Save the Pan Flute: An American Raises Millions to Preserve Traditions in Bolivia

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

High on a steep hill above the arid valleys around the world's highest capital, Peter McFarren's dream is coming true.

"I want to preserve and promote Bolivia's traditional folk art, which is some of the world's best," says Mr. McFarren, the son of American missionaries to Bolivia. "But I also want to stimulate greater interest among Bolivians in their own cultural history."

Over the past five years, he cajoled four foreign governments, several private foundations, and international institutions to donate $10 million to found the Laikakota Cultural Complex. When the $15 million, 170,000-square-foot building that will house a museum of popular culture, public research facilities, and an artisan-training school where poor Bolivians will learn Inca, Tiwanaku, and Aymara designs.

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He also convinced Juan Carlos Caldern, Bolivia's top architect, to work for a partial fee, and got La Paz City Hall to donate a $6 million lot atop Laikakota Hill, in the heart of the city. Construction began last year.

"Few people believed in this project and everyone asked why I would support this crazy gringo," says La Paz Mayor Ronald MacClean. "But I believe in Peter."

So do the World Bank, UNESCO, and the governments of Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, and the Netherlands - the latter giving a donation of $2.1 million.

And in a unique debt swap designed by McFarren, the US Agency for International Development and the nongovernmental organization Plan International bought up $33 million of Bolivia's commercial debt from 20 foreign banks. In the end, the project got an annual stipend of $120,000 to pay for exhibits through a debt-for-culture swap that is the largest of its kind in the world.

McFarren was born in La Paz, and holds both US and Bolivian citizenship. He is a professional pastry chef, who once managed the Cambridge, Mass.-based Creative Cuisine cooking school. In Bolivia, he has been a photographer, book and newspaper publisher, reporter for the Associated Press, and a board member of several foundations that work to reforest the La Paz area and improve housing for the poor. His nonprofit Quipus Cultural Foundation is overseeing the building of the Laikakota Complex.

McFarren's brother and sisters are also involved in the development of Bolivia, one of the world's poorest countries. Tim McFarren installs wind-power energy in poor high-plains villages; Jill McFarren Aviles develops children's educational materials for a La Paz radio station, and Wendy McFarren will administer the cultural center.

When the cultural museum finally opens in 1999, many of the exhibits will come from McFarren's personal collection. He has donated 1,200 pieces, including religious icons, ceramics, musical instruments, weavings, feather art, and masks. A national photo archive will feature the best of 75,000 file pictures that he shot over the years for his photo agency.

But the museum will be more than artifacts and pictures on the walls.

Visitors will see replicas of 18th-century La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Andean villages, and Jesuit missions. They will walk over maps of Bolivia and experience the Spanish Conquest through a "sight and sound" tunnel. And with the touch of a computer screen, they will learn about the nation's cultural history in English, Spanish, and Aymara, the pre-Inca language still spoken by most of La Paz's population.

In the interactive children's museum - which is scheduled to open next May - kids will learn about Bolivian culture, health, the environment, and science through exhibits, using finger paints, clay, puppets, musical instruments, and costumes. Hands On, a US nonprofit group with experience in designing children's museums, is helping to create the exhibits.

"We live in a country where there is a permanent shock of cultures," says Sergio Rios, coordinator of the children's exhibits, referring to clashes between Europeans, Indians, and mestizos, those of mixed European and Indian extraction. "We want all Bolivian children to feel proud of their culture."

For now, McFarren is busy wheeling and dealing for the remaining $5 million needed to finish the project. Most recently, he approached Fidelity Investments of Boston, asking its officials to consider a financing plan he put together.

Some are already touting the project's importance for Bolivia and Latin America.

"This museum will give Bolivians an entertaining, sophisticated, and accurate view of their own country's culture," says US Ambassador Curtis Kammans. "It will be a leader in this hemisphere."

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