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Low implementation of land use maps in Andean countries affects conservation outcomes and agricultural productivity

Mosaic of legal forest reserves, pastures and soybean farms in the Brazilian Amazon. Credit: Rhett A. Butler.

  • Mongabay is publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Land-zoning in Peru and Bolivia has had positive and adverse outcomes, with land speculation and focus on agriculture often precluding sustainable development and promoting deforestation.
  • The 2013 Sembrando Bolivia programme, central to the government’s goal of expanding the agricultural footprint, sped up land tenure regularization on properties deforested between 1996 and 2013 and issued new forest-clearing permits for 154,000 hectares. Originally intended to foster forest conservation, the programme was used to promote deforestation in favor of agricultural production in the Bolivian Amazon.

Land-use maps and their explicit recommendations are most relevant on pioneer landscapes that are in the flux of change. Recommendations can provide sound information and support an expanding agricultural production system; more often, however, they are ignored in a frenzy of land speculation. This is, unfortunately, the case in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.


One of the most notable examples of zoning with positive and negative outcomes is the Plan de Uso de Suelos (PLUS) of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The PLUS identified the productive capacity of the alluvial plain located east of the Río Grande, which was legally deforested over the following decade to create a soybean production landscape known as the ‘eastern expansion zone’. That same document classified a similarly flat alluvial landscape located to the north and west of the Río Grande as inappropriate for intensive agriculture due to poor drainage. Nonetheless, this seasonally flooded wetland was settled by farmers who drained the marshes to create a second soy production district known as the ‘northern expansion zone’. These two landscapes have made Bolivia into the ninth largest soybean producer in the world (Human Modified Landscape or HML #31).

The PLUS was part of a larger strategy to promote sustainable development in the neoliberal phase of Bolivia’s recent history (1986–2005). It incorporated an element of quid pro quo, with multilateral agencies supporting the expansion and diversification of the rural economy by promoting intensive agriculture via deforestation on arable soils and forest conservation by creating protected areas and Indigenous reserves. In between these two extremes were land-use classifications that could be managed for cattle farming (via deforestation) or timber management.

Land adjacent to roads was zoned for Uso Agrosilvopastoral while more remote areas were zoned for Uso Forestal Ganadero Reglamentado, both of which are different versions that mixed agriculture, cattle ranching and forest exploitation. Landholders ignored the PLUS and developed their properties according to their capacity to mobilize financial capital. In Chiquitania (HML #29) most have adopted the Brazilian beef production model, while those in Guarayos (HML #30) are cultivating field crops.

Mennonite immigrants first came to in Bolivia in the 1970s. As their population expanded, their colonies cleared approximately 900,000 hectares of forest to pursue a variety of production models including intensive agriculture, dairy and livestock. Their holdings, typically about 100 hectares, are characterized by the absence of remnant forest. These tight-knit communities pool their capital resources to purchase lands from intermediaries and are attracted to frontier landscapes where land is inexpensive. Image by Raota /

Laws enacted in the 1990s forced Bolivian municipalities to downscale the PLUS recommendations via a Plan Municipal de Ordenamiento Territorial (PMOT). Revenue sharing and decentralization policies promoted the compilation of PMOTs; most were abandoned prior to completion, although some have led to the creation of municipal protected areas.

The information and recommendation from the PLUS / PMOT regulatory system were meant to be implemented on individual landholdings via a Plan de Ordenamiento Predial (POP). The original objective of the POP protocol was to ensure that forest corridors and river margins were protected as conservation easements. Landholders were motivated to complete the study because it is required to regularize land tenure. Most landholders contracted consultants who provided desktop documents that met the administrative requirements of the forest authority; however, the implementation of conservation measures remained at the discretion of the property owner.

The lack of government commitment to forest conservation on private property was revealed in 2013 with the Sembrando Bolivia programme, which was central to the government’s goal of expanding the agricultural footprint from three to ten million hectares. As part of that process, the agrarian reform agency (INRA) used the POP system to fast-track the regularization of land tenure on properties deforested between 1996 and 2013 (later extended to 2017). The Bolivian forest authority approved POPs covering 850,000 hectares and issued new forest-clearing permits for 154,000 hectares. Ironically, this land planning instrument, originally intended to foster forest conservation, was used to promote deforestation to expand agricultural production in the Bolivian Amazon.

Another example of the government’s use of land-use zoning regulations to promote agricultural expansion is the recent modification of the PLUS for the Department of Beni. The original version (PLUS Beni 2002) reflected the traditions of cattle ranching on the Llanos de Moxos and the forest livelihoods of its Indigenous people. The revised version (PLUS Beni 2019) has made several substantive changes, including the recognition of the agro-industrial production zone along the highway from Santa Cruz (HML #30) and a new deforestation frontier being settled by Mennonites and Interculturales east of Trinidad. These landscapes were zoned for forest management in the 2002 version but have been reclassified for a type of agroforestry (agrosilvopastoril) in the revised plan. If history is a guide, however, these settler groups will soon be cultivating row crops.

The potential for intensive agriculture is limited on the seasonally flooded savannas south east of Trinidad, the capital of Beni Department, but upland forests are being converted to agriculture by Mennonites (a) and Indigenous migrants who self-identify as Interculturales (b, c, d). Credit: Google Earth.

Several lowland ethic groups were impacted by the 2019 version. Sirionó and Baure communities inhabit the forest landscapes adjacent to the new settlement zones east of Trinidad, while the reclassification of 500,000 hectares to allow ‘agrosilvopastoril’ affected dozens of Moxeño and Movima communities on the highway west of Trinidad. The PLUS Beni 2019 also changed the classification of approximately two million hectares in the north, where Cerrado savannas are deemed amenable for intensive cattle management. This previously remote area is now accessible by an IIRSA sponsored trunk highway that connects its ranchlands with urban markets in La Paz (see Chapter 2). This area is surrounded by Caviñeno, Cayubaba, Chacobó and Tacana communities that have large territories (TCOs) in the adjacent forest landscapes.


Peru embraced the ZEE in 1996 as a pillar in its strategy to manage national development. This was soon followed by a pilot project funded by IDB and USAID in 2000 to develop a ZEE for Madre de Dios. Implementation guidelines published in 2004 included a mandate to develop them in coordination with regional (macro-ZEE) and local (meso-ZEE) governments. A flurry of studies was completed between 2005 and 2015, but lack of financial support has left the task unfinished. As of 2021, seventeen of 24 regional governments have developed and published a Macro ZEE, but only one has been completed since 2015. Fortunately, this includes most Amazonian jurisdictions (Amazonas, Cuzco, Huánuco, Madre de Dios, San Martin and Ucayali). Loreto has yet to complete a macro-ZEE, but has developed detailed meso-ZEEs for its most populated provinces.

The Peruvian system, like Brazil’s and Bolivia’s, groups land-use into several major zones: (a) productive, (b) protected, (c) recuperation, (d) special and (e) urban/industrial. It differs from the Bolivian and Brazilian systems by placing less emphasis on tenure or land-use, and more on underlying biophysical attributes. For example, long-settled agrarian landscapes in the Andean foothills (Selva Alta) are zoned for recovery, reflecting their degradation by erosion caused by steep inclines and extreme precipitation. Similarly, drainage is major determining factor in restricting development on riparian landscapes, regardless of whether the land has been cleared or not.

Another major difference is the treatment of Indigenous lands. The most common type, comunidades nativas, are zoned for forest management, agroforestry and subsistence agriculture (a), rather than for protection (b). This reflects their status as communal landholdings, which are open to development, rather than as territorial reserves, which are classified as a protected zone; these include Reservas Comunales that were created as dual-status protected areas and Reservas Territoriales that have been created to protect Indigenous groups in voluntary isolation.

The ZEE is a technical document that provides information and recommendations, but it is not a legally binding land-use plan. Rather, it is the first step in the labyrinthian process of developing a Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT), which requires seven additional Estudios Especiales: (1) disaster and climate change risk analysis, (2) documentation of past and ongoing land-use change, (3) a description of natural ecosystems, (4) an assessment of land tenure, (5) an analysis of the regional economic dynamic, (6) an evaluation of the nature and status of ecosystem services and (7) an assessment of the institutional capacity of the pertinent jurisdiction.

All of this information is synthesized in yet another study entitled Diagnostico Integral del Territorio (DIT) prior to the promulgation of the POT, which is a binding regulatory document that can constrain (or foment) specific types of land use. As of October 2021, no ZEE had been used to initiate a process to formulate POT in any part of Peru.

The ZEE prepared for Ucayali and Huánuco Regions in Peru sought to freeze the agricultural frontier at its maximum extent in 2010 (grey), but deforestation (red) continued to expand at the expense of land that was zoned for conservation and forest management. Data sources: IIAP (2010) and RAISG (2021).

The compilation of the ZEEs has improved the potential for sustainable development of the Peruvian Amazon. The information is of very high quality and is readily available to most stakeholders via government websites. The public consultation process would appear to have been fairly comprehensive and democratically organized. Nonetheless, their impact on guiding development and conservation has been limited.

The Peruvian ZEEs were not used to design the protected area systems, which largely occurred independently and, in most cases, prior to the compilation of the regional ZEE. Neither have they been used to regulate mineral exploitation or investments in infrastructure, although they have undoubtedly had a positive influence on the preparation of the environmental impact studies.

The ZEE documents show the chaotic nature of land-use on private properties while providing a snapshot of the ongoing scramble for public lands. A comparison of maps prepared in the mid-2000s with recent satellite images in Aguaytía (Ucayali) reveals that land zoned for forest management has been converted into an industrial-scale oil palm plantation surrounded by dozens of small agricultural fields.

It is, perhaps, more accurate to think of the Peruvian ZEEs as a depiction of the status quo combined with the aspirational recommendations of technocrats trained in the methodologies of sustainable development. The actual decisions are made by local politicians in control of the regional offices of the forest service, the land tenure agency and the environmental agency, who routinely ignore the recommendations of the ZEE as they promote conventional development initiatives in their jurisdictions.

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 4 here:

Chapter 4. Land: The ultimate commodity

To read earlier chapters of the book, find Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Three is here.

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