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.
The Jesuit missions
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.
The rubber boom
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.
The twentieth century
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.
Into the twenty first century
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.