Book chronicles tension between development and retaining local culture

When geologist Larry Buchanan found a huge silver deposit under a remote Quechua village in Bolivia in 1995, he couldn't have foreseen the chain of events his discovery would set in motion.

By creating jobs, the ore seemed to promise the fulfilment of a 400-year-old prophecy of wealth for the villagers. But it also resulted in their uprooting as the little town was moved lock, stock and barrel to make way for a vast open pit mine.

To the list of events that have come in the mine's wake, add a new book, "The Gift of El Tio," by Buchanan and his wife, Karen Gans.

The book is published by Fuze Publishing, which produced the spy thriller "Satan's Chamber" by Ashland author Molly Best Tinsley and her Virginia-based business partner, Karetta Hubbard, last year. "The Gift of El Tio" sells for $19.95 in trade paperback at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland or $9.99 as an e-book at or

Gans, a child development specialist, was disturbed at the prospect of the wholesale displacement of the Quechua people, and the Ashland couple lived much of the last decade in Bolivia to document the effects of the mining project.

"It meant destroying the village," Gans says. "I told Larry I'd have a hard time living with a man who would destroy villages. I felt we'd better take some responsibility."

The couple's memoir mixes portraits of unforgettable characters with a culture clash that is comical one moment and poignant the next. And it defies expectations in portraying development not in black and white but surprising shades of gray.

Buchanan won the Thayer Lindsley Award, a prize for international mineral discovery, for the San Cristobal silver find. Gans, a teacher and counselor, taught English in the village during the couple's residence there.

"She's a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, whereas he's a capitalist and company man," says Tinsley, the book's editor.

Buchanan argued that there was no work in San Cristobal before the mine. If men wanted to find work, they had to leave the village. Now there would be work and money. Gans worried about a culture being uprooted.

The couple's book takes readers to the village of San Cristobal on Bolivia's harsh Altiplano, at 14,000 feet the world's highest plateau outside Tibet, with each writer taking every other chapter.

"El Tio" (Spanish for "the uncle") is the spirit owner of the mountain, an offshoot of pre-Hispanic nature spirits and the Christian devil. Icons of him are placed in mine shafts and given offerings of alcohol, cigarettes, coca leaves and other items to curry his favor. Since San Cristobal is an open pit, it may be the only mine in Bolivia without an effigy of El Tio.

Over the years the couple's status among the Quechua changed from that of outsiders to trusted friends who lived there for extended periods. The Quechua believe that everything has a spirit, even rocks, and that a rock just may be your ancestor. Buchanan was a kindred spirit. He'd grown up in the Southern California desert, where from an early age he was surrounded and fascinated by rocks. But it turns out having rocks for ancestors doesn't preclude mining.

"They consider ore as gifts from the rocks," Buchanan says. "Not to accept would be an insult."

The son of the village doctor lived with Buchanan and Gans for two years and eventually came to Ashland to attend Southern Oregon University. He's now studying in Thailand, doing his junior year abroad with financial support from the then-chief financial officer of the American company that was operating the mine.

Over time the couple learned the rest of the prophesy, and it was chilling. That seemed to fit the cultural and environmental devastation that has often accompanied economic development in Latin America and elsewhere.

"When their culture was intact it buffered them against (things such as) infant mortality and rotten teeth," Tinsley says. "When the person is thrown into modern life, there's no more buffer."

But the picture is not as simple as that. There is the story of a young woman who had no money or dental care and now has a truck-driving job she loves, a little money to spend and new teeth.

Tinsley, a retired English professor from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, met Buchanan and Gans several years ago when she was teaching writing in an SOU extended campus program, and they brought in chapters of the book they were writing. At the time she suggested trying to sell the book to a university press. Georgetown University Economics Professor John W. Mayo called it a valuable study in "the real complexities of economic and sociological development that so often are absent in modern economic analysis."

But as the publishing industry contracted, Fuze took on the work as its second published book.

"I just loved the book," Tinsley says. "What's interesting is that he becomes a believer in El Tio, and she begins to see there are improvements in the people's lives that come with development."

"I think we both came to see the other point of view," Gans says.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at

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