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

Article excerpt

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. He also convinced Juan Carlos Calderon, 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. …