Photo: Shutterstock

Critics round on Bolivia authorities for prioritising agribusiness over deforestation crisis


New legislations in Santa Cruz and Beni could see millions of hectares of forest destroyed for agribusiness as indigenous leaders say an “emergency” is unfolding

Voices of discontent are growing in Bolivia amid fears that two new laws will see millions of hectares of land cleared for cattle and soy farming in an effort to propel the country economically into the global export market.

Interim president Jeanine Añez and environment authorities are under intense pressure from civil society groups, activists and indigenous leaders to reverse the controversial Decree 3973 in the provinces of Beni and Santa Cruz and a new Land Use Plan (PLUS) for Beni.

Supreme Decree 3973, passed in July, allows “controlled burns” on land that was off limits in the two regions, with 4.5 million hectares (ha) of previously protected private and community forest lands set to be cleared in the Amazon department of Beni alone.

Under PLUS, which was officially ratified by Añez – who herself is from Beni – in late November, between nine and 10 million hectares of additional land can now be cleared for agricultural production.

“Terrible news, how bad we are, destroying our large house so that some privileged people continue to enrich themselves,” Eliana Torrico, an environmental activist wrote on Facebook following the announcement.

Indigenous leaders are angered by the news and in January sent a letter to the government decrying the law for which they said they were not consulted and requested a meeting with President Añez.

“We are in emergency. We have sent letters to the Ministry of the Presidency and the Ministry of the Environment; we have followed the steps to convey our concern.

“We will not allow our house to be destroyed for transnational interests,” Beni indigenous leader Marcelo Fabricano said in January.

The transnational interests are currently coming from China and Russia. Bolivia signed beef export trade deals with the countries last year and supporters hope the laws will push Bolivia into the top 15 beef producers worldwide. In August, a first shipment of 48 tonnes of beef left for China.

Santa Cruz and Beni account for 74 per cent of the South American nation’s cattle production, with Beni providing 31 per cent.

It is claimed Decree 3973 could increase cattle production from three million to six million heads per year by 2030 in Beni and PLUS is expected to cause further clearances for cattle and soy production.

“The Land Use Plan and Decree 3973 are part of our economic model,” Eduardo Franco, an environmental journalist in Santa Cruz, tells Earthsight. “It is a very extractive focused model and deforestation and fires are part of that economy, it is very sad, but it is how it is in Bolivia.”

Sucre, Bolivia - August 2019: Protest to demand international aid for forest fires and repeal Decree 3973. Photo: Shutterstock

2019 saw devastating forest fires rip through Bolivia as 6.4 million hectares of land was destroyed nationwide with Santa Cruz (4.1 million hectares) – home to the Chiquitania savannah – and Beni (1.8 million hectares) suffering the largest land losses.

A dozen protected areas lost one million hectares of land and at least 36 indigenous territories were directly impacted, data from local NGO the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN) indicates.

Marlene Quintanilla, a FAN director, believes the new laws will cause irreparable damage.

“The cancellation of Decree 3973 would be a correct measure, the soils are not suitable to sustain an intensive agricultural production, the true value and high potential is in the forests,” she told Earthsight.

“Forest utilization must be an essential pillar to establish sustainable development in the region, in addition to allowing communities greater resilience and better capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change.”

At the December International Rights of Nature Tribunal, an event based on promoting “alternatives to the false solutions” of governments on environmental crises, members urged Bolivia to repeal the legislations and uphold its historic Mother Earth law.

The verdict stated: “[We] demand that governments stop agribusiness activities in particular those that were initiated without environmental impact assessment studies such as, for example, the case in Bolivia of meat exports to China and ethanol production and biodiesel.”

It also called on Bolivia and other Amazon countries to “immediately repeal the legal provisions” that favour and encourage burning and deforestation.

Data provided by FAN shows that Bolivia lost 205,000ha on average per year between 2000 and 2015 but that had increased to 404,000ha of forest loss annually over the next three years.

According to the La Paz-based NGO Solón Foundation, government data shows illegal deforestation in Beni in 2015 was 120,910ha – a 32 per cent increase from 2012.

Although a lack of deforestation data exists since the two laws were approved, early estimates are alarming.

Global Forest Watch data points to over 80,000 deforestation alerts reported in Beni in the first three weeks of 2020. In comparison, only a few hundred reports were recorded in January 2019.

In Santa Cruz, 15,355 alerts were reported in the second week of January 2019 and this jumped to 24,144 in the same week this year. It has continued to surge with 87,446 alerts reported in the week of 23 January 2020.

“It is a very critical moment because it is clear that it is hard for political leaders and public authorities to understand the risks of the situation,” Franco adds.

“Last year was one of the hottest on record and one of the driest and it looks like we are not learning from our own disasters. We are following the same path and it could happen again in 2020.”

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