20 July 2023

Amazonia, rights, deforestation: “Bolivia has not kept its promises”


Since 2009, the Constitution of Bolivia has promoted the protection of the rights of native peoples and the environment. But the exploitation of natural resources, The Conversation accuses, continues and deforestation is increasing

by Matteo Cavallito


Bolivia is still under observation as it awaits the upcoming summit of the ACTO, the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation, scheduled to take place in Belem, Brazil, on 8 and 9 August. The meeting, which will be attended by representatives of the eight nations that share the forest territory, will be an opportunity to discuss how to attract investment, tackle deforestation, protect indigenous communities and promote sustainable forms of development. But also, perhaps, to think about the events that have long characterised a country that suffers from contradictory political choices in the management of its natural resources. And it has inevitably attracted quite a bit of criticism.

Deforestation at an all-time high

The Amazon rainforest covers more than 40% of Bolivia’s national territory. Over 1.2 million inhabitants reside in the area, many of them belonging to 29 different indigenous peoples. An example of diverse history and cultures, a living manifestation of that ‘plurinational’ dimension officially recognised by the new Constitution approved in 2009 and conceived, moreover, with the intention of offering solid protection to the rights of the indigenous peoples and the environment.

The problem, however, is that the numbers seem to betray the promises. In the last twenty years, explains Global Forest Watch, a project of the Washington-based non-profit organisation World Resources Institute, Bolivia has lost about 9% of its rainforest (3.7 million hectares) and the trend is still growing.

In 2022, deforestation affected 386,000 hectares, the highest figure recorded this century. “Accelerated deforestation might seem paradoxical in a country known internationally for its commitment to the ‘Rights of Mother Earth’,” Victor Galaz, deputy director of Stockholm University‘s Resilience Centre, recently wrote in the pages of the Australian network The Conversation. “But it seems that the government has chosen to prioritize economic development based on natural resources over its promises to become stewards of Nature.”

The race to exploit resources

According to Galaz, the progressive destruction of the forest in Bolivia “is the result of destructive and familiar combination: increased global demand for commodities such as soy and cattle, and extractive national and regional policies with the explicit ambition to boost economic growth with little consideration on its environmental impact.” In 2020, he adds, soybean crops, which were practically non-existent half a century earlier, would cover 1.4 million hectares. 5 million is the sum of the hectares destined for livestock.

In addition to all this, mining concessions in the country’s Amazon regions rose from 88 to 341 between 2015 and 2021. In the same period, the number of areas earmarked for extraction increased by 414%.

The rapid expansion of illegal gold mining, in particular, “is creating massive social and environmental challenges as well as severe health threats to indigenous communities.” Finally, the role of subsidies to fossil fuels that favour, in turn, the development of energy-intensive sectors such as agriculture, livestock breeding and mining: “According to 2021 data from the International Monetary Fund – sottolinea il docente – fossil-fuel subsidies consume 6,7% of Bolivia’s GDP”. A figure, it must be said, in line with the global average.

Drought and fires threaten Bolivia

The spread of illegal settlements in the lowlands, Galaz adds, is fuelling broader economic changes, encouraging the conversion of forests into agricultural land. Under indictment, in particular, is the so-called slash and burn. That’s a system of agroforestry management criticised for its negative effects. Among them are ever-diminishing forest recovery phase, cutting too close together and over-exploitation of the soil.

In this context, Bolivian forests today face a combination of droughts and extensive fires. In 2020 alone, the latter affected 4.5 million hectares, more than 1 million of them in protected areas. A phenomenon that contributes to aggravating the climatic effects of deforestation. “As a result,” the researcher concludes, “Bolivia has placed itself at the top of carbon-emitting countries per capita, with emissions of 25 tCO2eq per person per year – more than five times higher than the global average, ahead of large economies like the United States and the United Arab Emirates”