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Artillery Row

In search of El Dorado

Bolivia’s future could be bright if it forges its own bold path

A century ago, a British explorer —  adventurer is probably the better word — named Percy Fawcett, pursued the dream of finding that hidden paradise called El Dorado, the gold city of South America that had obsessed plenty before him. Fawcett never returned, and took his eldest son with him to a grave somewhere in the Amazon, on the border between Brazil and Bolivia.

Half a century ago, another adventurer, one Che Guevara, that blood-splattered icon of the international Left, took a similar route to eternal fame, and was executed by a Bolivian government that wanted nothing to do with Che and his crusade.

With no such ambitions, I’ve recently visited the land that claimed those two famous lives — just wishing to listen and learn, see for myself a question that echoes across the centuries: whither El Dorado, be it an ancient gold kingdom or a modern-day Communist fiefdom? Where has Bolivia’s experiment with such history and revolution gone, on the farm and in the mines, likewise in the corridors of power, given its adoption in recent times of a leader who aspired to be a revolutionary like Che Guevara, and a pioneer like Colonel Fawcett?

Evo Morales, once the leader of the trade union that produced Bolivia’s all-important Coca leaf, became the country’s first indigenous President in 2006 and led Bolivia until a hotly disputed election ousted him in 2019. He sought to change the landscape of Latin American politics — acting very much like Che Guevara’s boss, Cuba’s Fidel Castro — and to make the land the dream those explorers sought, a paradise for its people.

Inflation is taking hold and the government deficit is ballooning

Reality check. Bolivia these days is facing a financial crunch. Inflation is taking hold and the government deficit is ballooning, while the country’s prize asset, gas, is worth less each year and production is falling courtesy of the centralised, state-run machine Mr Morales championed. Lithium could be the country’s salvation — Bolivia is a world leader in terms of potential volume — but again the country lacks the infrastructure to pump it out on a commercial scale, so the Chinese are moving in, investing heavily, likewise the Russians. Even the Iranians want a slice of Bolivia’s tomorrow. Meanwhile, neighbours in Argentina and Chile are advancing rapidly with their output in the world’s so-called Lithium triangle.

Certainly, travelling East to the Brazil border, close to the extraordinary land that once captivated Percy Fawcett and the many who followed him, you sense what’s at work. You don’t need to be a farmer to diagnose the raw potential of a landscape that hasn’t been truly developed ever since the Jesuits came here with their missions in the 18th century. 

A country the size of France and Spain put together, it boasts millions of acres that could be so fertile for Latin America’s largely untapped capacity to feed billions across our world. Much of it sits on this frontier of Amazon forest, yet the battle is underway to make it rich plains for soya, and the Asian market, or cattle, with the United States and Europe the target.

In the days I visited, it was all too clear where the future of El Dorado lies. Farming families from Argentina and Brazil have moved in during the last quarter-century, buying land cheaply, but daring to invest heavily, to clear land of forestry, then plant and build huge cattle herds that can only be sustained if you have vast tracts of land that can feed them. 

One day I found myself visiting an impressive farm, owned by Argentines, close to San Ignacio, in the heart of the landscape Percy Fawcett thought hid the lost city of Z, as he called it. With us was a group of German farmers, from Bavaria, visiting Bolivia, to discover what the New World was doing, and ask themselves whether they might learn something.

The Germans had plenty of questions. How could Latin Americans bulldoze tens of thousands of acres of forest, with such disregard for the environmental consequences? I heard our host, a savvy Argentine farmer, offer the thought that this was precisely what the Germans had done a century or so ago. How could one family own 125,00 acres, the Germans asked, incredulously, when back in Bavaria they were lucky to have 100 acres?

Price, quite simply, came the answer. An acre of arable land in Bavaria costs 100,000 dollars. In Bolivia you can buy an acre for a thousand dollars. The Germans left captivated by the enormous potential. “This is still El Dorado,” said Manfred.

But what about Bolivia the country? That’s a tough one to answer. The ousted President Morales plots a return to power, and preaches the revolutionary zeal of Che Guevara, symbolising the age-old struggle between rich and poor, and indigenous and blancos, as they are called, the middle and upper classes. An erstwhile disciple of his, once his Economy Minister, leads as President for the time being, opening the way for Morales to seek re-election in two years time. The liberal opposition is girding itself for the Right-Left fight to come, without an obvious leader.

Yet listening to the next generation, in the country’s commercial capital of Santa Cruz, you sense that Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Communist El Dorado no longer speaks to a young country that wants to be the sum of its parts, from lithium, to soybeans, to gold mining. 

“Those explorers might look crazy, coming here 100 years ago, chasing El Dorado,” said Julia, shopping for a new smartphone the other evening, “but they knew we had something special.”

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