Bolivia’s tropical forests are being destroyed at a rate surpassed only in neighboring Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Between 1976 and 2021, Bolivia lost 14 percent of its forests, or more than 21 million acres. That means that in less than half a century, Bolivia has lost a swath of lush forest nearly the size of Austria. In 2022 alone, Bolivia lost more than 952,000 acres of tropical primary forest — an expanse nearly the size of Rhode Island.
What is driving the deforestation? A turn away from Bolivia’s erstwhile economic mainstay — the export of oil and natural gas — and a renewed focus on agriculture that began in 2015 under then-president Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. Morales’s government issued a decree allowing the clearing of 20 hectares of forest on small plots without permits to increase food security in the country. It also passed laws that fostered the expansion of Bolivia’s agricultural frontier. One example: A 2019 law authorizing the cutting and controlled burning of forests on private property and community-owned land.
“A large part of Bolivian forests used to be owned by the state,” says Gonzalo Colque, executive director of Fundación Tierra, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on sustainable rural development and assistance to indigenous and small-scale farming populations in Bolivia. But huge swaths of forest, Colque says, “are now owned by private actors — entrepreneurs, farmers, and also people with links to the government who make a fortune by selling state-owned land.”
Indeed, corporations, which represent a mere 4 percent of rural land owners, own approximately 36 percent of all deforested plots. Some have secured their land by bribing politicians and state officials.
Speculation is rampant. Bolivian farmland is the cheapest in the region. While a hectare — roughly 2.5 acres — can cost up to $11,000 in Brazil, the same acreage rarely goes for more than $3,000 in Bolivia. Plots of state-owned forests bought for between $70 and $160 per hectare can be flipped after just a couple of years for up to $1,800 per hectare. Only Bolivia’s illicit drug trade is more lucrative.
As in Brazil, the driving force behind Bolivia’s deforestation is the expansion of cattle ranching and soy cultivation. Some 80 percent of Bolivian cattle are raised for domestic consumption; the rest are exported, mainly to China. By 2025, the government plans to double its cattle holdings from 11 million to 22 million animals and to triple the amount of cultivated land from 10 million to 32 million acres.
Bolivia’s forests are being burned and cleared not only by corporations but also by two groups of farmers. The first are the interculturales — settlers from Bolivia’s mountainous regions. The second are Mennonites, ultraconservative Christian communities of European descent that began settling in Bolivia in the 1950s, searching for religious freedom, isolation, and land. Today their population numbers around 150,000.
Fires, which often jump their borders, are compounding an ecological crisis of drought and soaring temperatures. “People don’t realize that the more trees they chop down, the more thermic shocks and diseases there will be,” says Oswaldo Maillard, from the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest. “The local communities are suffering from soil degradation, water and air contamination, and from the loss of biodiversity as well.”
The Amazon, heretofore a sink for greenhouse gases, is being deforested to the point where its denuded ground may soon contribute to climate change. Brazil has destroyed 18 percent of its rainforests. Unless Bolivia’s government pulls back from pushing cheap land for agriculture, Bolivia will follow suit.
Maja Prijatelj Videmšek is a journalist at Slovenia’s biggest daily newspaper, DELO. Matjaž Krivic is a documentary photographer from Slovenia.