Like Brazil, Bolivia is burning due to deliberate government policy

With the world’s eyes turned towards the fires in the Amazon rainforest, and primarily on Brazil, there is good reason to survey the larger problem of deliberate deforestation across South America. Right now Bolivia is several weeks into the most devastating season of fires in at least a decade. As of August 22, the Bolivian government reported that 744,000 hectares of the country were affected by the blazes, and by Saturday, August 24, the regional government of Santa Cruz raised that estimate to over one million hectares.

A key driver of the fires in both countries is the deliberate clearing of forest land for agricultural production, which has been prioritized by left-wing government of Evo Morales as well as the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. Last week, both presidents reacted flippantly to the growing international attention surrounding the fires. (On August 19, Morales called the fires “natural phenomena” that “will continue” in years to come and seemed preoccupied with avoiding blame: “This is not the first time that there have been fires, they have always been around. Now they want to blame Evo Morales for the fires.” ) After the fires became a key discussion point at the G7 meeting, and following growing protests demanding international aid in eastern Bolivia, however, both men have attempted to show their governments are proactively responding to the emergency. Nonetheless, government policy in Brazil and Bolivia is fueling and authorizing the underlying drive to convert more of primary forests into croplands and grazing fields for cattle. This fact has been widely recognized for the government of Bolsonaro, who defied environmental regulators on his own private property before taking office, and who has dismantled environmental protections as president.

Unfortunately, the same policy priorities are at work in Bolivia under President Evo Morales. While from a different social class, as the leader of the Chapare coca grower’s union, Morales shares a similar orientation towards the forests of their respective countries. Both men see the Amazon rainforest (and in Bolivia’s case, the Chiquitano dry forest as well) as underpopulated areas of land that ought to be incorporated into the national economy through production for the market. (Contrary to some wild-eyed  Twitter claims, however, the current fires in Bolivia are in the service of cattle and lowland export crops like soy, not coca.)

In 2013, the Morales government laid out its territorial vision as part of its 2025 Patriotic Agenda, a thirteen-point series of goals whose target date is the bicentennial of Bolivian independence. The plan, describing “how we want our beloved Bolivia to be” in Morales’ words, proposes an ambitious reterritorialization of Bolivia that will affect large portions of the country’s land surface, with millions of hectares altered by new agricultural, hydrocarbon, and infrastructural initiatives. It offers quantitative targets for the use of Bolivia’s land, water, and natural resources. In writing the plan, Bolivian government planners worked on a wide canvas: the full area of Bolivia’s national territory, which consists of nearly 110 million hectares and land and domestic waters.

The most dramatic shift proposed in the Patriotic Agenda is the so-called “expansion of the agrarian frontier”: increasing the total land under cultivation from 3.3 million hectares (in 2013) to as many as 13 million hectares by 2025. This staggering figure has been put forward by the president, vice president, and ministers, but their reach exceeds their grasp. The technical data used by the government’s planning staff, according to Fundación Tierra researcher Enrique Castañón Ballivián, corresponds to a still-startling 6-million-hectare cultivated area. Nearly half of the projected expansion would come in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, where soy (and soy oil)-exporting agribusiness dominates the economy. Costañón argues that this expansion would inevitably clash with indigenous collective titles, as well as forested areas.

While this agricultural land goal seemed unrealistically ambitious at the time, it has set the direction for Bolivia’s forest and land management agencies and for new decrees like the one that set off the current fires in the Chiquitanía.

  • Law 741 (issued September 29, 2015) authorized landholders and families living on communal lands to clear up to 20 hectares of forest each without filing previously mandatory land use plans.
  • Law 1171 (issued April 25, 2019) on the Rational Use and Management of Fires authorized discounts in past fines for illegal fires.
  • Supreme Decree 26975, issued on July 9, 2019 and therefore just before the fire season, expanded land clearing rights in Santa Cruz and Beni departments.

This month’s devastating fires is Bolivia are the all-too-predictable consequence of the Morales government’s policies authorizing new land claims on cleared land.

Updated October 8, 2019: In addition, reporting from Los Tiempos in early September described a number of contributing administrative decisions, mostly taken by the Forests and Land Authority (Autoridad de Fiscalización y Control Social de Bosques y Tierra; ABT)

  • The ABT mishandled the red alert on fire risk issued by the Santa Cruz government on August 7. It took three days to issue its own alert, and then continued to authorize setting new fires through August 15.
  • On August 12, with the 2019 fires already underway, the ABT issued a pardon for past illegal fires as authorized by Law 1171.
  • Then, on August 27, ABT extended the deadline for filing new land-clearing permits despite a presidential order for an “ecological pause” in all such activity.

Following these investigations and a takeover of his office by protesters, Cliver Rocha was replaced as the head of ABT by Omar Quiroga Antelo on September 6. End update.

Bolivia is a largely food self-sufficient nation and does not need to replace its forests with crops or rangelands to meet its own needs. The purpose of these policies is new production of foodstuffs for export. In announcing the July decree, President Morales tweeted, “We have the task and mission that Bolivia should also grow through agricultural development. Another responsibility is the construction of an industrial slaughterhouse in Beni …  Beni needs to prepare to export meat directly to China.”

Many observers in Bolivia are connecting the recent policy shifts to Bolivia’s disastrous fires. Among them are the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), which declared both Evo Morales and Jair Bolsonaro persona non grata (unwelcome persons) in the Amazon region. The Chiquitano Indigenous Organization has called for the government to immediately roll back the recent Supreme Decree. The current devastation is a further reminder of the importance of government consultation with indigenous groups on matters of policy that affect them, something that has been systematically lacking in the past decade in Bolivia.

Meanwhile, the international left needs to engage in some serious soul-searching about very real possibility for left-wing developmentalism, like that embraced by Morales, to exact the same environmental costs as the aggressive frontier capitalism embodied by Bolsonaro. Only serious and direct attention to the environmental and social costs of economic growth can avoid this kind of destruction.

Top Image: Fires in Roboré. Photo by Jerson Bravo, bombero voluntario from Mongabay.

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