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Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos

The Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos are in the Santa Cruz department of eastern Bolivia. Six of the missions have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The missions are distinguished by the fusion of European and American Indian cultural influences. The missions were founded as reductions or reducciones de indios by Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries to convert the Indians 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 over 70 years in the Chiquitos region of Spanish America. They built churches in a unique and distinct style that combined elements of Indian 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 in the mid-18th century most of the Jesuit reductions in South America were abandoned and fell into ruins. The Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos are unique because the settlements and the associated culture have survived largely intact; and they are the last remaining Jesuit settlements in Bolivia.

A large restoration project of the missionary churches began in the second half of the 20th century. The Jesuit Missions continue to experience growing popularity, and have become a tourist destination. A government sponsored biennial international musical festival and cultural activities within the missions contribute to the popularity of the World Heritage Site.


The six heritage-site missions are located in the hot and semiarid lowlands of the Santa Cruz department of southeastern Bolivia. They lie in a remote and inaccessible area of the Gran Chaco east and northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, between the Paraguay and Guapay rivers.

The westernmost missions are San Javier and Concepcion located in the province of Nuflo de Chavez between the rivers of San Julian and Urugayito. Santa Ana, San Miguel, and San Rafael missions are located to the east in Jose Miguel de Velasco province, near the Brazilian border. The mission San Jose de Chiquitos is located in Chiquitos province, about south of San Rafael.

Three other Jesuit missions  San Juan Bautista, Santo Corazon and Santiago de Chiquitos  which have not been named as UNESCO heritage sites, lie east of San Jose de Los Chiquitos in the area of the town Robore. The capital town of Jose Miguel de Velasco Province  San Ignacio de Velasco  was founded as a Jesuit mission but is not a World Heritage Site.


Nuflo de Chaves  a 16th century Spanish conquistador and founder of Santa Cruz la Vieja  introduced the name Chiquitos, or little ones. It referred to the small doors of the straw houses in which the indigenous population lived. Chiquitos has since been used both to denote people of the largest ethnic group in the area (also called Chiquitano), and collectively to denote the more than 40 ethnic groups with different languages and cultures living in the region known as Chiquitania.

The current provincial division of the Santa Cruz department does not respect the former concept of a "missionary country". The former Chiquitania lies within five modern provinces: Angel Sandoval, German Busch, Jose Miguel de Velasco, Nuflo de Chavez and Chiquitos province.


In the 16th century, priests of different religious orders set out to evangelize the Americas, bringing Christianity to indigenous communities. One of these missions were those of the Franciscans and the Jesuits to 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 in order not to succumb to sin. Reductions generally were also construed as an instrument to make the Indians adopt European lifestyles and values, which was not the case in the Jesuit reductions, where the Jesuits allowed the Indians to retain many of the pre-colonial cultural practices.

Arrival in the Viceroyalty of Peru

With the permission of King Philip II of Spain a group of Jesuits travelled to the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1566, more than 30 years later than the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Mercedarians. The Jesuits established themselves in Lima in 1569 before moving east towards Paraguay; by 1572 they reached the Audience of Charcas in modern-day Bolivia. Because they were not allowed to establish settlements on the frontier they built chapter houses, churches and schools in pre-existing settlements, such as La Paz, Potosi and La Plata (present day Sucre).

In 1587 the first Jesuits, Fr. Diego Samaniego and Fr. Diego Martinez, arrived in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which was south of where San Jose de Chiquitos would be established. In 1592 the city had to be moved west because of conflicts with natives, but the remains of the original town exist in the Santa Cruz la Vieja archaeological site. The Jesuits did not start missions into the valleys northeast of the cordillera until the 17th century. The two central areas for their activities were Moxos, situated in the department of Beni, and Chiquitania in the department of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. In 1682, Fr. Cipriano Barace founded the first of the Jesuit reductions in Moxos, located at Loreto.

The Jesuits in Chiquitania

While the missionary towns in Paraguay flourished, the evangelization of the Guarani proved difficult. With encouragement from Agustin Gutierrez de Arce, the governor of Santa Cruz, the Jesuits focused their efforts on the Chiquitania region where the Christian doctrine was more readily accepted. From 1691 to 1760 eleven missions were founded in the area; however fires, floods, plagues, famines, attacks by hostile tribes or slave traders caused many missions to be re-established or rebuilt. The Chiquitos missions were spared large-scale epidemics, unlike those in Paraguay, mainly because of the remote locations and the lack of transport infrastructure.

The first Jesuit reduction in the Chiquitania was the mission of San Francisco Javier, founded in 1691 by the Jesuit priest Jose de Arce. According to legend, in September 1691, Jose de Arce and Br. Antonio de Rivas intended to meet seven other Jesuits at the Paraguay river to establish a connection between Paraguay and Chiquitania. However, the beginning of the rainy season brought bad weather and Arce and his companion only got as far as first Chiquitos settlement. The local Pinoca tribe, who were suffering from a plague, begged Arce and Rivas to stay and promised to build a house and a church for the Jesuits, which were finished by the end of year. The mission was later moved.

Ten more missions were founded in the Chiquitania by the Jesuits in three distinct periods: the 1690s, the 1720s, and after 1748. In the 1690s, five missions were established: San Rafael (1696), San Jose de Chiquitos (1698), Concepcion (1699) and San Juan Bautista (1699). San Juan Bautista is not part of the World Heritage Site, and only the ruins of a stone tower survive near the village San Juan de Taperas.

The War of the Spanish Succession caused a shortage of missionaries and instability in the reductions, so no new missions were built during this period. By 1718 San Rafael was the largest of the Chiquitos missions, and with 2,615 inhabitants could not sustain the growing population. In 1721 Felipe Suarez and Francisco Hervas established a split-off of the San Rafael mission, the mission of San Miguel. San Ignacio de Zamucos was founded in in 1724 but abandoned soon after in 1745; today nothing remains of the mission.

A third period of mission foundations began in 1748 with the establishment of San Ignacio, San Ignacio de Velasco as it is known today, which was not declared a part of the World Heritage Site. The church is a faithful 20th-century reconstruction of the original built in 1761. In 1754 the Jesuits founded the mission of Santiago de Chiquitos. The church is a reconstruction from the early 20th century and is not part of the World Heritage Site. In 1755 the mission Santa Ana was founded by Fr. Knogler and it is the only World Heritage mission of this period. The last mission in Chiquitania to be established was founded as Santo Corazon in 1760. However, nothing of the original settlement remains in the modern village.

The Jesuits in Chiquitania had a secondary objective which was to secure a more direct route to Asuncion than the road being used via Tucuman and Tarija to link the Chiquitania with the Jesuit missions in Paraguay. The missionaries of the Chiquitos missions founded their settlements increasingly further east towards the Paraguay river, while those south of Asuncion moved closer to the Paraguay river by establishing missions increasingly farther north, thereby avoiding the impassable Chaco region. Although Nuflo de Chaves had attempted a route through the Chaco on an expedition as early as 1564, the Jesuits explorations from Chiquitos were unsuccessful. The Jesuits were stopped by the hostile tribes of the Payaguas and Guaycurus, and by the impenetrable swamps of Jarayes. In 1715 Jose de Arce, the founder of the first mission in San Javier, set out from Asuncion on the Paraguay river with the Flemish priest Bartolome Blende. Payaguas Indians killed Blende during the journey, and Arce struggled to reach San Rafael. On the return trip to Asuncion he too was killed. Not until 1767, when the missions had encroached sufficiently on the hostile region and just before the Jesuits left America, did Fr. Jose Sanchez Labrador manage to travel from Belen in Paraguay to Santo Corazon.

Expulsion and recent development

In 1750 as a result of the Treaty of Madrid seven missions in present-day Rio Grande do Sul were transferred from Spanish to Portuguese control. The native Guarani tribes were unhappy to see their lands turned over to Portugal (their enemy for over a century) and they rebelled against the decision leading to the Guarani War. In Europe, where the Jesuits were under attack, they were accused of "supporting the rebellion" and were perceived as defending the Indians. In 1758 the Jesuits were accused of a conspiracy to kill the King of Portugal known as the Tavora affair. All members of the Society of Jesus were evicted from Portuguese territories in 1759, and from French territories in 1764. In 1766 Jesuits were accused of causing riots in Madrid; consequently in Februay 1767, Charles III of Spain signed a royal decree with expulsion orders for to all members of the Society of Jesus in Spanish territories which arrived in the Chiquitania in August.

From then on, spiritual and secular administration were to be strictly separated. At the time of the expulsion, 25 Jesuits served a Christianized population of at least 24,000, in the ten missions of Chiquitania. The Chiquitos mission properties included 25 Estancias with 31,700 cattle and 850 horses. Libraries across ten settlements held 2,094 volumes.

By September 1767 all but a single Jesuit left, and the last Jesuit left the following year. The Spanish considered it essential to maintain the settlements as a buffer against Portuguese expansion. The archbishop of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Francisco Ramon Herboso, established a new system of government similar to that of the Jesuits. He stipulated that each mission be run by two secular (parish) priests, one to take care of the spiritual needs while the other was in charge of all other   political and economical  affairs of the mission administration. As a novelty, the Indians were allowed to trade. In practice, the shortage of clergy and the low quality of those appointed  who often did not speak the language of the Indians and in cases had not been ordained  led to general decline of the missions. The priests broke ethical and religious codes, appropriated the major part of the missions' income and encouraged contraband trade with the Portuguese.

Within two years of the expulsion, the population in the Chiquitania missions dropped below 20,000. Despite the general decline of the settlements, however, the church buildings themselves were maintained and, in some cases, extended by the towns' inhabitants. The construction of the church in Santa Ana falls into this period. Bernd Fischermann, an anthropologist who studied the Chiquitos Indians, notes three reasons that the Chiquitano preserved the heritage of the Jesuits even after their expulsion: the memory of the prosperity with the Jesuits; the desire to appear as civilized Christians to the mestizos and white people; and to preserve the ethnicity that originated from a mix of various culturally distinct groups blended by common language and customs learned from the Jesuits.

In January 1790, the Audiencia of Charcas ended the mismanagement, and temporal affairs were delegated to civil administrators, making the missions economically more successful. Sixty years after the expulsion of the Jesuits the churches remained active centers of worship, as the French naturalist Alcide d'Orbigny reported from the area during his mission to South America in 1830 and 1831. Although much diminished, economically and politically, the town culture the Jesuits established was still evident. According to d'Orbigny, the music at a Sunday mass in San Javier was better than those he had heard in the richest cities of Bolivia. The population of the Chiquitania missions reached a low of around 15,000 inhabitants in 1830. In 1842 the comte de Castelnau visited the area and, referring to the church in Santa Ana, proclaimed: "This beautiful building, surrounded by gardens, presents one of the most impressive views imaginable."

By the mid-19th century, the reduction system of the missions had disappeared. Mestizos who had moved to the area in their quest for land began to outnumber the original Chiquito population. Starting with the creation of the Province of Velasco in 1880, the old Chiquitania was split into several administrative divisions. With the rubber boom at the turn of the century, more settlers came to the areas and established large haciendas, moving the economic activities together with the Indians out of the towns.

In 1931, the spiritual administration of the missions was given to German-speaking Franciscan missionaries. The ecclesiastical control moved back to the area with the creation of the Apostolic Vicariate of Chiquitos in San Ignacio. As of , the churches not only serve the mestizo inhabitants of the villages but present spiritual centers for the Indians living in the periphery.

In 1972, Swiss architect and Jesuit priest Hans Roth began an extensive restoration project of the missionary churches and many colonial buildings that were in ruins The churches exist in their present form as a result of Roth's effort, who worked on the restoration with a few colleagues and many local people until his death in 1999. The restoration works continued into the beginning of the 21st century. Six of the reductions were listed as part of the World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1990. The churches in San Ignacio de Velasco, Santiago de Chiquitos and Santo Corazon have been reconstructed from scratch and are not part of the World Heritage Site. In San Juan Bautista only ruins remain. UNESCO listed the site under criteria IV and V, acknowledging the adaption of Christian religious architecture to the local environment and the unique architecture expressed in the wooden columns and banisters. ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, warns that the traditional architectural ensemble that makes up the site has become vulnerable following agrarian reforms from 1953 which threatened the Chiquitos population. At the time of the nomination, the World Heritage Site was protected by the Pro Santa Cruz committe, Cordecruz, Plan Regulador de Santa Cruz and the local mayoral offices of the mission towns.

World Heritage Missions

San Javier

Initially established in 1691, the mission of San Javier was the first of the missions in the World Heritage Site. In 1696, due to the incursion of Paulistas from Brazil in the east, the mission was relocated toward the San Miguel River. In 1698, the mission was relocated closer to Santa Cruz, and in 1708, San Javier was moved away from Santa Cruz to protect the Indians from the Spaniards. The inhabitants of San Javier were the Pinocas Indians. The church was built between 1749 and 1752 by the Swiss Jesuit and architect Fr. Martin Schmid. The school and church as well as other characteristics of the domestic architecture are still visible today in the village of San Javier. San Javier was restored by Hans Roth in the latter part of the 20th century.

San Rafael de Velasco

The mission of San Rafael de Velasco was the second mission in the World Heritage Site. Founded in 1695 by the Jesuits Fr. Zea and Fr. Hervas, San Rafael was moved several times. The mission had to be moved in 1701 and 1705 because of epidemics in the region. In 1719 the mission was moved once more due to fire. Martin Schmid built the church between 1747 and 1749, which has survived. San Rafael de Velasco was restored in the 20th century as part of Hans Roth's restoration project.

San Jose de Chiquitos

Founded in 1698 by the Jesuits Fr. Suarez and Fr. Avila the mission of San Jose de Chiquitos is the third mission in the World Heritage Site. The mission was inhabited by the Penoquis Indians. The mission church was built between 1745 and 1754 by an unknown architect. The church at San Jose de Chiquitos is built of stone, unlike other mission churches in the area which were built with native adobe and wood. The mission of San Jose is one of four that remain in their original location. As of , a mortuary chapel (1740), the church (1747), a bell tower (1748), a house for the priests, and workshops (1754) still exist, and were renovated by Hans Roth's restoration project between 1988 and 2003.


The fourth mission in the World Heritage Site, the mission of Concepcion was initially founded in 1699 by the Jesuit priests Fr. Francisco Lucas Caballero and Fr. Francisco Hervas. The mission was moved three times: in 1707, 1708 and 1722. The mission was inhabited by the Chiquitanos. The mission church was constructed between 1753 and 1756, by Fr. Martin Schmid and Fr. Johann Mesner. From 1975 to 1996 the mission was reconstructed as part of Hans Roth's restoration project.

San Miguel de Velasco

The fifth mission in the World Heritage Site, the mission of San Miguel de Velasco was established by the Jesuits Fr. Suarez and Fr. Hervas in 1721. San Miguel was an off-shoot of the mission of San Rafael where the population grew too large. The mission church was built between 1750 and 1757 by an architect who is believed to have been a collaborator or student of Martin Schmid. The church was restored by Hans Roth between 1979 and 1983.

Santa Ana de Velasco

The mission of Santa Ana de Velasco was the final mission to be established in the World Heritage Site. Santa Ana de Velasco was founded by the Jesuit priest Fr. Julian Knogler in 1755. The Indian inhabitants of the missions were of the Covarecas and Curuminacas tribes. The mission church was built after the expulsion of the Jesuits between 1770 and 1780 by an unknown architect and entirely by the indigenous population. The complex, consisting of the church and a grassy plaza lined by houses, is considered most closely to resemble the original reductions. In the latter half of the 20th century the mission underwent partial restoration through the efforts of Hans Roth and his team.


In their design of the reductions, the Jesuits were inspired by the ideal cities Utopia and Arcadia of the 16th-century European 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. Though most of the towns in the Chiquitania were relocated at least once during the time of the Jesuits, four of ten towns remain at their original site. Wood and adobe were the main materials used in the construction of the settlements.

Mission layout

The architecture and internal layout of the missions followed a scheme which was repeated later with some variations in the rest of the missionary reductions. In Chiquitania the oldest mission, San Javier, was the basis for the organizational style, which consisted of a modular structureModular structure here refers to the basic building blocks that make up the settlement: plaza, church complex, houses. These parts are similar in all the settlements but were combined in various ways to produce distinct settlements., the center formed by a wide rectangular square, with the church complex on one side and the houses of the Indians on the three remaining sides. The centralized organization of the Jesuits dictated a certain uniformity of measures and sizes. Despite being based on the same basic model, the towns of the Chiquitos show remarkable variations. The orientation of the settlements with the cardinal points differed and was determined by individual circumstances.


The plaza was an almost square area varying in size from in the older towns of San Javier and San Rafael to in San Ignacio. As they were used for religious and civil purposes, these were open spaces free of vegetation except for a few palm trees surrounding a cross in the center of the plaza. The evergreen palm trees symbolising eternal love are found in Psalms 92:12. Four chapels facing the central cross were placed at the corners of the square and were used in processions. Only remains exist of the chapels at the mission sites, because the plazas have been redesigned to reflect the republican and mestizo lifestyle prevalent after the period of the Jesuits. Trees and shrubs were planted, and in some cases monuments were erected. Only the plaza at Santa Ana, of the original ten missions, does not show major changes, consisting as it did in colonial times, of an open grassy space.


The houses of the Indians had an elongated layout, and were arranged in parallel lines extending from the main square in three directions. Those facing the plaza were originally occupied by the chiefs of the indigenous tribes, and were often larger. The architecture of the houses was simple, consisting of large rooms (6x4 metres), walls up to thick, and a roof made of reed (cana) and wood (cuchi) that reached a height of in the center. Double doors and open galleries provided protection from the elements. The latter have had a social function as meeting places up to the present day.

Over the last 150 years, this layout has been replaced by the usual Spanish colonial architecture of large square blocks with internal patios. Remnants of the initial design can still be seen in San Miguel, San Rafael and Santa Ana, places that were not as much exposed to modernization as the other settlements.

Church complex

Along the fourth side of the plaza lay the religious, cultural and commercial center of the towns. In addition to the church, which dominated the complex, there would have been a mortuary chapel, a tower and a "school",The term school here refers to the priests' house. connected by a wall along the side of the plaza. Behind the wall and away from the plaza would have been the patio with living quarters for the priests or visitors, rooms for the town council, for music, storage, as well as workshops, which often were arranged around a second patio. Behind the buildings, a vegetable garden surrounded by a wall and a cemetery could have been found. The cemeteries and workshops have disappeared completely from the mission settlements, while the other elements of the church complex still survive to varying degree. Two stone towers (in San Juan and San Jose) and one of adobe (in San Miguel) can be traced back to the time of the Jesuits. Others are of more recent construction, or the result of the conservation and restoration work from the end of the 20th century. Many of these are tall wooden constructions open on all sides. Of the Jesuit schools only those in San Javier and Concepcion are preserved entirely. Like the houses of the Indians, the buildings of the church complex were single level.


Once a settlement had been established, the missionaries, working with the native population, began to erect the church, which served as the educational, cultural and economic center of the town.

Martin Schmid, Swiss priest and composer, was the architect for three missionary churches: San Javier, San Rafael de Velasco, and Concepcion. Schmid combined elements of Christian architecture with traditional local design to create a unique baroque mestizo style. Schmid placed the same quotation from the Genesis 28:17 above the main entrance of each of the three churches. In San Javier the quotation is in Spanish: ; and in Latin at the other two churches: , meaning The house of god and the gate of heaven.

The construction of the present churches falls in the period between 1745 and 1775 and is characterized by the use of locally available natural materials like wood, used in the carved columns, the pulpits and sets of drawers. Artistic adornments were added until around 1810. Some of the altars are covered in gold. Often the walls of the mission churches were made of adobe, the same material that had been used for the houses of the Indians. The church in San Jose is the exception: inspired by a baroque model, it has a stone facade added around 1805. The only other example where stone was used on a grand scale is in the construction of San Juan.

All of the churches consist of a wooden skeleton with columns, fixed in the ground, that provided stability to the building and supported the tile-covered roof. The adobe walls were placed directly on the ground, virtually independent of the wooden construction, and had no supporting role. Porticos and a large porch roof provided protection from the heavy tropical rains. The floor was covered in tiles which, like those of the roof, were produced in local tile works. The churches have a a barn-like appearance, albeit of monumental size with a capacity for more than 3,000 people, with the wide structure and distinctive low hanging eaves. This style, also, is evident in the building method of Indian community houses.

The construction of the church required a major effort by the community and employed hundreds of indigenous carpenters. Father Jose Cardiet described the process:

The walls were decorated with cornices, moldings, pilasters and at times blind arcades. First the walls were plastered entirely by a mix of mud, sand, lima and straw, both inside and outside. Paint in earth tones was applied over the lime whitewash, and ornaments were drawn, featuring elements from flora and fauna, as well as angels, saints and geometrical patterns. In some cases mica was used to decorate the walls, columns and woodworks. Large oval oeil-de-boeuf windows, surrounded by relief petals, above the main doors are a characteristic feature.

The churches had three aisles, divided by wooden columns, often solomonic columns, carved with twisted fluting resembling those at St. Peter's baldachin in St Peter's, Rome. Until modern times, there were no pews so the congregation had to kneel on the floor. A variety of fine pieces of art adorn the inside of the churches, notably altars which are sometimes covered in gold, silver or mica. Especially remarkable are the pulpits made of brightly painted wood and supported by sirens. The pulpit in the church of San Miguel features motifs derived from the local vegetation. Elements specific to the Chiquitos missions exist also in other decorations. The altars of the churches of San Javier and Concepcion include depictions of Jesuits together with Indians. There remain original sculptures in retablos often depicting Madonnas, the crucifixion, and saints, that were carved in wood and then painted. The sculptures exhibit a style unique to the Chiquitos region, differing from that of the reductions in Paraguay or the Bolivian highland. The tradition of figure carving has been preserved to the present day in workshops where carvers make columns, finials and windows for new or restored churches or chapels in the area. In addition, carvers produce decorative angels and other figures for the tourist market.


The missionary churches are the true architectural highlight of the area. Hans Roth initiated an important restoration project of the missionary churches in 1972. In San Javier, San Rafael, San Jose de Chiquitos, Concepcion, San Miguel and Santa Ana, churches have undergone meticulous restoration. In the 1960s the San Ignacio church was replaced with modern construction; in the 1990s Hans Roth and co-workers brought the restoration closer to the original. In addition to the churches, Roth constructed more than a hundred new buildings, including schools and houses. He also founded museums and archives.

Roth researched and recovered the original techniques used to construct churches prior to the restorations. He installed new building infrastructure including saw mills, locksmiths shops, carpentry and repair shops, and trained local people in traditional crafts. European volunteers and the Bolivian Learning Institute (IBA) helped in the project.

Roth convinced the local inhabitants of the importance of the restoration works, which required a large labour force: typically 40 to 80 workers in towns with populations of 500 to 2,000 were required for church restoration. The effort indicates the strength of the common heritage present in the towns. The restoration has resulted in a revival of local traditions and a qualified workforce.

Life in the mission towns

The reductions were self-sufficient indigenous communities of 2,0004,000 inhabitants, ideally headed by two Jesuit priests and the Cacique leaders, who retained their function and played the role of intermediators between the people and the Jesuits. However, the degree to which the Jesuits controlled the indigenous population for which they had responsibility and the degree to which they allowed indigenous culture to function is a matter of debate, and the social organization of the reductions have been variously described as jungle utopias or as theocratic regimes of terror.

The Jesuits quickly learned the indigenous languages of their subjects, which eased the missionary work and contributed to the success of the missions. Numerous tribal families lived in Chiquitania, often next to each other on the same mission. According to a report from 1745, of the 14,706 people living in the missions, 65.5% spoke Chiquitano, 11% Arawak, 9.1% Otuque, 7.9% Zamuca, 4.4% Chapacura and 2.1% Guarani. Such ethnic diversity is unique among the Jesuit missions in America. Reflecting the view of the colonial powers, the Jesuit records only distinguished between Christian and non-Christian Indios. Eventually Gorgotoqui, the language spoken by the Chiquitano, became the lingua franca of the mission settlements, and the numerous tribes were culturally united in the Chiquitano ethnic group. However, by 1770, within three years of the expulsion of the Jesuits, Spanish authorities instituted a new policy of forced "castilianization" or "Hispanicization" of language, thereby causing the number of speakers of native languages to decline.

Many Indians who joined the missions were looking for protection from Portuguese slave traders or the encomienda system of the Spanish conquistadores. In the reductions, the Indians were free men. The land in the missions was common property. Upon marriage, individual plots were assigned to the newly founded families. For the Jesuits the goal was to create cities in the complete harmony of the paradise in which they had encountered the Indians.

Though the settlements were officially a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru through the Audience of Charcas and of the diocese of Santa Cruz in church affairs, their remoteness made them effectively autonomous and self-sufficient. As early as 1515, Bartolome de las Casas initiated a "foreigner law" for the "'Indian people'", and no white or black man, other than the Jesuits and authorities, was allowed to live in the missions. Merchants were allowed to stay for three days at most.


Traditionally most of the Chiquitos had practised swidden agriculture, growing maize and yuca on a small scale. After the contact with the Spanish, cocoa and rice were also cultivated. Hunting and fishing provided additional nutrition in the dry season. The Jesuits introduced cattle breeding.

In each settlement, one of the Jesuits was responsible for church matters, while the other dealt with commercial affairs and the general well-being of the community. As the Swiss priest, musician and architect Martin Schmid wrote in a 1744 letter from San Rafael: The Jesuits administered labour, the introduction of new technologies, and the disposition of the produced goods. The Jesuits designated that each family received all that was necessary to live. The Jesuits did not rely on donations, because by right the priests received a fixed income from the community to support their work. The thriving economy in the reductions enabled them to export surplus goods to all parts of Upper Peru. The income was used to pay the royal tributes and to purchase goods not locally available, such as books, paper, and wine, from as far away as Europe. In the missions themselves money was not used. This laid the foundation of the belief that the Jesuits were guarding immense riches acquired through Indian labour. In reality the communities were economically successful but hardly constituted any important source of income for the Jesuit order.

All the inhabitants, including the young and the elderly, were subject to a schedule alternating work, religious practice, and rest. According to d'Orbigny, the Chiquitania Indians enjoyed considerably more freedom than those in the Jesuit missions in Mojos. There was also less time spent on practicing religion. The Indians were instructed by the Jesuits in various arts. They learned very quickly and soon became proficient carpenters, painters, weavers, sculptors and artisans. Each settlement had its own set of craftsmen; as a result, in addition to the Caciques, a new social class of craftsmen emerged. This group and the rest of the population, who worked primarily in agriculture or cattle raising, were each represented by two alcaldes. Initially the main commercial products included honey, yerba mate, salt, tamarind, cotton, shoes, and leather. Later, artisans exported musical instruments, rosaries, and silverware produced by the artisans.


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. Johann Mesner and Martin Schmid, two Jesuit musicians, went to Chiquitania. Schmid in particular was responsible for this skill being developed to such a high degree that polyphonic choirs would perform, and whole orchestras would play Baroque operas on handmade instruments. He directed the production of violins, harps, flutes, and organs, and wrote and copied masses, operas, and motets. He built an organ with six stops in Potosi and transported it by mules over a distance of on a difficult road to the Chiquitania lowlands. The Jesuits used the musical lessons as a first step to the Christianization of the natives.

As Schmid, who also acted as a composer, wrote in a 1744 letter from San Rafael:


Some of the Jesuit institutions still exist. For example, San Rafael, San Miguel and San Ignacio have functioning town councils, and the caciques and the sexton still retain their capacities. Although the majority of the population is Catholic, a broad and rich mythology remains. Between 1992 and 2009 the population of San Javier and Concepcion has tripled and more than doubled in San Ignacio. In the other mission towns the population also increased albeit on a smaller scale. As of 2009, San Jose, San Javier and Concepcion have around 10,000 inhabitants; and San Ignacio, the largest town in Chiquitania, has about 26,000. On the other hand, in Santa Ana there are currently only a few hundred people. The inhabitants of the cities are predominantly mestizos while the native Chiquitos Indians presently live in the villages. According to various sources, in Bolivia the number of ethnic Chiquitos is between 30,000 and 47,000 people, of which less than 6,000  mainly elderly people  still speak the original language. Only a few hundred are monolingual in the Chiquitano language.

Economically, the area depends on agriculture. Maize, rice, yuca, cotton and heart of palm are produced and exported. Cattle ranching and the industrial processing of milk have been developed extensively in recent years. Crafts, often carved of wood using the same techniques as in colonial times, provide additional income. Since the launch of the Jesuit Mission Circuit  a marketing label to promote tourism  at the end of the 20th century, craftsmanship and tourism have been closely related.

The musical festivals and concerts held regularly in the mission towns testify to the living heritage of this artform. Some of the original instruments and sculptures made by Schmid and his apprentices survive in small museums in the mission towns, most notably in Concepcion which also houses the music archive. In San Javier, San Rafael and Santa Ana the only three original harps from the time of the Jesuits are preserved. The church in Santa Ana houses the only original organ in Chiquitos. More than a dozen orchestras and choirs brought together by the Sistema de Coros y Orquestas (SICOR) dot the area.

Since 1996, the nonprofit institution Asociacion Pro Arte y Cultura (APAC) has been organizing the biennial Festival Internacional de Musica Renacentista y Barroca Americana.

Starting in the middle of 1975, restoration work in the church of Concepcion unearthed 6,000 musical scores from the 17th and 18th centuries. Later another 6,000 scores were found in Moxos and finally 10,000 more in San Javier. Many of these works were interpreted at the 2006 festival. The statistics of the festival over the years is as follows:

The festival is carried out at so-called Plazas Misionales among others in the main plaza of Santa Cruz. In one event, orchestras of various countries compete against each other. One of the local orchestras, called Orquesta Urubicha, is made up of people native to the missions who use instruments which they build by themselves according to plans left by the Jesuit missionaries.


Shortly after the start of the restoration project, 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 '', a five day tourist event lasting from March 2327, 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 intended to raise the number of tourists from 25,000 to 1 million per year over a ten year period, which represented 400 million USD of income.

Tourism is already an important source of income for the region, amounting in Concepcion Municipio alone to 296,140 USD, or 7.2% of the annual gross production. An additional 40,000 USD or 1% comes from crafts. According to a report published by the "Coordinadora Interinstitucional de la Provincia Velasco" in 2007, 17,381 people visited San Ignacio, the largest town in the region, as tourists in 2006. About 30% of them came from outside of Bolivia. The main attraction for tourists to San Ignacio are the nearby missions of San Miguel, San Rafael, Santa Ana. Tourism to San Ignacio generated 7,821,450 Bolivianos bruto income in 2006. Tourism income is translated to an improvement of the infrastructure. Other than cultural tourism to the missionary circuit and musical festivals, the region offers many natural attractions like rivers, lagoons, hot springs, caves and waterfalls.

Cultural references

Many elements of the early days of the Jesuit missions are shown in the movie The Mission''. The events around the expulsion of the Jesuits are depicted in Fritz Hochwalder's theater play (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.

See also

Society of Jesus

Jesuit Reductions

Jesuit missions in neighboring countries

Jesuit Block and Estancias of Cordoba (Argentina)

Jesuit missions of the Guarani (Argentina and Brazil)

Jesuit missions of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue (Paraguay)


Further reading

Historic accounts

Modern books

External links

Chiquitos Misiones Jesuiticas (English/Spanish)

Misiones Jesuitas de Bolivia rutas
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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos

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