Bolivia saw massive forest loss in 2019

Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.

These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.

Global Forest Watch map showing 2019 forest loss (pink) and remaining primary forest (green) in Santa Cruz department and surrounding areas. Black boundaries are Bolivia’s international borders.

Santa Cruz, the furthest east of Bolivia’s nine departments endured the bulk of the fires and the lost tree cover, but is peripheral to several ways of looking at deforestation in South America. Natural ecosystems in Santa Cruz include humid Amazon rainforest, Chiquitano dry forest, and tree-studded but technically nonforested Chaco ecosystems. Some projects, like MAAP, leave out Santa Cruz altogether. Others, including GFW don’t track losses to parts of the Chiquitano dry forest or the Chaco ecosystems.

In essence, the question is whether places like these constitute forests that can be lost.

Burnt landscape during the 2019 fires. (Photo by Ruth Silva / European Union)

Overall fire-tracking efforts as well as continent-wide studies of deforestation see Santa Cruz as a pivotal region for deforestation in South America. A 2018 study published in Nature found that “the Santa Cruz region now [based on 2008–2014 data] represents the largest hotspot of deforestation in Amazonia,” as I’ve described previously on this blog. NASA’s analysis, which led the image at the top of this post, shows that Santa Cruz continued to be one of the two largest hotspots for forest destruction in 2019. Unfortunately, people tracking the bigger picture of Amazon Basin deforestation will need to continue to keep their eyes on Bolivia.

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