LA PAZ – Located in the lower eastern zone of Bolivia, far from the arid altiplano, among huge haciendas and isolated communities, are the last functioning Jesuit missions in the Southern Cone, those that survived destruction after the expulsion of the Jesuits in the 18th century.
In Bolivia’s Chiquitania region, located in eastern Santa Cruz province, there are six missions recognized in 1990 as Unesco World Heritage Sites: San Javier, Concepcion, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Rafael and San Jose de Chiquitos.
Founded by the Jesuits between 1696 and 1760, all have virtually their entire original structures, the facades bearing the characteristic ochre tones and even the paintings that church officials and local residents made during that period.
Currently, local residents continue attending mass inside the missions and listening to the music from the organs there, which have hundreds of years of history.
“I think that one of the elements that has ensured that they were preserved in the last century, when they had no heritage value, was being far away from the big cities,” interinstitutional Missions Plan director Marcelo Vargas told EFE.
The Missions Plan is an initiative to preserve and promote the missions being participated in by the six municipalities of Chiquitania, the Catholic Church, the Santa Cruz government and the national Culture Ministry, along with Spanish cooperation.
The six missions form a circuit 827 kilometers (513 miles) long via roads that are not always paved. In years past, almost the only way to get to them was by small plane.
Almost 300 km separates San Jose de Chiquitos, the largest town, from Santa Cruz, the closest city.
The communities themselves had been in charge of preserving and maintaining the missions until 1972, shortly before Unesco became interested in the sites, when Swiss architect Hans Roth arrived.
Roth launched “the rebirth of the Chiquitos missions,” that – the current restoration director, Jose Fernandez, says – included setting up workshops and instructing local residents in architectural techniques.
Spain’s AECID development and international cooperation agency has also played a very important role in revitalizing the missions, helping with funding and setting up restoration, handcrafts, ceramics and wood workshops, among other things.
Fernandez himself graduated from one of those workshops and emphasized to EFE the important work being carried out here not only to preserve the missions but also to train young people.
There has been a sizable inflow of people into the region over the past 15 years or so due to burgeoning local agricultural and livestock raising activities, tripling the local population.
Tourism, however, is only just getting started here, with just 300 people per month coming to the area as tourists, since to date it has been “unfeasible to promote” the area for tourism due to the lack of good roads, water and health services or hotels.