At the peak of his powers, Nicolás Suárez was the absolute ruler over more than six million hectares of rainforest where rubber was collected by a massive workforce of Caripuña Indians who were slaves in all but name. He also controlled the rapids that separated the Bolivian river system from the Amazon proper (charging huge tolls for the transport of cargo around them) and even raised a private army to fight the separatist rebellion of Brazilian settlers in the northern territory of Acre in 1899. With the annexation of Acre by Brazil, however, he lost many of his rubber holdings, and after the collapse of the rubber boom a few years later his empire gradually disintegrated. He died in Cachuela Esperanza in 1940, and though virtually forgotten elsewhere in Bolivia, in the Beni and Pando he is still revered by some as a heroic pioneer who brought progress and civilization to the wilderness. Ironically, decades later his great-nephew, Roberto Suárez, came to control a similarly powerful empire based on the export of another Amazonian product for which the industrialized world had developed an insatiable appetite – cocaine – amassing in the process a personal fortune so vast that in the 1980s he reputedly offered to pay off Bolivia’s entire national debt.

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