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    Indigenous peoples in Bolivia

    There are 36 recognized peoples in Bolivia. With the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples and a new Constitution, Bolivia took the name of plurinational state.
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    36 indigenous peoples in Bolivia are recognized. 34 indigenous peoples live in the lowlands of Bolivia’s Eastern region.
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    2007: Bolivia adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
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    A major challenge for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia relates to the seismic work in search of new oil and gas reserves, as well as hydroelectric projects.
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  • Beyond Brazil: Who benefits from the fires in the Bolivian Amazon?

Beyond Brazil: Who benefits from the fires in the Bolivian Amazon?

While the international community is focusing its attention on the advancing fires in Brazil, the reality is that the problem transcends the South American giant and is reflected in the nine Amazonian countries. Beneath the ashes, the fire has shown (once again), a conflict that specialists have long pointed out: the implementation of a development model based on the extraction of natural resources at the expense of nature.

To talk about a "development model" is to talk about the economic programme that a country follows. In recent years, the extractivist model has been established in Latin America within the framework of the "Consensus of Commodities". In this way, we have arrived at a paradigm of economic growth based on the production of hydrocarbons, intensive agriculture and livestock, mega-mining and bio-combustibles for large-scale exports. Along the way, Latin American countries have restarted their economy to sell food and raw materials to China's growing market. To meet this enormous demand, private capital, with the support of national and local governments, has made progress in a process of accumulation by stripping land that has as its first victims claimed nature and indigenous peoples, whose survival is intimately linked to it.

Fires in the Monte Verde Indigenous Territory in Bolivia. Photo: Territoria Indígena Monteverde

Maria de Lourdes Beldi de Alcântara,  Doctor in Anthropology at the University of São Paulo, adds that fire in the Brazilian Amazon is not a novelty: "Fires began in the 1970s for sugarcane production in the state of Mato Grosso, which then extended to Rondônia and finally arrived in Acre. They began under military rule and deepened during the government of Lula Da Silva. It is not a left-wing or right-wing problem, but that of an agribusiness-based development model."

She adds that unlike other fires, today the news has had an international impact due to the denunciation of social movements and indigenous peoples (who have undergone a long process of struggles during democracy), at the same time as the total devastation and point of no return of a "development monoculture" that revolves around the agrobusiness of soybeans and livestock.

If jungles, forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, subsoil and mountains are the losers of the extractivist model, there are also winners who benefit from the destruction of the environment. This is what makes fires, land clearing and pollution a political problem.

Agribusiness and livestock in Bolivia

Bolivia is not just an Andean country: more than half of the country is made up of the Amazon, the Chaco region (shared with Paraguay and Argentina) and the Chiquitanía (an extensive plain that operates as a transition between the Amazonian and Chaqueño ecosystems). This is precisely the region that is suffering the most from the extractivist model and is overshadowed by the disastrous fires in Brazil.

Currently, the Dry Forest, a unique ecosystem within the Chiquitanía region is on fire, while in the Bení region, located in the northeast of the country, the clearing and fires in the jungle that are part of the Southern Amazon are advancing. This corridor is home to a unique biodiversity in the world, which makes the loss even more significant. As if this were not enough, in Chiquitanía there are six Jesuit missions founded between the 17th and 18th centuries, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

In Riberalta, two indigenous communities were affected by the proximity of the fire. There are already 600 hectares in the territory that have been burning out of control. Photo: San Borja Vision

Leonardo Tamburini, researcher at the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS),  points out that the expansion of the agricultural frontier, agreed by the government of Evo Morales and businessmen in the agricultural-livestock sector, as responsible for the environmental catastrophe: "The decrees and packages sanctioned since 2013 open the valve for clearing and fires. At the same time, they give responsibilities to supervisory bodies that are underfunded and therefore will not be able to comply with audits. It is necessary to change the agro-extractive production model that involves the elimination of national forests".

Tamburini argues that the transformation in the economic model had a milestone in 2015 with the Agricultural Summit "Sowing Bolivia" that established the Economic and Social Development Plan (2016-2020), which set a goal of expanding the agricultural border from 3.5 to 4.7 million hectares, which meant an average expansion of 250,000 hectares per year. Among the measures that forgive unauthorised clearings and burning, Tamburini highlights law 741 passed in 2015 and the recent Supreme Decree 3973.

Law 741 authorised the clearing of up to 20 hectares of land for small properties, communities and collectives, and the establishment of new settlements, without the obligation to conduct studies of environmental impact or pay taxes on existing timber. Beyond enabling "slash-and-burn" methods (the burning of land to clear the land and improve planting) in areas where this practice was illegal, this measure also allowed for timber trafficking, the creation of "ghost communities" and created a new impulse to clear land in regions that were previously protected. Additionally, due to the trap set by the law, small producers quickly resold or rented their land to big ranchers and agricultural entrepreneurs.

The case of Supreme Decree 3973 is more controversial because it was proposed in July 2019 and has already received the rejection of 21 civil society organizations, while the Archbishopric of Santa Cruz de la Sierra called it “irresponsible”. Bolivian public opinion sees the decree as a direct response to the fires and clearings. The regulation extended the agricultural frontier in the Beni region to lands that until now were classified as "forest vocation". It is no coincidence that the signing of the decree was held at the headquarters of the powerful Federation of Beni Cattlemen (FEGABENI). Bolivia's livestock industry has promised to export 20,000 tonnes of meat to China in the second half of 2019 alone. The figure is expected to rise to 117,000 tonnes by 2025. This translates to more clearings.

Demonstration in Santa Cruz over government inaction on forest burning. Photo: Damián Andrada

Alcides Vadillo, researcher at the Fundación Tierra, explains that although the decree changes the "use of soils" in the Bení region, it was also a trigger for agrobusiness in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Prior to the measure, fiscal lands were classified as "permanent forest production lands" implying that the state remains the owner of the territory and can exploit it through concessions that must submit exploitation plans for approval by the supervisory bodies.

"Today it’s the loggers who are friends of the mountain. To take advantage of the natural forests they must make an inventory of the type of wood and thickness of trees, in addition to marking seeding trees. Unlike agriculture, loggers are sustainable, they don't destroy the forest", Vadillo said.

Vadillo adds that another conflict that strengthened the decree is the location of new settlements in the Chiquitanía. While municipalities report 1,200 new communities, the Tierra Foundation counts 1,400 authorisation resolutions (many of them still await their land to settle). If there is an average of 35 people per settlement, which is endowed with 50 hectares, that would amount to approximately 2,500,000 hectares that would cease to be forest production areas and would converted into agro-industrial production and be cleared. This means that if there is no change in the ways of production, the consequences of the extractivist model still remain.

Indigenous peoples as guardians of nature

In their show at Lollapalooza Brazil, the American band Portugal, The Man gave the floor to the leader of the Guaraní Mbya ethnic group, David Guarani, to denounce the genocide of indigenous peoples and Jair Bolsonaro government's attempt to end the demarcation of their lands.

"Indigenous people represent 5% of the world's population and protect 82% of the world's biodiversity. They say it is a lot of land for few indigenous people, but in truth it is the few indigenous who are protecting life for the survival of the whole world. We, the indigenous peoples, are being persecuted, assassinated and killed. We are fighting for life", Guarani said.


Javier Zelada, the leader of the Movimas people and the chairman of the management committee of the Biosphere Reserve and Biological Station of Beni, one of the 22 protected areas of Bolivia that it is currently being threatened by fires said about the current Amazon fires:

"Our main concern is that the fire does not enter the forest. The reserve was founded when I was seven. My father, Don Alberto Zelada, was the first tour guide. So, since we were kids we received the education to protect flora and fauna".

Zelada argues that the Karayanas (as they call the whites and mestizos in the Bolivian Amazon) fully understand the damage they do to the environment but decide to prioritise their own interests.

“They want have more than they have. That is why they are advancing against nature and indigenous peoples. That is why, since ancient times, we are protectors of Mother Earth. From her we live, from her we collect and that is why we take care of her", he said.

In their interdependence with the territory, indigenous peoples establish harmony with nature. When the karayana believes that indigenous peoples are part of the past, he is wrong. Indigenous people make a fundamental contribution to the balance of Amazonian ecosystems. That is why they are the present, but they are also the future: because they show us that there are other possible modes of development that are in harmony with the environment.


Damián Andrada is a researcher at Ore-IWGIA, and a Master’s in Political Science and Sociology.

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Tags: Land rights



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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