“Bolivia is rich,” a Tacana Indian woman told me last week inside Madidi National Park. Earlier in the day, we’d witnessed a hundred capuchin and squirrel monkeys rush down from the Amazon jungle canopy and were now relaxing beside Lake Chalalan while her cousin, a shaman, blessed coca leaves as the evening’s traditional drumming and dancing began.
This is Chalalan Lodge, a wholly Indian-owned and -operated ecotourism outfit through which a hundred indigenous families lifted themselves out of poverty – while creating benefits worth a half million dollars for the Bolivian economy each year. It is one of dozens of similar operations – from the world’s largest salt flats in the south, to Lake Titicaca in the west, to the eastern Pantanal wetlands – that combine economic growth with conservation. It seems improbable that such enterprises should exist in Bolivia, a fragile democracy, and the hemisphere’s poorest place next to Haiti.
As the December 18 presidential elections approach, the front-runners could not look much different from one another. In first place is Evo Morales, an Amayra Indian running under the Movement Toward Socialism banner who is sometimes seen as Che Guevara’s second coming. Running behind “Evo” is Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, a millionaire former IBM executive from the European-descended Bolivian elite; he is closely aligned with America’s Republican Party and is married to a Texas blonde named Ginger.
Tuto warns that, should Evo win, he might consolidate a Latin American axis-of-evil connecting a leftist Bolivia with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Evo counters that Tuto is too linked to Bolivia’s corrupt political establishment – one of the most dishonest in the world according to the watchdog group Transparency International – to do much for Bolivia’s two-thirds Indian majority.