Bolivia // The Amazon //

The railway to nowhere

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Guayaramerín is the last navigable point on the Río Mamoré, the most important waterway in the Bolivian Amazon. Downstream from Guayaramerín a series of nineteen cataracts and rapids, stretching for over 400km down the ríos Mamoré and Madeira, cuts off the Bolivian river network from Brazil and access to the Atlantic Ocean. During the rubber boom, Bolivians and foreign speculators dreamed of bypassing these rapids and opening up the Bolivian Amazon to trade with the world. In 1872 the US journalist and speculator George Church formed a company to build a railway circumventing the rapids. Yet the crews sent to begin the work met with immediate disaster: their boats sank, and ravaged by fever and Indian attacks the workforce abandoned their equipment and fled through the forest. Church’s company went bankrupt and the contractors concluded that the region was “a welter of putrefaction where men die like flies. Even with all the money in the world and half its population it is impossible to finish this railway.”

Church himself was undeterred, and by 1878 had raised enough financial support to launch another attempt, with equally disastrous consequences. By the time the project was abandoned three years later, five hundred workers had died but only 6km of track had been laid. But the dream of a railway around the rapids would not die. In 1903 Brazil promised to complete the project in compensation for the annexation of the Acre territory from Bolivia. Work began again in 1908, and three years later the Madeira–Mamoré Railway – or the Devil’s Railway, as it had become known – was finally completed. More than six thousand workers are thought to have died in its construction, a sacrifice that was quickly shown to have been made in vain, since the railway opened for business just as the Amazon rubber boom collapsed. The Brazilian government kept it running until 1972, when it was finally abandoned, its rusting rails, swallowed by encroaching jungle, providing an eloquent testimony to a failed dream of progress in the Amazon.

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