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.

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Santa Cruz cabildo: Bolivian fires prompt right-leaning region to mobilize “in defense of the land”

On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.

Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.

But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.

On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.

Now add the fires to the mix.

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Manifesto of Mesa 18, the “rebel session” at the 2010 Tiquipaya Climate Summit

In April 2010, as the Bolivian government hosted the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Tiquipaya, movements within the country pressed for a forum to talk about these how the environment is treated within the country. The tens of thousands of summit attendees had their conversations structured around 17 working groups or “mesas” (literally, tables) on topics from ºthe root causes of climate change” to forests to the rights of Mother Earth. The Bolivian indigenous federations CONAMAQ and CIDOB proposed Mesa 18, an eighteenth working group on domestic environmental problems in Bolivia.

As the summit approached, they and the government got into a very public dispute with the over whether it would be included. Officially, the five Pact of Unity organizations—including CONAMAQ and CIDOB—were co-hosting the Summit, and they met to formally approve the structure of the meeting. Nonetheless, Evo Morales and the Foreign Ministry vetoed any discussion of “internal matters” in an official track. “I don’t know why we’re talking about Mesa 18,” Foreign Minister Choquehuanca blistered as the press questioned him about the issue.

In the end, Mesa 18 was held two blocks outside the gates of the Universidad de la Valle campus, separate and apart from the official sessions. CONAMAQ, four smaller indigenous organizations, one campesino federation, and the Landless Workers’ Movement joined environmentalists and academics to organize two days of sessions before an audience of hundreds of people. Dozens of community groups presented their experiences and concerns about the impacts of “the extractivist development model based on the export of hydrocarbons, hydroelectricity, mining, agribusiness, and lumber” (in the words of a Mesa 18 promotional flyer). These conversations took place in a room with simple concrete floors, a borrowed Brazilian restaurant. Many of the sessions were offered twice, first at the Water Fair commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Water War and again in Tiquipaya.

Called the “rebel” session by the press, Mesa 18 drew a spotlight on the “double talk” of the government, as critiqued by leaders like CONAMAQ’s Rafael Quispe: “This government speaks of respect for Mother Earth, but it simultaneously pollutes the land, and there are the cases of Corocoro, Mutún, the San Cristóbal [mining] company, and projects like Cachuela Esperanza [a planned hydroelectric dam], which also damage the Earth.” Like its official counterparts, Mesa 18 consisted of dozens of short presentations on environmental threats, projected on a screen. A small team compiled the issues presented and formulated a resolution on behalf of the gathering. They declared, “the development plans of these governments, including Bolivia’s, only reproduce the developmentalist schema of the past” and called instead for “the peoples to decide directly the destiny of their natural wealth in accord with their own organizational structures, their self-determination, their own norms and procedures, and their vision of the holistic management of their territories” (my translation, see text below). Outside Mesa 18, participants covered a brick wall with placards in preparation to march. Each detailed a different environmental crisis or contradiction. Unlike the official sessions up the road, these results were not included in the Tiquipaya People’s Accord that concluded the week, but the collective document advanced the same environmental critique, denouncing “mega-infrastructure projects … extractive projects, water privatization and militarized territories.” The massive scale of the summit had offered an opportunity for national visibility around the country’s growing series of socio-environmental conflicts.

Nine years have passed and Mesa 18’s concluding resolution, called the Final Manifesto of Table 18 in Defense of the Peoples and the Earth / Manifiesto Final de la Mesa 18 en Defensa de los Pueblos y la Tierra, has slipped off the internet. I post the complete version below for future reference. A PDF version of the Manifesto is available here.

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Boliviaʼs newest park, Ñembi Guasu, hit by fires

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.

FAN visualization of fires in 2019 in Santa Cruz department

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.

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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.

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Fires rage in Brazilian Amazon, Bolivian Chiquitanía, Paraguayan Pantanal

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.

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Ignoring new TIPNIS law, Bolivian government restarts roadway construction

Bolivian newspaper Página Siete has 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.

Bolivian Senate approves law to de-protect TIPNIS amid protests across the country

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.

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As he ordered attack on indigenous march, Bolivian Vice Minister saw raid as a fight to industrialize the country

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.