Beneath our airplane, the Beni River stretches out like a green ocean between the Andes mountain range and the Guaporé River. Tufts of white clouds race over the plains of Moxo, a great treeless savannah in eastern Bolivia.
From October to April, the rainy season here brings shallow but massive flooding to the lower plains areas. Water from the melting Andean glaciers to the north and west joins rain runoff and descends eastward, causing rivers to overflow and turning 40,000 to 55,000 square miles into temporary wetlands. The dry season from May to September is a dramatic reversal. The water evaporates and the fields become a flat desert with isolated patches of grass and bush. The dry cracked landscape of drought splits open under the sun. In this season, natural and man-made fires are frequent. Right now, it's the dry season. Through the windows of our little plane, a sky saturated with dust and smoke frustrates our cameras' hunt for images.
We are flying in search of archeological evidence of one of history's greatest examples of human intervention in landscape. Three thousand years ago, the Beni culture--ancestors of today's Arahuaco people--took advantage of the seasonal flooding to design an ingenious agricultural system. They made huge mounds of land and built their villages upon these hills. Then, they put in a system of canals alongside elevated roads as an alternate means of transportation. They built artificial lakes, giant fish farms, and countless raised fields for food crops in order to make sure their millions of inhabitants would have an abundance of food. And they did for many years until a tragic drought caused their great migration.
Oscar Saavedra, the Director of the Kenneth Lee Foundation is on board the plane with me. "We decided to call them 'hydraulic cultures,'" he says, "because they were specialists in water management and in the administration of abundance and scarcity. The ancient inhabitants of the Beni had a different way of thinking. They used strategies for taming water resources to build a new kind of agriculture that resulted in a true civilization."
I am enthralled by these endless flatlands that resemble a green ocean. The expanse is dotted with artificial lakes and decorated with parallel lines of long raised beds built thousands of years ago. "It's incredible what these ancient people were able to do," Saavedra says. "Agriculture on these raised fields called camellones took up two and a half million...