The ongoing fire crisis in the Eastern Bolivia department of Santa Cruz has burned 187,800 hectares of the Ñembi Guasu Area of Conservation and Ecological Importance, scorching forests and leaving behind burnt out wildlife carcasses. The destruction in one-sixth of the Ñembi Guasu comes just four months after the Guaraní Charagua Iyambae autonomous government designated the park as protected on April 29, 2019.
According to reporting from El Deber, the Fires started in Roboré municipality, which has received much of the local attention during the ongoing Chiquitano dry forest fire crisis. But Charagua is the worst-affected municipality in the country, with 239,073 hectares burned according to recently released satellite analysis from the Fundación de Amigos de la Naturaleza.
El Deber reports the fire rages uncontrolled:
Today, it is the largest fire in the country; the only one that no one has taken care of up til now. Since August 9, when a chaqueo [slash and burn fire] got out of control 15 kilometers from Roboré, the flames have devoured land, reaching over 100 km away… and spilling over as far as Paraguay, towards Otoquis [Park] and still no one has done anything to put it out.
Hoy es el incendio más grande del país; el único que nadie ha atendido hasta ahora. Desde el 9 de agosto, cuando un chaqueo se descontroló a 15 kilómetros de Roboré, las llamas han devorado más de 100 kilómetros en línea recta, 187.800 hectáreas hasta ayer, ya se ha desbordado hasta Paraguay y hacia el Otuquis y aún nadie hace nada por apagarlo.
Pablo Ortiz, “Nadie atiende el incendio de Ñembi Guasu: el área protegida más joven,” El Deber, August 27, 2019.
The current fire in Ñembi Guasu stands as a potent metaphor of the risks that agricultural deforestation poses to both indigenous autonomy and conservation. Unless they have the resources to defend the territory, manage disasters, and shape policy, so-called Protected Areas will remain unprotected.
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.
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. 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.
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.
This image from NASA offers a panorama of the fires raging across South America during the week of August 15 – 22, 2019. World attention has turned to the Amazon rainforest fires in Brazil, where ultra-right President Jair Bolsonaro has drastically cut back environmental enforcement. This week, there has been needed attention brought to Bolivia’s rapidly expanding fires, primarily in the Chiquitano dry forest. Claire Wordley offers a solid primer on the situation in English.
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. These are parallel crises, caused by independently set fires. 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 Bolsonaro.
Bolivian newspaper Página Sietehas published photos of the ongoing construction of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway inside of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory. The current active construction continues work that began before the enacting of Law 266, which ends special protections for the territory, on August 13. The prior activity, revealed by indigenous residents was clearly in violation of Law 180 of 2011, which the new law repealed.
However, Law 266 also placed some legal limits on road building (see the full text of Law 266 (es)). Officially termed the Law of Protection, and Integral and Sustainable Development of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), it requires:
Article 9 … Integration and Articulation Activities [i.e., transportation infrastructure], which improve, establish, or maintain rights of indigenous peoples such as freedom of movement, whether through the opening of neighborhood roads, highways, systems of river navigation, or of aerial transportation, etc. shall be designed in a participatory manner with the indigenous peoples …
The law also establishes a planning process for development and integration:
A timeframe of 180 days is established for the elaboration of a Protection Plan for TIPNIS, the Integral Plan for Transportation in TIPNIS, and the Development Agenda for the Indigenous Peoples of TIPNIS to Live Well, in accordance with the results of the Consultation. Insofar as those documents are approved, the instruments of planning and management of TIPNIS shall be applicable, so long as they don’t contradict that which is established in this law, and in agreements resulting from the Consultation.
Right now, of course there is no Integral Plan for Transportation in TIPNIS, nor has any highway been designed in a participatory manner. Whether before or after the passage of the new law, the Bolivian government shows no sign of following the legal limits on its road building in TIPNIS.
The Bolivian Senate has approved Law 266, which allows for the construction of highways and exploitation of resources within the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). Their vote came less than six hours after the law was brought to the Senate. In so doing, they set the stage for Bolivian President Evo Morales to abrogate Law 180 of 2011, legislation won by the Eighth National Indigenous March of the same year which declares TIPNIS to be an “intangible zone” and prohibits any highways from crossing it. The government has already secretly contracted with two contractors to build the controversial Segment II of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and journalists and residents have confirmed the presence of building equipment and construction parts inside the park.
Protests occurred throughout the last week in La Paz, Trinidad, Santa Cruz, San Ignacio de Moxos, and Cochabamba, organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, the Fundación Solón—led by former UN Ambassador Pablo Solón–, environmentalists, feminists, and indigenous solidarity activists. Protests continue today in La Paz, coinciding with the scheduled opening of the Senate session; with vigils in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Trinidad (Beni Department), and in Cochabamba. Activists will gather for a “direct action” demonstration in Cochabamba at 7 pm local time.
Nearly six years ago, members of the Bolivian Army and National Police carried out a raid on some six hundred indigenous marchers at Chaparina. In a startlingly frank conversation addressing members of the National Police, Vice Minister of Police and the Interior Regime Marcos Farfán described the next day’s raid as a battle to preserve the government’s economic program and political future. (A video recording of his conversation was leaked to the press, and published this week by the Fundación Solón as part of an article by Pablo Solón). The Eighth National Indigenous March had as its first demand the defense of Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), and put forward a general right of indigenous communities to say no to destructive projects within their territories.
On September 25, police mounted an attack on the indigenous marchers, beating and teargassing them, seeking out and arresting prominent leaders, and leaving behind a chaotic scene of injury, flight, and fear. Marchers, including prominent leaders, were grabbed, tackled, and handcuffed in front of network television cameras. Between 70 and 280 were injured in the assault, including Celso Padilla (president of the Guaraní People’s Assembly), hospitalized with multiple hematomas. Hundreds of marchers were taken on buses overnight in a frustrated attempt to return them by land or airplane to the starting point of the march. The raid at Chaparina was the breaking point for the lowland Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia’s alliance with the government.
While the motives of the raid have long been evident, this forthright statement crystalizes the government’s motives in carrying it out. It will appear in any future historical account of when and how the Evo Morales government shifted from a rhetorical embrace of indigenous rights to a committed advocate of putting extractive industrial development first.
One must have a global, integrated vision of the matter, although it can be reduced to just the operation that we will carry forward tomorrow, it has to do with overall issues in terms of what our Constitution and program [of government] have proposed, which is rooted in industrializing, highways, hydroelectric dams, electricity, and energy.
But they [the indigenous marchers, presumably] are with their program attempting to avoid that going forward. They have their own political objectives behind it. The less able this government is to fulfill its programs, the fewer possibilities it will have in the future to gain votes.
Because if we don’t produce, if we don’t create industries, if we don’t build highways, if we don’t diversify our production, if we don’t transform our gas into other products, if we don’t generate added value from our raw materials, this government will fail. Everything will be ruined. This is the bottom-line objective that it [the march] has, to say that they were with Evo and his lovely proposals, but he didn’t carry them out. And he didn’t carry them out because of these kind of elements who put up hindrances and obstacles against carrying out that which is the job of nobody else in the country [but us]. A country in which we have been reduced to backwardness, to economic dependence, and to political dependence over years and years and years.
What we need to do is consolidate our sovereignty as a nation. To be sovereign, we must be productive, rich as a nation, and to be rich we need to produce and industrialize our country.
Thank you for listening to me. It doesn’t have much to do with the matter [at hand], but I believe it’s important to clarify those elements that have to do with all Bolivians, police officers or not, with the whole country. But it is within this framework that we, lamentably, are entering into carrying out this operation… Tomorrow, we will be working.
“Hay que tener una visión global, integral del tema, aunque se reduzca al operativo que vamos a llevar mañana adelante, pero tiene que ver con temas de fondo en relación a lo que establece nuestra Constitución Política y el programa por supuesto que se ha planteado, que radica en industrializar, carreteras, hidroeléctricas, electricidad, energía.
Pero están con este programa tratando de evitar que se lleve adelante. Tienen sus objetivos políticos ahí atrás. (Mientras) menos pueda dar cumplimiento a sus programas este gobierno, menos posibilidades va tener en el futuro de ganar más votos.
Porque si no producimos, no creamos industrias, no construimos carreteras, no diversificamos la producción, no transformamos nuestro gas en otro elemento, no generamos valor agregado a nuestro producto, este gobierno va a fracasar. Todo se viene al tacho. Este es el objetivo de fondo que se tiene, para decir estuvo el Evo con sus lindas propuestas pero no las cumplió. No las cumplió porque hay este tipo de elementos que ponen trabas y obstáculos para que se pueda dar cumplimiento a eso que no es en función de nadie mas que del país. Un país que hemos estado reducidos al atraso, a la dependencia económica, a la dependencia política durante años y años y años.
Lo que necesitamos es consolidar nuestra soberanía como nación. Para ser soberanos tenemos que ser productivos, ricos como nación, para ser ricos tenemos que producir e industrializar nuestro país.
Gracias por escucharme no tenía mucho que ver con el tema pero creo que es importante aclarar estos elementos que tienen que ver con todos los bolivianos, policías no policías, con todo el país. Pero en ese marco es que estamos, lamentablemente, entrando a realizar este operativo… Mañana vamos a estar trabajando”.
Within 48 hours, Marcos Farfán resigned his post as Vice Minister, reportedly to facilitate a public inquiry into the raid. A report leaked in 2013 revealed that prosecutors found that the raid was carried out in accordance with the chain of command. Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, who was involved in the decision, was reappointed to serve as Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United Nations. In April 2015, prosecutors relieved Farfán, Llorenti, and other senior officials of criminal responsibility for Chaparina. Six officials then indicted have yet to face trial.