The fight to preserve Jesuit heritage in Bolivia

Chiquitania, Bolivia - The Jesuit church of Concepcion dominates the town's cobblestone main square. Its orange and yellow images of saints and ornate flower designs painted on the facade glow in the full splendour of 18th century architecture.

On a starry night, recalling the days of Jesuit evangelisation a few centuries ago, a sonata for double violin by Domenico Zipoli resonates inside the huge church.

A baroque ensemble of young players is serenading international visitors who have come to this remote Bolivian jungle town of almost 19,000 inhabitants to learn what makes the Chiquitania so unique.

Until their expulsion in 1767, Jesuit missionaries spent almost 80 years converting the local indigenous people to Christianity.

They also established missions in what is now Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

But whereas the churches in neighbouring countries are just ruins today, the missions in Bolivia have preserved the Jesuit cultural and artistic living legacy.

In 1990, six of these missions were declared worthy of protection by the United Nations' cultural organisation, Unesco.

This living heritage was the focus of discussion at the first International Forum of Jesuit Missions of South America, a three-day event which grouped representatives from all four countries to exchange ideas and jointly commit to preserving and promoting the cross-border area.

Geovani Gisler, who heads the Brazilian delegation, says Bolivia is different.

"Here we can feel transported to 350 or 400 years ago, because people in these missions still maintain their original culture and traditions."

But not all is well in the Chiquitania. Preserving this living culture is a challenge for these isolated and poor communities.

On a sleepy hot afternoon, young children walk on the dusty dirt roads, not with a football in their hands, but dangling a black case containing a tiny violin.

The youngest, Camila, who is only seven, joins another dozen children for a music lesson.

They have been playing for less than two months, and still struggle to grasp the difference between a minim and crotchet.

At the age of 20, their teacher, Alejandro Abapuco, could be mistaken for one of the students. He regrets that music cannot always be accessible.

"There are a lot of children here in Concepcion who do not have anything to do," he said. "Some of them come here, but because we do not have enough instruments for everyone, we have to send them away."

Enthusiasm for Mozart

Mr Abapuco would like to buy wind instruments to form an orchestra, and employ more teachers, but he admits it is almost impossible with the few available resources from the municipality and the church.

At break time, Eddy Bailaba, who is 16, struggles to tune his cracked cello before class. He has been playing the instrument for the past four years.

His face comes to life when he talks about Mozart.

"He writes for quartet but in a way that gives each player a place to shine everywhere."

Eddy will soon finish high school and wants to carry on playing. But, like many children from these small towns before him, his options are limited to either moving to Bolivia's biggest city, Santa Cruz, or securing a scholarship to study abroad.

Not far from the music lessons, a few streets away, young people covered in sawdust are learning another Jesuit tradition.

A school takes on board up to 40 students each year to teach them how to carve wood.

But Milton Villavicencio, one of the teachers and a renowned wood-carver, fears that they might have to close it down next year because of lack of funds. He says it would be a great loss for Bolivia.

"We need to preserve all of this. It is a showcase of the most important culture that our country has."

San Xavier, an hour away, was the first mission built by the Jesuits, in 1691. It is also famous for its pottery.

Roads, not culture

Martha Mayser Sarco, a local potter, says her craft is in danger of being lost and the local association of potters needs money for new workshops.

"We are facing the risk of losing it all because of lack of funds," she laments. "What we need are institutions that support our musicians as well as the artisans."

Local councils in the Chiquitania region do not prioritise cultural projects, Ronald Teran from Bolivia's culture ministry acknowledges.

Their priority when it comes to allocating funds is for the largely under-developed local infrastructure, such as roads.

But Mr Teran says that the government is now empowering communities and better responding to their needs.

"When we receive specific projects by the municipalities for the [cultural] development of each community, what we [the Ministry of Culture] do is help them with funds from international donors."

Spanish aid helped to fund the restoration of thousands of music scores, which were found in the missions and are now part of the archives of Concepcion.

But Peter Wigginton, a spokesman for SICOR, an institution which helps music students with grants and scholarships, says the money is far from enough.

"Sometimes we can't even afford to photocopy sheet music."

A recurring fear among residents of the Chiquitania is that, without financial assistance and sustainable tourism, they could follow the fate of their neighbours: preserving ruins and building museums for visitors to photograph, rather than as a functioning part of their own culture.