research has suggested that the forests and savannahs of the Llanos de Moxos were in fact once densely populated by well-organized societies who, sometime between 3000 BC and 1000 BC, modified the environment on a massive scale to allow intensive agriculture and large urban settlements. The region is dotted with hundreds of raised earth mounds, known as lomas, most of which are covered by forest. Seen from the ground, these mounds are hardly impressive, and were long thought to be merely the remnants of natural levees left by rivers as they meandered across the plain. But when archeologists looked at these mounds from the air, they realized they were far too extensive and regular to be natural.
Instead, they concluded that they were the remnants of a massive system of earthworks – including raised fields, canals, causeways, reservoirs, dykes and mounds stretching over hundreds of square kilometres – that could only have been built by a large and well-organized society. Excavations on some of the mounds revealed that they had been built up over many centuries. By cultivating these raised mounds, researchers believe the ancient inhabitants of the Moxos were able to overcome the problems of poor soil and seasonal flooding and drought, producing enough food to support a population density much greater than was previously believed possible in the Amazon. Moreover, further north in the Brazilian, once-Bolivian, territory of Acre, deforestation – together with the wonders of Google Earth – has revealed hundreds of geoglyphs of similar magnitude, while excavations of terra preta, or ultra-fertile soil cultivated by humans, seem to coincide with the locations of the riverside cities described by Carvajal.
These discoveries have enormous implications for both conservation and development in the Amazon. They suggest that, far from being a fragile natural environment, large areas of the Amazon are in fact anthropogenic, or man-made, ecosystems, modified by centuries of human activity and even now capable of supporting far larger populations than is currently the case.