LA PAZ, Bolivia — As you puff your way up a steep stretch of Calle Sagarnaga in downtown La Paz, if the high-altitude climb doesn't slow you down, the handicrafts will. Little shops offer a dizzying variety of sweaters and caps knitted in alpaca and wool, rugs and ponchos woven with multicolored patterns, elaborate ceremonial devil-masks, wood carvings, intricate silver jewelry and other articles that reflect centuries of Andean culture and skills.
The handicrafts are a breathtaking sample of one of Bolivia's greatest assets: a rich cultural heritage handed down from the Tiwanaku, Inca and Spanish empires. In an ambitious effort to help preserve and promote that legacy, a private foundation soon will start building a unique cultural center on a now-barren hill near the center of the city.
A major feature of the $4-million Santa Barbara Cultural Complex will be a folk museum where foreigners and Bolivians will be treated to multimedia presentations of Andean customs, art, handicrafts and music. There also will be a children's "discovery museum" where young Bolivians will learn how much there is to be proud of in their ancestral culture.
Other attractions will include an auditorium for concerts and films, an outdoor amphitheater, an artisans' fair and a handicraft village with workshops where poor Bolivians can learn how to better make and market their products.
La Paz Mayor Ronald MacLean, whose administration has contributed the land for the project, said the cultural center will make an important contribution to the country's popular economy by strengthening the handicraft industry.
"Bolivia is unique in its potential in handicrafts, and we are fast losing the traditions," MacLean says. "This project will serve to preserve the traditions."
The cultural complex is the brainchild of Peter McFarren, 37, a Bolivian-born son of American missionaries who is well known in La Paz as a photographer, free-lance journalist, publisher and folk-art collector. McFarren's Quipus Cultural Foundation will build the Santa Barbara Cultural Complex in cooperation with Mayor MacLean's office.
"We want to improve the level of the whole Bolivian handicraft industry, so it has a very strong social component," McFarren said. "The idea is to build up that sector of the national economy, to generate employment."
Workshops in the handicraft village will train Bolivians from around the country not only in artisan skills but also in product design, management of cottage industries and marketing. In the selection of trainees, preference will be given to poor and handicapped people, McFarren said.
Arrangements are being made to extend the handicraft development program to associated centers in the cities of Santa Cruz, Sucre, Oruro and Cochabamba. A revolving fund will be established to provide credit for artisans.
The Santa Barbara complex will also have demonstration shops where artisans will show visitors how they work. An artisans' fair will sell handicrafts to the public.
Though the complex is intended to be a major tourist attraction, McFarren said it will be designed mainly for Bolivian families. The children's museum will offer interactive programs on ancient Andean farming and hydraulic technology, native foods, nutrition, health, science and culture.
"The Quipus Cultural Foundation will create an unforgettable learning experience for Bolivian children and a bold example for museums throughout South America," says a prospectus on the project. A re-created Andean village, for example, will let children figure out patterns for weaving, see how a reed flute is made or make calculations on a quipus, a knotted cord used by the Incas.
Explanations will be given in Spanish and Aymara, the language of the pre-Inca Tiwanaku culture that is still spoken by more than half of the La Paz population.
Experts from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Bronx Museum in New York have helped design the Santa Barbara museums, incorporating state-of-the-art techniques for interaction between the public and the displays.
Construction of the 96,000-square-foot complex is scheduled to begin in July. McFarren said it will open in 1993.
The German government has provided $500,000 in initial financing, and McFarren is negotiating with the Netherlands for $2.4 million more. He has requested $500,000 from two multinational agencies, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation, to set up a revolving credit fund for artisans.
More funding will come from an unusual debt-conversion scheme that also will endow health and social programs for needy Bolivian children.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has agreed to contribute up to $5 million for repurchasing Bolivian debt from foreign banks. At heavily discounted market prices for developing countries' debt paper, the $5 million would retire about $45 million of Bolivia's debt.
In return for the debt retirement, the Bolivian Central Bank will give $7.5 million to endow a new investment fund, from which $5 million is to be withdrawn over the next five years. The Santa Barbara Cultural Center will receive about $800,000 of that, and the rest will go to non-governmental organizations engaged in child-welfare work in Bolivia.
An association of those organizations, headed by Save the Children and called the Coordinating Program in Child Survival, arranged the debt conversion through the Washington-based Debt-for-Development Foundation. The swap is the largest of its kind--debt-for-children and debt-for-culture.