Deforestation in Bolivia: The bigger picture

The image above, produced by the University of Maryland’s Global Forest Change explorer, shows the loss of forest in Bolivia and surrounding countries from 2000 to 2018. As the fires continue to burn in Bolivia’s Chiquitano dry forest in Santa Cruz department, as well as in Beni, Pando, and Cochabamba departments, it’s important to take a longer look at the problem of deforestation in Bolivia. This post discusses its scale, hot spots, and how the current trend will break Bolivia’s climate pledges to the international community.

Deforestation is an ongoing, massive problem in Bolivia

According to official figures by the Bolivian government, deforestation exceeded 200,000 hectares (494 thousand acres) in 11 of the 13 years from 2004 to 2017, the last year for which I could find data from ABT, Bolivia’s Forest and Lands Authority. Here are their annual estimates.

While ABT data is somewhat unreliable, as I and others have noted previously, the obvious problems seem to reflect premature and low estimates which are later revised upwards. The ABT estimates are of all deforestation, not just primary forest loss, which the World Resources Institute estimated at 154,488 in 2018, making the nation the fifth largest deforester in the world.

The largest single South American deforestation zone is in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department

According to a systematic study of deforestation across forest South America, southeastern Bolivia has emerged as the continent’s largest single area for deforestation, despite the fact that five-sixths of the region’s deforestation still takes place in Brazil.

The Bolivian hotspot expanded rapidly from covering an area of ~300km2 in 2001-2007 to an area of ~9560 km2 in 2008-2014, thus representing the largest deforestation hotspot (at 99% confdence levels) over the Amazon during that period.

[L]arge agricultural expansion also contributes as a driver of the deforestation hotspot in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. This region has been the focal centre of Bolivian deforestation for over two decades, but our analysis shows a pattern of intensifying deforestation activity during the 2008-2014 period, so that the Santa Cruz region now represents the largest hotspot of deforestation in Amazonia. Much of this deforestation appears to be linked to the expansion of the soybean sector, and may be associated with a leakage of soybean plantations from Brazil as a result of the soybean moratorium established in Brazil in 2006.

(Michelle Kalamandeen et al. “Pervasive Rise of Small-Scale Deforestation in Amazonia.” Nature Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (January 25, 2018): 1–10.)

Because this was a time of pro-active efforts by the Bolivian governments of Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva (2003–11) and Dilma Rousseff (2011–16) to combat deforestation, the emergence of a new hotspot in Peru and the massive growth of the Santa Cruz (plus southeast Beni) department hotspot in Bolivia meant that Brazil’s contribution to Amazon deforestation slid from 93% of the total to 86.2%.

Bolivia is falling far behind its deforestation goals as promised under the Paris Accords

The Bolivian government’s official climate pledges call for Bolivia’s forest cover to reverse its long-running decline by 2020 and to grow slightly from 52.5 million hectares to 54 million hectares by 2030. These goals seem increasingly out of reach. The government also pledged to achieve:

• Zero illegal deforestation by 2020
• Increased the surface of forested and reforested areas to 4.5 million hectares by 2030.
• Increased forest areas with integrated and sustainable community management approaches with 16.9 million hectares in 2030, in reference to 3.1 million hectares by 2010.
• Strengthened environmental functions (carbon capture and storage, organic matter and soil fertility, biodiversity conservation and water availability) in about 29 million hectares by 2030.
• Contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of 5.4% in 2030, boosted by agricultural and forestry production complementary to conservation.
• Reducing extreme poverty to zero in the population dependent on forests by 2030, based on approximately 350 thousand people by 2010.

Bolivia. Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). https://www4.unfccc.int/sites/submissions/INDC/Published%20Documents/Bolivia/1/INDC-Bolivia-english.pdf

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