- “While food insecurity and a wavering economy require immediate action, the economic over-reliance on the extraction, or cutting down, of natural resources is pushing Bolivia’s forests towards a potential tipping point,” the writer of a new op-ed argues.
- Last year for example, Bolivia lost more primary forest than any previous year on record, almost double the amount during the Morales presidency.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
In both national and multilateral fora, Bolivia is increasingly showing its reluctance to curb deforestation. President Luis Arce, soon to be entering the penultimate year of his term, has built up a poor environmental record, supporting the unbridled growth of a largely extractive economy, continuing to renege on its commitment to the Rights of Mother Earth Law, and refusing to commit to deforestation targets. While food insecurity and a wavering economy require immediate action, the economic over-reliance on the extraction, or cutting down, of natural resources is pushing Bolivia’s forests towards a potential tipping point.
Luis Arce’s presidential term began amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic and significant political upheaval. Credited with the economic growth and reduction in poverty of the mid to late 2000s, Arce has similarly pursued an ambitious development agenda outlined in the Patriotic Agenda 2025. The document presents the main socio-economic development goals for the years 2021-25, without the inclusion of concrete plans to safeguard the environment (and its forests); additionally, references to the environment are couched in the economically charged language of sovereignty. It is apparent that the tensions between environmental rhetoric and development policy that characterized much of predecessor Evo Morales’ presidency still linger today.
Domestically, the Arce administration has done little to protect Bolivia’s forests; in 2022, Bolivia lost more primary forest than any previous year on record, part of an alarming trend that is seeing annual figures almost double those of Morales’ presidency. The agricultural industry, which is the leading driver of deforestation in Bolivia, is centred in the Catholic and politically conservative province of Santa Cruz. Forest Trends, a DC non-profit, estimates that 83% of national deforestation has taken place in Santa Cruz and 74% of national deforestation for agro-conversion purposes is illegal. Despite Arce’s deep unpopularity in Santa Cruz, any efforts to curb deforestation must begin there and include stricter measures for the unregulated land clearances for agricultural commodity production.
Unfortunately, the government has only bolstered the agricultural industry by creating the Bolivia Agricultural Production Company (EBPA) through Supreme Decree 4701. This law’s desired aim is to strengthen domestic food security, enhance the economy, and finance social policies through the creation of economic surplus. However, the law also allows for the use of public lands by EBPA and emphasizes the marketing of products in international markets. For an industry which exports as much as 76% of its soy products rather than seeing these consumed domestically, and which is the cause of such widespread illegal deforestation, the move appears to be more about growing the economy than ensuring food security.
Beyond agriculture, Arce began campaigning during his presidential run for further expansion into biodiesel production, which includes palm oil. Established with Supreme Decree 4786, the Bolivian Ecological Oil Industry Productive Public Company (IBAE) will facilitate the building of processing plants across the country. The planting and processing of oil palms, amongst other so-called ‘biodiesels’ will not only clear vast swathes of Amazon Forest in the proposed provinces of Beni, Pando, and northern La Paz, but will also affect the rich biodiversity which these forests support.
That the EPBA and IBAE have both been created with little to no environmental or land protection provisions is more than worrying. The IBAE will work in tandem with Bolivia’s hydrocarbon organization (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos) to expand land-intensive economies, bringing great risk to both forests and the people coexisting with them. Biologist Vincent Vos is quoted in Los Tiempos arguing that the expansion into biofuels is a potentially illegal move that contradicts the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth: “Naming that product biofuel is a tremendous misrepresentation. This same law prohibits Bolivia from producing fuel from agricultural products.”
As Vos points out, the law is at best being circumvented, and at worst openly violated. Passed in 2010, it was seen as a piece of ground-breaking legislation, drawing heavily on Indigenous Aymara, Guaraní, and Quechua cosmo-visions and the foundational interconnectedness between humans and nature. Its potential to alter Bolivia’s domestic policy, despite being so frequently invoked by state legislation, has been significantly limited by the unrealized enforcement mechanisms that are included in the 2012 Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well.
Since the initial Law of the Rights of Mother Earth was passed, Bolivia has lost 7.6% of its tree cover. Passing new agricultural legislation without providing adequate environmental provisions in this way is yet more evidence that the government’s development agenda is prioritized over its commitment to protect its forests.
On the international stage, Bolivia (under Morales and now Arce) has been a fierce defender of resource sovereignty and a staunch critic of the industrialized nation’s historical emissions. Both presidents have also been successful in avoiding, obstructing, and rejecting any concrete deforestation targets. Most recently, Bolivia did not sign the Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Forests and Land Use at COP26 in 2021. Arce and Morales have repeatedly called for alternatives to capitalism as a means of combatting climate change, but the protection of forests continues to be noticeably absent from these speeches.
While Bolivia does set explicit deforestation targets through their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – an 80% reduction against the 2020 baseline and eradication of illegal deforestation – the upward deforestation trend since this was updated in early 2022 (and the proportion of clearances that are illegal) does raise serious questions about the feasibility of this target.
At a regional level, the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) was set up as a multilateral space for Amazonian countries to safeguard the Amazon rainforest. In August 2023, the eight member states (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela) met and passed the Belem Declaration which contains 113 objectives and principles to address topics from resource management to vulnerable ecosystems, environmental crimes, and the protection of forests. Unfortunately, the declaration contained no mention of deforestation targets, instead allowing members to pursue their own goals. Rumors that Bolivia opposed their inclusion bears scrutiny given the exponential growth of deforestation, and the reliance of an extraction-heavy economy on forest clearance.
Domestically, there is little to suggest that a reversal in the deforestation trend will take place in the short-term given that the government’s development agenda is increasingly focused on agricultural commodities. Based on UN speeches made as recently as September 2023 at the United National General Assembly, Bolivia is waiting for global systemic change before it feels capable of tackling deforestation within its own borders. However, despite the Belem Declaration failing to achieve any concrete regional deforestation targets, these international multilateral spaces could hold the potential for meaningful pledges to be made if repeated calls to action are made by most member states and those blockading such pledges are publicized.
Further, Brazil and Colombia, who are experiencing similar food insecurity and environmental threats, have enacted meaningful environmental policies in recent months and effected significant drops in deforestation. Bolivia could certainly benefit from working closely with these nations on both agricultural and deforestation fronts. Until concerted action is taken, however, another 10% of Bolivia’s forests could be lost by 2035.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with ecologist & author Tim Killeen, who was based in Bolivia for the bulk of his long career, about development pressures in the Amazon, listen here:
See related coverage of forest issues in the region: