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Vanishing Trees and Lakes: Deforestation in Bolivia’s Amazon

Lake Tumichuqua, Bolívia

The battle against deforestation is complex. Producing soy and beef for export benefits the agribusiness industry and powerful economic elites with ties to the government. Now, with the agriculture and cattle ranching industries hungry for new tracts of land, farmers, and ranchers are pushing deeper into the Santa Cruz department and Bolivia’s Amazon.

Trees suddenly turn gray in a forest reached by an all-terrain vehicle. Julio Zebers, a volunteer firefighter in his forties, points to the devastation caused by Bolivia’s latest rash of wildfires. Walking past charred tree stumps, he smokes a cigarette to keep the mosquitos at bay.

Fighting a raging wildfire, he described, is akin to standing on the brink of a thunderstorm: the “sound resembles an electric shock.” The smoke is dense and suffocating. However, the most harrowing aspect is witnessing animals perish in the flames. “I see the species that die: snakes, monkeys, lizards. No matter how insignificant it may seem, it pains me,” Julio said. 

Bolivia’s 60 million hectares of forest boast some of the Amazon basin’s most biodiverse and unique wilderness. This includes the rainforest and Chiquitania, the largest tropical dry forest in the world, home to species found nowhere else.

Yet, Bolivia is often forgotten amid the international attention given to destruction in the Amazon, despite trailing only Brazil in annual forest loss. Bolivia’s 245,177 hectares of primary forest lost in 2022 accounted for 12.4% of total deforestation in the Amazon that year. Colombia’s and Peru’s Amazon – a combined territory of some 127 million hectares – accounted for just 12.2%, according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), a network dedicated to tracking deforestation in the Amazon.

More than half of Bolivia is made up of Amazon wilderness. The region extends southward across Pando, Beni, and Santa Cruz departments, covering much of the country’s northeastern part. It touches the northern part of La Paz and the eastern edge of Cochabamba.

Destruction of this vital and often neglected corner of Amazon has accelerated at an alarming rate. Between 2002 and 2023, more than 4 million hectares of primary forest, an area the size of Switzerland, were lost, according to Global Forest Watch, an online platform that monitors deforestation worldwide. This marked a 10% decrease in primary forest cover since the beginning of 2000.

Much of the recent deforestation stems from unchecked fires.

Primary fores loss in Bolivia, 2002-2023

 The human-caused infernos are set to clear land for agriculture in a “slash and burn” practice known as “chaqueo.” Thousands of fires, many set illegally, balloon into runaway blazes that consume vast tracts of forest. 

Though fires are nothing new in Bolivia’s Chiquitania, and some degree of natural fire is even necessary for the ecosystem, they have become much more frequent and intense, according to biologist Steffen Reichle. During drought periods, which have grown longer in recent years, the Chiquitania is a tinderbox.  “When you have a forest like this on fire, it is impossible to stop it,” Reichle said. 

The blazes also emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to Bolivian researcher Pablo Villegas, when fire season peaks, a map of carbon emissions shows levels soaring over the country. At certain times, Villegas said, Bolivia becomes “the zone with the highest concentration of carbon emissions in the world.”

timeline map of forest fires accross Bolivia

Cattle and Agriculture in the Bolivian Amazon

Along the roadway from Santa Cruz to Santiago de Chiquitos, signs offer plots of land for sale. Small, white placards with black letters mark the names of farming communities. Larger signs indicate cattle ranches or soy plantations. 

This flat, burned yellow landscape was once made of Chiquitania dry forest.

According to Alcides Vadillo, regional director of Bolivia’s Earth Foundation (Fundación Tierra), land in Bolivia’s Amazon is much more valuable after being cleared. This results in various actors using legal, semi-legal, and illegal means to transform forests into land for farming or cattle-rearing. Bolivia’s government, meanwhile, fuels the destruction by weakening land-use laws, encouraging settlers, and promoting agribusiness in the Amazon.

In 2012, President Evo Morales (2006 – 2019) promoted his Framework of Mother Earth (Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien), a law that ostensibly prohibited the forest conversion to other uses. One year later, Morales’ Patriotic Agenda 2025, a rampant development plan. The plan called for the aggressive expansion of agribusiness, particularly soy and beef, for export. To accomplish this, some six million hectares of forest were to be converted into new farmland by 2025.

Bolivia’s current President Luis Arce, a former finance minister under Morales, has followed the same script. Land ownership in Bolivia falls into five broad categories: private property, community property, Indigenous territory, state-controlled (referred to in Spanish as tierra fiscal), and protected. At the national level, two government agencies administer all these lands.

The National Institute of Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria – INRA) is responsible for titling and distributing territory. The Authority for the Social Audit and Control of Forests and Lands (Autoridad de Fiscalización y Control Social de Bosques y Tierra – ABT) reviews and approves environmental plans, and grants authorization for clearing forests.

ABT approvals for forest clearing have soared in recent years. Between 2016 and 2021, the agency authorized the deforestation of 212,000 hectares annually. During this period, Bolivia lost an average of 255,000 hectares of forest per year, meaning authorized clearing accounted for 83% of total deforestation. But in the past six years, from 2010 to 2015, ABT permitted clearing only 70,000 hectares annually, according to a 2022 investigation by the Earth Foundation. According to the Earth Foundation, the extraordinary increase in deforestation authorized by the ABT is one of the biggest consequences of the Patriotic Agenda 2025.

Between 2016 and 2021, about 70% of deforestation in Bolivia occurred on lands that were once public but were retitled as private property for agricultural use. Nearly a quarter occurred on agricultural community lands, and just 5% on Indigenous territory. 

Legal changes and deregulation over the last several years have also allowed more land to be deforested. Bolivia’s 2013 Forest Restitution Law, known as the perdonazo, or grand amnesty, allowed farmers to legalize land illegally cleared. Speculators, who invade forests, and landowners, have continued to claim and illegally cut down chunks of forests under the assumption that they will be granted amnesty. 

Up to 20 hectares of forest can now be cleared without a government permit or fee. Fines for illegal deforestation have been slashed from up to $300 per hectare to as little as a $10. “What has been the government’s response? To forgive and forgive,” Vadillo said.

Land titling laws actively promote deforestation. After being awarded a parcel of land, the owner has two years to show that it is not lying fallow, or risk having it confiscated by the state. Landowners must declare to the titling agency their land’s economic and social function, with the easiest-use cases being agriculture or cattle-rearing. This has stimulated people to cut down forests and commit their lands to such activities. Land is often deforested before official government demarcation, to pressure the titling agency and keep out would-be invaders. 

Owners “have to clear because [the land] is taken away from them if they are not putting it into production,” said Marlene Quintanilla, director of research and knowledge management at the Bolivian environmental advocacy group Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN). “It distorts the law because the standing forest fulfills an economic and social function, but this is not understood technically.”

Santa Cruz: The Heart of Amazon Deforestation in Bolivia

Most recent deforestation in Bolivia has occurred in the department of Santa Cruz, the country’s agricultural hotspot. Santa Cruz is home to half of the country’s forested land, including biodiverse tropical and critically endangered dry forests. 

Beginning in the 1950s, successive Bolivian governments opened Santa Cruz to agriculture. Roads were built to connect the region to the main cities of Cochabamba and La Paz, in the western part of the country. Subsidies were offered to grow specific crops, including rice, cotton, and sugar. Programs were implemented to resettle people from the highlands, to bolster farming. 

Over the last three decades, agriculture in Santa Cruz has expanded exponentially. The growth has been driven by mechanized agricultural production of export commodities, particularly soy. Cattle farming has also increased, producing beef for export, and feeding a growing local demand. 

During this time, deforestation accelerated in a 2.7-million-hectare triangle known as the agro-industrial zone. From 1990 to 2015, some 2.2 million hectares of forest were cut down there. Agribusiness accounted for 57% of deforestation, or some 1.3 million hectares. 

Small-scale farming –cultivations on less than 50 hectares, or cattle ranches up to 500 hectares– accounted for 30%, though many plots were only titled small farms, when they were part of larger entities.

According to the Earth Foundation, at least 700,000 hectares of forest were cut down illegally in Santa Cruz and then regularized through amnesty laws or after minimal fines. 

With nearly the entirety of the agro-industrial zone in Santa Cruz titled and deforested, agribusiness began to spread outside of it. During the 2000s, deforested lands grew along the southeastern edge of the zone, spreading to the border of the Gran Chaco Kaa-Iya National Park. Much of the forest there was originally under state control, but later got titled to agribusinesses. 

Between 2016 and 2021, nearly 1.5 million hectares of forest were razed in Santa Cruz, according to figures compiled by the Earth Foundation. About 90% of the deforestation occurred outside of the agro-industrial zone. Deforestation ballooned in a northeastern corner of Santa Cruz, near its border with Brazil. Similarly, new land clearings cut across the southeastern edge of the department.

This agricultural expansion benefits from the proximity to Mato Grosso, the Brazilian state that shares most of the border with Santa Cruz. This state has dedicated nearly 18 million hectares to agribusiness, bringing together the two agricultural industries in both countries.

According to research conducted by the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information, encroachment, and deforestation in these two states are intimately related. The convergence of these economies has meant that businesspeople and companies do not discriminate between national borders and promote land clearing in both countries to expand their business and maximize profits.

A mix of illegal deforestation and land retitling schemes enables environmental offenders to successfully “launder” Bolivia’s protected lands. This pattern is at the heart of a surge in deforestation activities near Laguna Concepcíon, a lake protected under the Ramsar Convention. Established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1971, this treaty seeks to create a global network of wetlands designated for protection and conservation. 

In 2009, the municipal government of the nearby town of San José de Chiquitos took the first step to protect the lake by creating a 120,000-hectare reserve around it. Two years later, the department of Santa Cruz conducted a geographical study that reported that private property comprised about 40,000 hectares of the reserve. By 2021, private land titles had increased to 74,000 hectares, nearly two-fold from the amount tallied in the 2010 study.

As of 2021, forest cleared for agribusiness had reached 33,500 hectares, more than double the 16,000 hectares.

Deforestation, water diversion to agribusinesses, and frequent droughts have taken a shocking toll on the lake, which at times has vanished entirely. In 2020, dead fish – including sábalos, catfish, and piranhas – littered its depleted shoreline for miles.

“Why does INRA and ABT permit lands to be given in protected areas, in forest reserves?” asked an agri-environmental expert, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. 

Actors Stoking Deforestation in Bolivia’s Amazon

Settlers, Mennonite communities, and agribusiness have spearheaded recent deforestation in Bolivia’s Amazon. They at times work in concert, obtaining land by way of invasions, legal loopholes, amnesty for illegal deforestation, shady business deals, and other means. 

Groups known as interculturales, or intercultural communities, are also claiming land and settling in the region. Intercultural communities are agricultural workers that, during the 60s and 70s, were involved in colonization programs that aimed to populate the Bolivian Amazon and other remote regions. Today, they continue to expand into Santa Cruz and the rest of the Amazon. 

Organized in 24 federations nationwide and at more than 2.5 million people strong, the interculturalesclaim to represent the country’s underprivileged agricultural class and carry enormous power due to their strong ties to Bolivia’s ruling party, the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS).

Over the years, the interculturales have opposed elites who populated departments including Santa Cruz, took over the agro-industrial businesses there, and caused displacement of local communities.

The struggle between the two groups has been balanced in the favor of the interculturales since Evo Morales took office in 2006. The former president, who considered himself an intercultural migrant from Oruro, implemented an economic development model that favors these intercultural groups, but which contributes to deforestation.

Understanding the accountability of intercultural groups requires acknowledging the significant role played by the Santa Cruz elites, who are proprietors of large agricultural enterprises. As highlighted here and in our regional report, the complexity of this phenomenon cannot be attributed to a single entity.

The intercultural communities are powerful. Indeed, its head organization, the Confederación Sindical de Comunidades Interculturales de Bolivia (SCIB), has obtained for its affiliates 25 million hectares, more than a quarter of the total land titled by the government, according to a 2022 report by Earth Foundation. 

According to Bolivia’s National Coordinating Council of Indigenous Peoples for the Defense of Territories and Protected Areas (CONTICAP), some 1,500 families belonging to intercultural communities have settled in Santa Cruz. 

Several environmental crime experts and journalists consulted by InSight Crime, who have followed deforestation in Bolivia closely, said that the mobilization and transfer of families to Santa Cruz is a form of political territoriality, by which regions can be controlled.

Where settlers have occupied lands, disputes with locals and Indigenous people have erupted.“This generates a complicated situation. Those who have authorization from INRA believe that they are already owners [of the land]. There is resistance from local populations who say that they cannot enter the area,” Vadillo said.

Settlers also fell trees in a mad rush after receiving authorization from INRA, and often encroach on protected or Indigenous lands. To cite one example, settlers recently razed forest in the Bajo Paraguá Municipal Protected Area, a reserve established in 2021 to protect nearly 100,000 hectares of tropical and dry forest that serves as a critical corridor for wildlife. Indigenous people, local officials, and Amazon conservationists told the environmental news outlet Mongabay that settlers arriving there have connections to the MAS and have illegally provided titles to lands.

Four Indigenous communities who live within the Bajo Paragua reserve said in a joint statement last year that they were the victims of “organized land traffickers” promoting illegal settlements to expand the agricultural frontier.

Vadillo said “ghost communities” of 20 to 30 people are also created to obtain land. From nearby cities such as Santa Cruz, Montero, Cochabamba, and Yapacaní, these people have no intention of resettling or farming. Instead, they pay for the forest razing and later sell their plots. 

“They generate a hidden land market,” Vadillo said. To own the land, settlers must be present for two years. “But before they are given the title, these people are already selling.” 

In some cases, land traffickers have used false documents and fake names to form intercultural communities and request land from the government, only to turn around and sell it. People in agribusiness looking for new territories have also formed intercultural communities. For example, in the eastern region around San Martín, locals told Earth Foundation investigators that soy farmers from San Julián, a town some 300 kilometers to the southwest, had formed an intercultural community to obtain farmland. 

Investigators reported seeing large-scale machinery, akin to what is commonly employed in industrial agriculture, on large plots of soy and corn.

Besides the so-called intercultural settlers, Mennonite communities have emerged as a major force behind deforestation in Bolivia’s Amazon. 

Retaining their traditional clothing, strong Christian faith, and German dialect, Mennonite families arrived in Bolivia in the 1950s from Paraguay and Canada. Their communities’ expansion began in the 1960s when Mennonites from Mexico joined them. Their population grew again in the 1990s, when more Paraguayan communities, seeking “an escape from modernization and land scarcity,” migrated to Bolivia, according to a study of Mennonites in Latin America. Most settled east of the city of Santa Cruz. 

Mennonites have spread east and south in recent years due to their fast-growing populations. New communities have also formed in the northeastern corner of the country. According to the 2021 study, about 100 Mennonite communities farm more than 1 million hectares in Bolivia’s lowlands.

Known for their diligence and farming expertise, Mennonite communities have fast sought new forests to raze. 

“They are held in high esteem for their production level, for their honesty,” said Vadillo, “but from the environmental point of view they have a way of working and producing that is highly destructive.”

Mennonite farmers quickly deforest lands and raze trees in areas beyond permitted. Land clearings by the “Chihuahua” Mennonite community, about a five-hour drive northeast of Santa Cruz, have surrounded the neighboring village of San Miguelito, prompting townspeople and small farmers there to sell their lands. Their clearings have also encircled the San Antonio de Lomerío Indigenous territory.

Eulogio Núñez, director of Bolivia’s INRA, has accused the “Valle Verde” Mennonite community, in the department of Santa Cruz, of spreading deforestation in state-owned lands.

The land agency, though, has also permitted the expansion of Mennonite farms through its lax rules. In the region around Laguna Concepción, located about 230 kilometers east of the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where Mennonites own some 167,000 hectares, the communities have obtained land under the pretext of being “agricultural communities,” when in fact, they are engaging in commercial agriculture. They have also been blamed for digging canals that divert water and drain agrochemicals into the lake.

Insular Mennonite communities – linked to soaring deforestation in Peru – have also eschewed laws when convenient. For example, one group built a network of roads and a bridge after purchasing some 15,000 hectares of land near the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park. They constructed the 150-ton metal and concrete bridge over the Paretí River, whose wetlands are protected, without ever conducting an environmental impact study or consulting the national government.

“There is a lack of control,” said Quintanilla. “They do what the country allows them to do.”

Much of the recent deforestation in Santa Cruz has taken place on lands titled as medium-sized agribusinesses, farms of 500 to 2,500 hectares, and to a lesser extent those smaller than 500 hectares, according to the Earth Foundation report.

The farms produce soy, beef, and other agricultural products on deforested lands. The buyers are commodities traders, who serve as intermediaries in a global supply chain.

Much of the land titled as smaller farms is partitioned merely as a “legal pretext” to launder and title large properties that might otherwise fall afoul of the law. Capital for production is provided by agricultural lenders, Brazilians, Mennonite communities, and others, according to the Earth Foundation.

“That farmer that has 50 hectares… where is he going to get the money to clear? There is someone behind him,” said the agri-environmental expert.

A major culprit of deforestation is the cultivation of soybean, little of which is consumed domestically. The vast majority is processed and exported to other South American countries, such as Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, used by the farming sector as livestock feed for chickens, pigs and other animals.

Soybean is Bolivia’s largest agricultural export. Between 2006 and 2020, exports of soybean and its derivatives brought in about $11 billion. According to Bolivia’s main oilseed and grain trade group, land devoted to soybean cultivation tripled between 2005 and 2019, jumping from 429,000 hectares to nearly 1.4 million hectares.

About half a dozen commodities traders buy most of the soybean, according to Vadillo. “They control and monopolize the whole system of collection and commercialization, and they are the ones that finance production,” he said. 

Investigations in 2017 by Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Mighty Earth traced how major American commodities firms trade in soybean produced on deforested lands in Bolivia. The organization used satellite imaging and drones to find new land clearings for soybean cultivation and sent investigators to more than a dozen sites to identify their buyers. According to the report, farmworkers in Santa Cruz commonly cited US-based companies Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

In one example, about 1,000 hectares of forest were cleared on a Mennonite farm, about an hour away from the city of San Jose, to grow soybeans, according to satellite images and interviews. Cargill admitted to sourcing soy from this farm, while ADM confirmed sourcing soybean from a different Mennonite community allegedly engaged in illegal deforestation.

As investigations continue to highlight how soy consumption in rich countries leads to the destruction of Amazon forests, international soybean traders have pledged to stop buying from suppliers that deforest.

Such agreements, though, have shortcomings. Much of the soybean exported from Bolivia is processed, in-country, into soybean cake and oil. Small farms that grow soybeans on deforested lands will sell to larger farms for processing. 

But supply chains in Bolivia are opaque. According to Trase, a research initiative that tracks commodity supply chains, Bolivia exported more than 7 million tons of soy from 2018 to 2020. Six companies were responsible for 6.5 million tons of those exports.

Some of Bolivia’s biggest exporters have no public presence. Gravetal, which exported 1.3 million tons of soybean products in that period, has a sparse website. Hugo Spechar Gonzales Granos, which exported nearly a million tons of soy, has no website. Cargill was the largest soybean importer, at more than 1.5 million tons during this period. As of this investigation’s publication, there have been no reports of any measures taken by the Bolivian government to address this situation.

“They finance the seed, they finance the machinery, they finance the agrochemicals, they even give technical assistance,” the agri-environmental expert said. “And with all that, then they give you a price.” 

A Burning Issue: Bolivian Amazon Ablaze 

In recent years, wildfires have scorched vast tracts of Bolivia’s Amazon. The skies have filled with smoke plumes, while an otherworldly haze blankets Santa Cruz. 

Since 2016, approximately 16 million hectares have burned. Fires serve as a rapid yet destructive method for converting forests into land suitable for grazing or crop cultivation. Farmers ignite fires to burn desiccated trees and dry leaves from forests that were cleared earlier in the year. These fires burn intensely and persistently, eventually clearing large areas of land. 

“Where there is fire, there is no longer any vegetation. It becomes easy for the owner to cut down the big trees that remain standing,” Vadillo said. 

A significant turning point for these clearings occurred in 2019. In July of that year, then-President Morales enacted the Supreme Decree 3973, which authorized “controlled fires” in Santa Cruz and Beni, Bolivia’s two most forested departments, to make room for ranching and boost beef production.

In early August, some 560 fire outbreaks were recorded across Santa Cruz. That number jumped to more than 15,600 in less than two weeks. The fires raged for months, spiraling out of control. It was not until heavy rains arrived in October that the majority of them were extinguished.

The human-caused infernos have continued every year since. For Vadillo, fires can mean only one thing: money. “These are economic interests … where there was fire, businesses remain.”

In theory, setting fire to clear land without authorization from Bolivia’s forestry agency is illegal. But fines are less than a dollar for each hectare illegally deforested, ranging from between $5 and 20 cents per hectare. And the imposition of fines is rare. In 2021, the forestry agency issued only 137 sanctions for illegal deforestation and 268 for illegal burning, marking a decrease from 2020, when the forestry agency issued 350 sanctions for illegal deforestation and nearly the same number for illegal burning. “It is very cheap, fast, and easy. So, this means that many start fires,” Vadillo said. 

Fines for illegal deforestation are set to change this year when a law passed in 2019 takes effect. Small- and medium-scale farms, which commit most of the illegal deforestation via burning, face fines of $7 and $19, respectively. For comparison, illegal deforestation fines in Brazil, which has come under global pressure to stop the burning of its Amazon, start at $970.

“If we don’t have a form of regulation with stiff penalties, what are they going to do? They’re going to keep burning,” said Daniela Justiniano, who has long been on the front lines of battling wildfires in Bolivia’s forests.

Justiniano co-created Alas Chiquitanas, a volunteer group that uses donations to buy supplies for civilian firefighters. In October last year, she returned to Santiago de Chiquitanos, a town founded in the 1700s by Jesuit missionaries that sits in the heart of the Chiquitania forest. Justiniano has converted the town into an operation hub. There, even Senia Cabello, a local woman in her fifties, has become a volunteer firefighter. Cabello showed several selfies in the field, flames consuming brush behind her. 

“The forests are lost because of the burning. The burning comes because of the felling of trees, of illegal clearing,” she said. “We feel cornered because there is nothing we can do to stop the deterioration of our forests.”

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