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Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 3 - Rainforest Destruction in Bolivia

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 11:52:10 AM PDT

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In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

After spending a day with an indigenous community that runs an eco-tourism operation on the sixth day of the trip, Day Seven was a reality check. We visited Daniel Robison's farm and learned about what he is doing to try to "save the rainforest" and what his neighbors are doing, which - in some cases - is not so good. This diary is about some of the dumbass things happening that destroy the rainforest.

"Save the Rainforest"

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

Jill Richardson :: Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 3 - Rainforest Destruction in Bolivia
Previous diaries in this series:

Pre-Trip Blogging:

The Trip:

I'd like to begin this diary with a picture (actually, two pictures):

Rock formation with ocean deposits. Millions of years ago, this part of the world was under water.

These rocks contain ocean deposits, because this part of Bolivia was once under an ocean. The land here has changed quite a bit over time and will continue to change. Over the time that the Amazon has been what we know as the Amazon, it has not been a static entity. It changes. Human activities have made the Amazon what it is, just as other human activities are destroying it. In other words: the goal is not to cordon off the entire Amazon and keep people out of it. And we should also consider that proper management by humans can actually enhance this ecosystem.

There are also some people who would see the rocks in the pictures above and then start looking around the Amazon for evidence of oil. I've heard that in some parts of the Amazon, oil companies have been quite destructive. Fortunately, for whatever it's worth, I did not personally observe this happening in the area I visited.

The next relevant picture is this one:

25 years ago or so, this area was slashed and burned and planted in rice. Daniel wants to leave it alone and allow it to become tall forest, and unless the law changes, that's against the law.

Daniel is planning to pick a fight with the Bolivian government at some unspecified time in the future, unless the laws change. He does not want to burn this forest. He wants to let it grow to be tall forest, and he wants to leave it that way.

So why would the government be against NOT burning the forest (or, more specifically, not USING the forest)? To find the answer, you have to look back in Bolivian history to the time of the haciendas. Landowners would own enormous swaths of land and only use a tiny fraction of it, and at the same time, the landless people of Bolivia would be going hungry. Owning forest and doing nothing with it is seen as elitist.

After the 1952 revolution, Bolivia's government did a major land reform. From that point, and until 1995, it was illegal to own land and do nothing with it. Then, in 1995, the law changed again. At that point, it was legal for people to have "private communal forest" (as Daniel put it). And since then, that law has been eroded and things are trending the other way. (Note: I'm relying on Daniel's explanation here and need to look up the actual letter of the law to confirm this.)

Let's move on to the next picture. The picture below is of a post installed by the National Land Reform Institute. It represents that all of the landholders of the adjoining properties agree that this post marks a boundary. Daniel joked that they painted the sign in yellow because it's worth more than gold.

Daniel, standing next to a post that marks his property line.

What do these pictures have to do with rainforest destruction? Take a look at this:

Daniel's neighbor's property, two properties over. This guy is a speculator from Europe who burnt his forest to a crisp for no good reason.

and this:

Daniel's next door neighbor, who maintains a pasture here (presumably for cattle). When the next property over went up in flames, the pasture caught on fire by accident.

and this:

Daniel's property. This was forest, and Daniel intends to keep it as forest. It caught on fire after the pasture next door caught on fire.

When I took these pictures, we were visiting a second property that belongs to Daniel and his wife Sheila, one that I will explain below. About 10 days before our visit - BEFORE the first rains of the season (which is NOT when you are supposed to burn if you are doing slash and burn) - the National Land Reform Institute showed up in this area for the first time in a long while. Daniel's neighbor two properties over - a speculator from Europe - was eager to justify his right to his property. So first he had the National Land Reform Institute put in some markers to show where his property was, then he lit a match to his forest (to "prove" he's using it), and then he walked away.

The forest was extremely dry since it hadn't rained, and the fire spread to Daniel's next door neighbor's pasture. Then it spread to Daniel's property. Daniel and Sheila spent hours putting the fire out, and in the end, the only lost 5 hectares (about 12 acres) to the fire. The fire also spread into the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, a 400,000-hectare protected area that abuts Daniel and Sheila's property. Fortunately, after the fire spread into Pilon Lajas, it rained, and the fire went out.

So there's slash and burn agriculture, which can be practiced in an ecological way, but then there are idiots who torch their property just to justify their ownership of it. And sometimes those idiots also lose control of their fires and the fire spreads to other properties, as happened in this case.

I saw property after property burned along the road we drove out of Rurrenabaque on that day. Daniel said people get touchy when the "authorities" are around (there was road construction going on). In many cases, it looked as if the areas burned were in the early stages of succession, hinting that they had not been left fallow long enough to properly carry out slash and burn agriculture. We also passed what appeared to be a logging operation, with a yard strewn with absolutely enormous tree trunks. And we were passed by several logging trucks, including the one in the picture at the top.

In addition to speculators and accidents, there's development and - perhaps the biggest cause of deforestation - cattle ranching. In the last post, I showed you Daniel's cattle ranch. His ranch is an attempt to find an eco-friendly way to do cattle ranching in the Amazon, but it began as an experiment to show that agroforestry could be just as profitable as cattle ranching. But here's how cattle ranching is usually practiced in the Amazon:

A large pasture without trees

The picture above is of a six-year-old pasture. It's a large area without trees, and it is probably maintained by burning it annually to remove any weeds. The cows are not grazed rotationally, as they are on Daniel's ranch. Daniel said that most of the 15% of the Amazon that has been deforested looks like this pasture here - or worse. "Up in Pando," he said, referring to the Amazonian department in Bolivia that is just north of La Paz, "you have to leave Brazil nut trees, which don't survive in the open, so you end up with Brazil nut corpses dotting the pastures." Daniel calls these large tree-less pastures "low carbon cattle ranching" (i.e. there is not a lot of carbon sequestered in the ecosystem).

As I said above, Daniel and Sheila began their agroforestry farm as an experiment to show that it could be just as profitable as cattle. Over the first two years, the system cost $1000/hectare to put in, the same as the cattle. Every year he spends $100/hectare on maintenance. And over 10 years, he's gotten maybe $100 (per hectare, I assume) out of it. Compare that to $200 per hectare per year in revenues that he gets from his cattle ranch.

Daniel said he has hopes for the profitability of the lumber species growing in his agroforestry system, but if all you want is lumber, why bother maintaining the forest as he does? You could just let the lumber trees grow in the forest and then cut them down when they get large enough, without spending what he has spent in maintenance.

Out of 27 fruit species, only a few have produced fruit. There's no market for fresh palm heart, and the canneries pay so little that Daniel and Sheila just eat the palm heart themselves. They can sell pineapples. Their varieties of cacao have amazing flavor but very low productivity. I believe they've had some luck with their bananas. Daniel noted they get one peach palm harvest per year. The cupuaçu tree was saw was not really producing after 10 years.

Part of the issue may be that they are using all - or nearly all - native varieties of native Amazonian fruits. They planted cacao from seed instead of grafting in more productive varieties from elsewhere, for example. So could this work if they were using other species, or other varieties of the same species? Maybe.

Much of the problem comes down to economics. Fruits and many vegetables rot. If you harvest a bunch of mangoes and take them to market, you've got a limited window of time to sell them before they are worth nothing. So you drop the price in order to get SOMETHING for them instead of nothing. That's one reason why people around here like to produce rice: it stores well.

If you've got a cow, you can keep it alive until you're ready to sell it. If the prices aren't good, then don't kill your cow. But, meat has an elastic market. If the price drops, people buy more meat. That tends to keep the price of beef up. So for a poor farmer, cattle ranching provides more economic certainty than their other alternatives. And I get the impression that most of the cattle ranching in the Amazon is done by relatively small landholders, not millionaires with enormous herds of cattle.

Then there are a few more potential (or actual) threats to the Amazon. The Bolivian government has built several dams already, and they've suggested one on the Beni River, right where we visited. These dams, when built, flood large portions of the rainforest, thus killing it. A biologist in La Paz told us they've already built three such dams elsewhere in the Bolivian Amazon (in Pando, I believe), and Daniel told us about the one proposed for the Beni River. Daniel doesn't think the dam will actually be built - at least not now.

A more pressing threat to the area of Amazon we visited is a new sugar refinery. Daniel griped that - as with the dam - this was initially the proposal of a right-wing government and now it's being carried out by the current left-wing government. Because this isn't a very good area for sugarcane, the economics of sugar production on a large scale here don't really work.

That is, in other parts of the world, it takes 3 liters of cane juice to make 1 liter of molasses. Here, we were told, it takes 6 to 10 liters of cane juice to make 1 liter of molasses. So farmers would have to produce 2-3 (or more) times as much sugarcane (and cut it and process it) just to get the same amount of sugar (and, presumably) revenues as sugar producers elsewhere who they would compete with on the world market. And a sugar refinery would require a large area of rainforest to be converted to sugar production. Yet the government is seemingly going through with it.

And, here's one last issue in the Bolivian lowlands that should be considered:

A cholita in the Amazon!

The Bolivian government has been actively resettling highlanders in the lowlands. Normally you would not see cholitas in the lowlands, but this woman has apparently moved here from the highlands. According to Daniel, the indigenous lowlanders generally do not thing this is a good idea, and the indigenous highlanders do not understand why the indigenous lowlanders aren't for it. From Daniel's point of view, Bolivia has decades of proof that any time you resettle highlanders to the lowlands, they practice monoculture. This is a complex issue but I wanted to at least mention it.

The next installment of my Bolivia diaries will cover a strange but perhaps wonderful project of Daniel's and Sheila's to preserve the rainforest.

UPDATE: Here is an excellent excerpt from the book Whispering in the Giant's Ear about how one bishop, Bishop Ramon, provides families with church land in the Amazon. Despite his good intentions, his land giveaways result in deforestation and an expansion of cattle ranching.

But it's hard to slash-and-burn your way to salvation. Bishop Ramon falls prey to the myth that if land grows trees, it must also grow crops. Quite to the contrary, the World Bank says that less than ten percent of existing rainforests grow in soils good for agriculture. Huge areas of tropical soils are composed of nitrogen-poor silica - the fossil sands of ancient oceans. In other rainforests silica dissolves out of the underlying rocks, and alumina, iron oxide, and magnesia accumulate, yielding the typical tropical "laterite" soils infused with the bright reds and yellows, and, while containing adequate nitrogen, they don't have much calcium, phosphorus, or potassium. Rainforest plants draw their nutrients not from these pitiful soils, but rather from themselves - by penetrating directly into rotting loggs. When the forest is cleared by peasants, torrential rains quickly leach away what nutrients there are, often creating gullied badlands. The bishop might as well christen the new towns Hell on Earth.

What's more, the settlers often fall prey to malaria and other tropical diseases for which their high-altitude constitutions are ill-equipped. But with nowhere to return to and their poverty often worse, they are forced to fell deeper into the Amazon as their soil erodes, thereby inadvertently acting as the shock troops clearing the jungles for cattle ranchers. More ironic still, some of the peasants the bishop so yearns to help are only pretending to be landless. They are traficantes de tierra, or land traffickers, who already have small holdings. In front of the Bishop Ramon they bow their heads and mouth the Lord's Prayer and then deforest the jungle. Once felled, it's theirs, and they hawk the land off to cattle ranchers and others.
- Whispering in the Giant's Ear by William Powers, p. 166.

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It's interesting what you say about the highlanders (4.00 / 3)
planting monocrops when they come into the lowlands. Is that because they use that practice in the highlands?

Often when a person moves to a new area, they'll try to continue using the farming techniques they are most familiar with.

From reading your diaries about Bolivia so far, it looks like farming practices need to be significantly different in that environment than up in the highlands, to get the best and most sustainable yields out of the area.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

Absolutely (4.00 / 1)
the environments are just night and day. The highlanders come from a place where nearly nothing can survive, whereas the lowlands are bursting with life. And it gets even messier than what I mentioned. From what we were told, all of this is being done according to a campaign promise and a schedule, but it gets left to the last minute and then around October every year, AFTER the rains start, the government picks up some highlanders and moves them -- too late for them to really plant in the lowlands for that year. So the government promises them several months of food. This year, we were told, the food wasn't arriving, and some of the highlanders were leaving and going back home.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
formerly under water (4.00 / 1)
Quoted from Annals of the Former World, a 696-page book by John McPhee.

Page 124:

The Himalaya is the crowning achievement of the Indo-Australian Plate. India, in the Oligocene, crashed head on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed in under the newly created Tibetan Plateau and drove the Himalayas five and a half miles into the sky...When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had formed into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mr. Everest is marine limestone.

Page 562:

While India was closing with Tibet, it buckled the intervening shelf, raising from the sea a slab of rock a mile thick, a part of which is now the top of Mt Everest. From the depths of lithification to the rock's present loft, it has been driven upward at least fifty thousand feet.

NOT Mr. Everest. (4.00 / 1)
I know you know that.

[ Parent ]
resettlement (4.00 / 2)
What is the rationale for resettlement?

well, the majority of the population lives in the (4.00 / 2)
highlands, and they tend to have very small parcels of land, which are then subdivided with each generation, and it's a problem. The lowlanders tend to have TONS of land. Huge amounts of land. And there's land to spare. This is in part because up to a certain point, it was very hard for anyone to move into the lowlands without getting a tropical disease, and now there's medication to deal with that, I think. So at it's core, it's a basic question of land. The highlanders think it's no fair that they got stuck with teeny parcels in the 1953 land reform and that the lowlanders got TONS of land at the same time. I'm sure I'm oversimplifying but that's basically what I heard.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
land redistribution (4.00 / 1)
I infer from that that resettlement must be accompanied by land redistribution. Is that true? If it is true, we can easily see why it would provoke opposition from the lowlanders.

[ Parent ]
I'm really not sure about that nt (4.00 / 2)

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
use laws (4.00 / 2)
So it's illegal to not use the land, but it's not illegal to abuse the land and destroy the property of neighbors? Does not make sense.

"Paved with good intentions"... (4.00 / 1)
Strikes me as this was probably a good idea at one time, long before foreign land speculators came on the scene.  A quaint relic from a more innocent age that needs to be updated.

We sort of see the same thing here in the US, only in reverse - current property tax laws (taxing buildings more heavily over land) encourage many land owners, specifically in currently downtrodden inner city urban areas, to not use their parcels, and let them sit vacant while buildings rot away, waiting for a higher selling price to flip their land to developers sometime in a near or distant future.

[ Parent ]
Tax laws vary (4.00 / 1)
from city to city, of course, but what you wrote is not true in Baltimore.

An interesting instance, which is close to your scenario except for the taxes part and the rotting building part, concerns a property scheduled to be auctioned next week. After McCormick Spice consolidated operations north of town in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the downtown property passed through a series of private owners. The building was razed long ago and the property has been a parking lot for many years. Most recently, the property has been owned by a developer corporation from Philadelphia, which has defaulted on the mortgage. The city says it doesn't have the money to bid, so the property will pass to yet another private owner.

This is the exception to the rule here.

[ Parent ]
How buildings are taxed has a lot to do with (4.00 / 2)
what kind of building it is, what it's used for, etc.

For instance, I think, in Portland at least, commercial buildings may be taxed at a higher rate than residential. Of course Portland has a rate cap that skews things.

Of interest as far as the rate cap goes, even though property values have gone down, every year the actuall tax bill always goes up at least 3%. Many people wonder why, if their property value has gone down, has their property tax bill gone up? That's because the propetry is rarely if ever taxed at the real market value. For instance, the property Pete and I inherited in Portland is taxed at a value roughly half of the estimated real market value.

As it is, the taxes on that property are around $5,000/year. I think last time I figured them, I figured we'd have to get $417/month just to cover the property taxes. If the property were to be taxed at it's real market value, we'd have to get over $800/month just to pay the property taxes. If that were the case, it would make much more sense to either sell the whole property or to eliminate the garden, cut down the fig tree, rip out the grape vines, and build a house on the lot that those occupy now, then sell both houses.

A few years ago, dad had the two lots consolidated into one, so I don't know if building a house on the other lot is even still an option, which might make selling the property more difficult depending on how the county reasesses the property. I'm sure the taxes will go up even more than the 3% because it's now changed hands. I'm fearful of what the bill's going to be.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
The point is in valuation... (4.00 / 1)
At the same tax rate for the same type of building, you're obviously going to pay much more overall for a more valuable brand new commercial building filled with tenants than you are for an abandoned building with no windows.  In too many places, that's where the incentive lies for out of town owners to avoid fixing up properties and making better neighborhoods.

[ Parent ]
Further clarification... (4.00 / 1)
The risk is in being the first to fix up your part of any given neighborhood.  What if you build the new building and nobody comes because the neighboring properties are still blighted and the city still ignores your neighborhood?  You'll be paying more in taxes, but tenant-less buildings don't bring in income.

[ Parent ]
Absentee owners... (4.00 / 1)
So to take this even further, my ultimate point is that if someone owns 500 properties around the country and 300 of them are bringing in $$$, they can afford to let the other 200 sit* and contribute absolutely nothing to (in fact, detract from), let's say, Newark, while those losses are being subsidized by 'successful' properties in Orlando.

Coming back around to Bolivia, it's an argument against absentee private property ownership.

*While betting they'll one day increase in value through someone else's initiative, rather than being forced to take it on their own

[ Parent ]
And not to detract... (4.00 / 1)
...from the original point (heh), which was count's question as to why someone from a different continent is apparently allowed to sit on Bolivian property indefinitely, as long as they come around and carelessly light a match to the rainforest once in a while.

Eyes on the prize, and all that...


[ Parent ]
uh... yeah (4.00 / 2)
stupid, huh? I mean, the IDEA of the law was to ensure that people who had land were using it for slash and burn (which can be a good thing). But that's not how the law ends up working. And really - consider if you were some poor starving Bolivian. What would you think about Daniel the Gringo (even though he grew up in Bolivia) and his pet plot of tall forest, while you were going hungry?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
There's also a max to how much (4.00 / 2)
land one can own, but it's a huge amount. And that might have to do with the variances among the different parts of the country, because what would be an insanely huge amount of land in one part of Bolivia can be normal somewhere else.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Seems like... (4.00 / 2)
...there's an easy fix to that specific problem at least, then?  Like, "you can own 100 points of property.  A hectare in Region A = 4 points, a hectare in Region B = 2 points, a hectare in Region C = 7 points", etc etc...

Wondering why it hasn't happened?

[ Parent ]
no idea (4.00 / 2)
but people might say that's unfair, right? Why can someone in Santa Cruz own more than I can here in La Paz?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Yeah... (4.00 / 2)
Those types are everywhere, I suppose?

But of course, the types who'd make that complaint are the very same people who don't need the land in the first place.  If even the current government won't say no to these people, who will?  We sure know it won't be the right when they eventually take over again.



[ Parent ]
well Evo's got a lot of opposition (4.00 / 2)
particularly in Santa Cruz, which is currently attempting to operate under the illusion that it's now an autonomous region, or something. And he just passed a law banning racial discrimination which has the entire country going crazy. So I think - to the extent that he's a good guy and trying to do the right thing - it's a matter of going as fast as the country will let him without dissolving into revolution and civil war.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
creativity (4.00 / 2)
That strikes me as an ingenious solution that might apply in other spheres. Did you come up with that just now, spurred by this discussion, or do you know of such an allocation scheme being used elsewhere, or do you know if it has been proposed elsewhere?

Interesting concept, to which I've just now been exposed. I wonder where it might be feasibly implemented. I said allocation, another term would be rationing.

[ Parent ]
Just thought of it... (4.00 / 1)
Just thought of it right after reading Jill's comment.  Although I wouldn't be surprised if such a system does exist somewhere at the moment.  Would be interesting to see if one does, and how it works...

[ Parent ]
Santa Cruz Department (4.00 / 2)
Santa Cruz Department

Eastern provinces in Bolivia including the Santa Cruz has majority of the natural gas reserves. Bolivian president Evo Morales is planning to introduce legislation to tackle the poverty in the country by redistrubuting the wealth of the nation.

In May 2008, the government of Santa Cruz began conducting a referendum for autonomy from the national government over, among other things, strains between the local government and President Evo Morales.Morales's attempts to change the constitution have been fiercely opposed by opposition governors who run five of Bolivia's nine regions. Final results from the referendum showed that 85.6% of participating voters supported autonomy.

Santa Cruz autonomy referendum, 2008

A United Nations mission to Bolivia from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues later declared that the Santa Cruz autonomy statute "promotes, allows, strengthens and reproduces practices of servitude", referring to conditions of debt-servitude and conditions analogous to slavery that are suffered by some indigenous groups in Santa Cruz. Bartolomé Clavero, a Spanish law professor from the Permanent Forum later stated that: "Anyone who has voted for this statute supports servitude."

Shades of ETA. Support for servitude is not an element of Basque nationalism, but the two movements are similar to the extent that Bolivia would be much poorer than it is without Santa Cruz, just as Spain would be an impoverished third world country without the Basque provinces. The constitutional arguments are similar.

I could see that resettlement might be a response to this. Quecha already is the second most frequently spoken language in the department, because of resettlement/migration. Also, a resettlement policy was one of Franco's attempts to deal with Basque nationalism.

Would that kind of be like (4.00 / 2)
the Roman policy of considering all coquered populations being slaves, but the offspring of those people being considered citizens of Rome?

I was always told that the advantage of a system like that was that it's alot more difficult to foment rebellion if you're a part of the state you're rebelling under than it is if you don't consider yourself a part of that state in the first place.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
Roman policy (4.00 / 1)
The Roman Empire occupied a huge chunk of time and space and policy varied accordingly. It also varied according to how crazy a particular emperor was at the time. The empire at times treated conquered neighbors to the east pretty harshly, but I'm not sure Egyptians ever were treated as slaves, for example.

Grants of citizenship were very expensive to the treasury because citizens were, for many centuries, entitled to free or very cheap grain, which was a way to keep down rebelliousness. Conversely, grants of citizenship were sometimes used to try to achieve peace, as you say.

I'm not sure what lessons Morales could take from Rome. Rome was often pretty generous with autonomy, but this was almost a necessity because the empire was so spread out. This is not the Bolivian case. Also, a condition of "autonomy" under Rome was that the taxes be paid faithfully to the central government, which probably is exactly what Santa Cruz does not want.

[ Parent ]
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