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The northwestern-most tip of Bolivia is covered by the department of Pando, a remote and sparsely populated rainforest region where logging and the collection of wild rubber and Brazil nuts are the main economic activities. At one time Pando was accessible only by boat along the Madre de Dios, Tahuamanu and Orthon rivers, which flow into the region from Peru, but now a rough road cut through the rainforest runs from just south of Riberalta to Cobija, the departmental capital, on the Brazilian border. While the bus journey along this route is an adventure in itself, involving a short and somewhat surreal cruise along a tributary of the Madre de Dios, large swathes of land on both sides of the road have already been deforested, with blackened stumps of trees protruding like broken teeth from pale green pasture and scrubby secondary growth.
Though the southwest corner of Pando is covered by the Reserva Nacional Amazónica Manuripi, the forests of much of this wild frontier region remain hotly disputed. The businessmen who control the collection of rubber and Brazil nuts, some of whom are descended from the nineteenth-century rubber barons, claim ownership rights over some thirty thousand square kilometres of forest – nearly half the department. But these claims are contested by the indigenous and campesino communities who collect the nuts and rubber – often working under a system of permanent debt so severe it amounts to a disguised form of slavery. While these communities are now using land-rights legislation to demand that the forest be recognized as theirs, with government plans to redistribute five hundred hectares per family, the political situation in the region remains volatile (see The Pando massacre).
South of Cobija between the ríos Tahuamanu and Madre de Dios, almost 7500 square kilometres of some of Bolivia’s most pristine lowland Amazon rainforest are protected, at least on paper, as the Reserva Nacional de Vida Silvestre Amazónica Manuripi. With financial help from Germany, the park’s SERNAP-administered staff have, for several years, been working with the reserve’s scattered campesino communities to promote the sustainable extraction of rubber and Brazil nuts, while improving social and working conditions. While there are plans to develop ecotourism, there’s no real infrastructure in the reserve as yet save for some very basic cabañas; you’ll need to take all your own food and bedding. There are plenty of trails used by the castañeros during the Brazil nut-collecting season (Nov–Feb), however, and at least one specific walking route, a two-hour-plus trek from the tiny community of Curichon to Lago Bay, from where you can continue to Arroyo Malecón, near the Peruvian border. Lago Bay is also accessible via the motorized canoes with which the guards patrol the river in search of illegal loggers. Before setting off you’ll need to give advance notice – ideally a couple of days – to the park office in Cobija.
The forests of the Bolivian Amazon have long attracted adventurers, eccentrics and explorers, but few have matched the exploits of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. An officer in the British Indian Army, Fawcett first came to Bolivia in 1906 to survey the unmarked and largely unexplored wilderness frontiers between Bolivia and Peru and Brazil. Over the next nineteen years, he travelled the length and breadth of the Beni, keeping a diary which his brother Brian would later use as the basis for the iconic Exploration Fawcett. First published in 1953, the book painted a vivid if, as some have speculated, somewhat embellished picture of life in the Amazon at the peak of the rubber boom. This was a time when “slavery, vice and bloodshed ruled supreme on the rivers”, and during which the indigenous inhabitants – considered “wild and hostile savages” – were “as a rule … either shot on sight like dangerous animals or ruthlessly hunted down to be sent as slaves to rubber estates”. Fawcett’s own adventures involved frequent close encounters with 20m-long anacondas, ferocious cannibal tribes, virulent tropical diseases and brutal and corrupt officials. On one occasion he and a small exploration party found their canoe marooned on a sandbar in the Río Heath and surrounded by heavily armed Guarayos warriors. Realizing that to fight would be hopeless, Fawcett says he ordered his companions to sing, accompanied by an accordion. After a few verses of “A Bicycle Made for Two”, the previously hostile tribesmen were completely pacified.
In other respects a typical product of the British Empire, the longer Fawcett spent in the Amazon, the more he came to love the wilderness and sympathize with its inhabitants. Over the years he became convinced that somewhere hidden deep in the forest stood a magnificent city inhabited by an ancient and highly advanced race of white Indians. Condemned by many of his contemporaries as a mystic and dreamer, in 1925 he set off to find this mythical city in the wilds of the Brazilian Amazon, and was never seen again. Since then, countless expeditions have gone in search of the colonel, while rumours concerning his possible end abound; according to David Grann’s definitive Lost City of Z, the most likely scenario is that Fawcett – along with his son Jack – was murdered by one of the warlike tribes in the Xingu region of Brazil. The truth behind his disappearance has never been established conclusively, however, and his own fate has now become the kind of mystery that so entranced him when he was alive. As the archeological evidence continues to mount up, moreover, his core theory of an advanced Amazonian civilisation looks more and more like the work of a visionary rather than a dreamer.
The events of September 11th 2008 proved just how dangerous standing up for your rights can be in the remote communities of Pando. In a now infamous incident near the settlement of Porvenir, described by UNASUR as a crime against humanity, nineteen indigenous protestors were shot dead – and many more injured – by right-wing paramilitaries organized by the authorities of Pando prefect, Leopoldo Fernández. While Fernández languishes in prison awaiting trial, many of his henchmen have yet to be brought to justice, with Amnesty International recently reporting claims that some of them are still walking around Cobija.