The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos are located in Santa Cruz department in eastern Bolivia. Six of these former missions (all now secular municipalities) collectively were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. Distinguished by a unique fusion of European and Amerindian cultural influences, the missions were founded as reductions or reducciones de indios by Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries to convert local tribes to Christianity. The interior region bordering Spanish and Portuguese territories in South America was largely unexplored at the end of the 17th century.
Dispatched by the Spanish Crown, Jesuits explored and founded eleven settlements in 76 years in the remote Chiquitania – then known as Chiquitos – on the frontier of Spanish America. They built churches (templos) in a unique and distinct style that combined elements of native and European architecture. The indigenous inhabitants of the missions were taught European music as a means of conversion. The missions were self-sufficient, with thriving economies, and virtually autonomous from the Spanish crown. After the expulsion of the Jesuit order from Spanish territories in 1767, most Jesuit reductions in South America were abandoned and fell into ruins.
The former Jesuit missions of Chiquitos are unique because these settlements and their associated culture have survived largely intact. A large restoration project of the missionary churches began with the arrival of the former Swiss Jesuit and architect Hans Roth in 1972. Since 1990, these former Jesuit missions have experienced some measure of popularity, and have become a tourist destination. A popular biennial international musical festival put on by the nonprofit organization Asociación Pro Arte y Cultura along with other cultural activities within the mission towns, contribute to the popularity of these settlements.
The six World Heritage Site settlements are located in the hot and semiarid lowlands of Santa Cruz Department of eastern Bolivia. They lie in an area near the Gran Chaco, east and northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, between the Paraguay
and Guapay rivers. The westernmost missions are San Xavier (also known as San Javier) and Concepción, located in the province of Ñuflo de Chávez between the San Julián and Urugayito rivers. Santa Ana de Velasco, San Miguel de Velasco, and San Rafael de Velasco are located to the east, in José Miguel de Velasco province, near the Brazilian border. San José de Chiquitos is located in Chiquitos province, about 200 kilometres (120 mi) south of San Rafael.
In the 16th century, priests of different religious orders set out to evangelize the Americas, bringing Christianity to indigenous communities. Two of these missionary orders were the Franciscans and the Jesuits, both of which eventually arrived in the frontier town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and then in the Chiquitania. The missionaries employed the strategy of gathering the often nomadic indigenous populations in larger communities called reductions in order to more effectively Christianize them.
This policy sprang from the colonial legal view of the “Indian” as a minor, who had to be protected and guided by European missionaries so as not to succumb to sin. Reductions generally were construed as instruments to enable the natives adopt European lifestyles and values; this was not the case in the Jesuit reductions, however, where the Jesuits allowed the inhabitants to retain many pre-colonial cultural practices.
In their design of the reductions, the Jesuits were inspired by “ideal cities“ as outlined in works such as Utopia and Arcadia, written respectively by the 16th-century English philosophers Thomas More and Philip Sidney. The Jesuits had specific criteria for building sites: locations with plenty of wood for construction; sufficient water for the population; good soil for agriculture; and safety from flooding during the rainy season. Although most of the missions in the Chiquitania were relocated at least once during the time of the Jesuits, four of ten towns remained at their original sites. Wood and adobe were the main materials used in the construction of the settlements.
Music played a special part in all aspects of life and in the evangelization of the natives. Realizing the musical capacities of the Indians, the Jesuits sent important composers, choir directors, and manufacturers of musical instruments to South America. The most famous was probably the Italian baroque composer Domenico Zipoli, who worked in the reductions in Paraguay. Fr. Johann Mesner and Fr. Martin Schmid, two Jesuit musicians, went to the Chiquitania.
Shortly after the start of the restoration effort, the potential for tourism in the missions was assessed in a report published by UNESCO in 1977. To promote the missions as a tourist destination, travel agencies, chambers of commerce and industry, the towns' mayors, native communities and other institutions organized the Lanzamiento mundial del Destino Turístico "Chiquitos", Misiones Jesuíticas de Bolivia, a five-day tourist event lasting from March 23–27, 2006.
Journalists and international tour operators were shown the important tourist attractions, and introduced to the culture through visits to museums, local workshops, various concerts, native dances, high masses, processions, crafts festivals, and local cuisine. The organisers’ goal initially was to raise the number of tourists from 25,000 to 1 million per year over a ten year period, which would have represented US$400 million of income. Subsequently, in the face of lack of support from the Bolivian government and the downturn of the national and local economies, a more modest goal of attracting between 200,000 and 250,000 people per annum was established.
Many elements of the early days of the Jesuit missions are shown in the movie The Mission, although the movie attempts to depict life in the Guaraní missions of Paraguay, not those of the Chiquitos missions, which were considerably more culturally expressive. The events around the expulsion of the Jesuits are depicted in Fritz Hochwälder's play Das heilige Experiment (The Strong are Lonely). Both are set in Paraguay. It has been suggested that Das heilige Experiment sparked interest in the 20th century among scholars in the forgotten Jesuit missions.
World Heritage Missions
- San Xavier
- San Rafael de Velasco
- San José de Chiquitos
- San Miguel de Velasco
- Santa Ana de Velasco