In The Backwoods Of Bolivia
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
AN UNEXPLORED COUNTRY OF VAST RESOURCES GIVEN UP TO SAVAGE TRIBES-THE CANNIBALS OF THE EASTERN ANDES WHO SHOOT WITH BLOW-GUNS AND POISONED ARROWS-SOME INDIANS WHO GO NAKED AND OTHERS WHO DRESS IN BARK CLOTHING-THE RUBBER FORESTS OF THE ANDEAN SLOPE-QUININE AND PERUVIAN BARK.
BOLIVIA is one of the least-known countries of the world. The geographers are now disputing about its area, and the different estimates vary by more than I00,000 square miles. Senor Manuel V. Ballivian, president of the La Paz Geographical Society, and one of the best-informed men upon such matters, tells me that Bolivia contains more than 567,000 square miles. This is about one-sixth the size of the United States, without Alaska. It is larger than ten states of the size of New York, larger than any country of Europe, with the exception of Russia, and larger than Germany, France, Great Britain, Greece, Switzerland, and Belgium combined.
This vast territory has not as many people as has the State of Massachusetts. Its population is estimated at about two mil-lions, and of these not more than half a million are of white blood. Think of giving a territory one-sixth the size of' ours and proportionately as rich in its natural resources to half the people of Philadelphia, and you have about the conditions which prevail here. The whites own Bolivia, and the other three-fourths of the people, who are Indians, are their servants. Of course there are a few exceptions, but as a rule this classification holds good. It is especially so as regards the domesticated Indians, who number much more than half the population, and who are in many cases practically the slaves of the whites. In La Paz there are at least five Indians to every white man.
The richest parts of Bolivia have not been surveyed and several of its provinces are practically unexplored. Some sections of it are as unknown as central Africa, and their inhabitants have as curious customs as have the savages of the Sahara. Take for instance that strip of Bolivia, several hundred miles wide and about five hundred miles long, which lies between the plateau and the boundary of Brazil. It has resources of great wealth. I have met men here who have crossed it in travelling overland to Paraguay and the Argentines. They tell me of vast plains covered with tame and wild cattle in herds so enormous that they can be bought for from two to three dollars a head, for there is no means of getting them to market. A syndicate was recently formed in London to connect these rich grazing lands with the head of navigation of some of the Amazon branches by a railway which will run along the boundary between Brazil and Bolivia, but on Brazilian soil. The road is planned on the line of a concession granted some years ago to Colonel Church, and its purpose is to carry the cattle to the rubber camps of the Amazon. There are other important projects on foot to build railroads for Bolivia. One is to construct a line sixty-six miles long, from La Paz to the Desuaguadero River. Another scheme is to extend the Central North Argentine Railroad to Sucre. This road would pass through a rich cattle-grazing, agricultural and mining territory; it would furnish an outlet to the Atlantic for Bolivian products and open a large part of eastern Bolivia to settlement.
At present it is extremely difficult to travel anywhere in Bolivia. In coming to La Paz from the coast, a distance of nearly five hundred miles, I spent two days on the railroad in Peru be-fore I reached the shores of Lake Titicaca. It took another day to cross that lake. I had to wait at Chililaya a day, and the fifth day was taken up in the stage ride which landed me in La Paz. In going back, I shall have three days of difficult staging from here to Oruro, and then three days upon the smallest of the long narrow-gauge railroads in the world in going down the Andes to the sea. With the same money and time I could comfortably cross the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a distance almost five times as great.
My travels are to be through the most inaccessible parts of Bolivia. Most of the country is to be reached only upon mules or on foot. The American Minister, I find, is about to pay a visit to the capital at Sucre, four hundred miles from La Paz.
He will have to take mules or stage for one hundred and fifty miles to the railroad, and after a short ride on the cars will take mules again for a five days' journey through the mountains to Sucre. The only route from Sucre to the famous mining town of Potosi is a bridle path, and from Oruro to Cochabamba, a town of twenty-five thousand, is a three and a-half days' ride on horseback. Nearly all of the large towns are to be reached only on mule-back or horseback; they are situated on the high-lands and in the mountains.
Eastern Bolivia is one of the most interesting parts of South America. I have recently met several men who have gone from La Paz down the rivers which flow into the Amazon, thence to the Atlantic. They tell wonderful stories of the rubber forests, of trees of wild cotton, of plants with fibre-like silk, and of vegetation so dense as to be almost impenetrable. They met savages who are cannibals and other Indians who go about stark naked and regard the laws of neither God nor man. At Lima I met a young German explorer named Kroehle, who had spent three years travelling through the eastern provinces of Peru and among the Indians of the far-away branches of the Amazon. He had a camera with him and made some excellent negatives from which I secured prints. Mr. Kroehle was many times in danger of his life. He was twice wounded with poisoned arrows and he describes the travels through these regions as dangerous in the extreme. He was for a time among the head hunters of the River Napo, in Ecuador and Peru, the first pictures ever taken of these people being made by him.
The Indians of one tribe whom Mr. Kroehle saw near the Napo river wear plates of wood or metal in the lobes of their ears, each plate being as big around as the bottom of the aver-age tumbler. Their ears are pierced when they are children, and at first bits of grass and twigs are thrust through the holes to keep them open. From time to time additional twigs are inserted until the aperture is as large as the inside of a bracelet. The same custom prevails among the Burmese and the natives of Southern India. It is not an uncommon thing in Burma for a woman to carry a cigar as thick as a broomstick, made of tobacco wrapped in corn husks, in the slits of her ears. The Napo River Indians have even larger ear-holes than the Burmese. This, however is their only extravagance of fashion, for both men and women go naked. On the Pachitea river there are Indians who wear waist cloths only; the Mojos of the Beni have long smocks made of bark, and the Guayaros, farther south in the same region, are in full dress when their skins are coated with red and black paint, their legs bound about with garters, and sticks thrust through the cartilage of their noses.
Some of the tribes on the eastern slopes of the Andes, such as the Chacaros, are cannibals; they eat the flesh of their enemies and are especially fond, it is said, of baby roasts and maiden stews. They as well as other Indian tribes of the region use blow-guns and poisoned arrows ; the arrows are made of iron wood, tipped with flints poisoned at the points. The guns are reeds, ten or eleven feet long. The poison is so deadly that the slightest scratch of an arrow is fatal, although the meat of the animal killed is not injured. The composition of the poison is kept secret. It is made, I am told, by thrusting the arrows into putrid human flesh which has already been poisoned in some other way.
In trading with the wild Indians it is necessary to carry a stock of goods with you. They do not understand the use of money, for all their dealings are by barter. They are, however, fond of trading and will exchange gold for hatchets, knives, and guns. They wash the gold out of the streams and bring it to the traders in nuggets and in coarse dust. These savages live chiefly by hunting and fishing. There are many wild fruits in the forests and everything grows so easily that it is necessary only to plant the seeds to get a crop. The Indians burn over the ground and plant little patches of corn without ploughing. They plant also onions, beans, and turnips and in some parts of the valley of Maranon they have small plantations of sugar-cane. The cane is ripe at nine months, and the same plants will pro-duce for twelve years in succession.
A large number of Indians are engaged in the rubber camps where they work for the whites, only a few gathering rubber for themselves. Bolivia is increasing very rapidly in its rubber product. It is now exporting about four million pounds of rubber a year, the rubber camps being scattered along the banks of the rivers on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The rubber comes entirely from wild trees, there being but one cultivated plantation in Bolivia. The trees grow best far down in the valleys, near the foot of the mountain. They are of all sizes, from the size of your leg, to some so large that three men joining their hands could not reach around one of them. In some places there are as many as six thousand trees to the square mile, and there is one grove which contains ten thousand trees on this area.
Getting out the rubber necessitates large capital. It cannot be done successfully with an investment of less than fifty thou-sand dollars, and the more the money the greater the profit. The trees are all private property, but many of the forests are in the hands of Cholos, who have bought government lands at low prices. They usually have not the money to work them, and are therefore ready to sell at reasonable prices. The gathering of the rubber is all done by Indians, who gash the trees with small hatchets and chisels. A white sap then flows out of the gashes, and this is caught in clay pots and is smoked for the market. As the smoke touches the sap it hardens : it is then so treated that it can be made into balls. These are tied up in nets and carried to La Paz or Lake Titicaca on the backs of donkeys or mules, or are loaded upon boats to be shipped down the Beni and the Madeira to the Amazon.
Bolivia is the land of quinine. We know the bark of the cinchona tree from which quinine is made as Peruvian bark, but it would be more in accord with the facts to call it Bolivian bark. The best quinine is from the bark of trees grown in the Department of La Paz; and Bolivia far exceeds Peru in the number of her cinchona trees.
There are millions of trees growing on plantations in eastern Bolivia. These plantations were established when quinine was high in price and before some of the Bolivian trees had been taken to India and Ceylon, to start plantations there. As a result of the Indian plantations the market became overstocked, and the price of quinine fell. The bark which in 1882 brought in Bolivian money, at La Paz, $220 a hundred weight, now sells for from $16 to $18 a hundred weight, or, taking into consideration the fall in the price of silver, about one-thirtieth of what it brought sixteen years ago. The fall of prices has ruined a great many Bolivian capitalists. More than $3,000,000 were invested in such estates by the people of La Paz, and the foreign houses who had advanced money on them were severely hurt. The bark at one time was rated so low that it did not pay to cut it and carry it to market; to-day, however, while there is somewhat of a revival in prices, the margin of profit in the business is small. Quantities of cinchona bark may be seen here every day. The bark is brought in to the exporters on the backs of donkeys, each of which carries two bundles of about one hundred pounds apiece.
Most of the South American quinine product now comes from wild trees which grow at the head-waters of the Beni and the Madeira rivers. It is carried for miles through the forests on men's backs, and then loaded on the donkeys which bring it to La Paz.
So far as I could learn there is no money to be made by foreigners in the quinine business, although any number of good plantations can be bought. A rich planter of interior Bolivia told me that he could buy me eight hundred thousand trees, if I wished them, for less than eight cents of our money per tree. Quinine trees are planted nine feet apart, and after five years an orchard is ready for the market. The trees are then chopped down and stripped of their bark. Sprouts spring up the following season from the stumps, and at the end of another period of five years there is a further crop. The cinchona tree grows wild, and it is to be found wherever the rubber tree thrives; it usually grows to a great height, its foliage forming a magnificent crown to the tree, which is of such a colour that the quinine hunter can pick it out at a long distance in looking over the trees of a forest.