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Bolivia’s Amazon is burning

Once a sink for greenhouse gases, the rainforest, converted to farmland by slash-and-burn agriculture, is fast becoming a source of them.

A portion of forest burns on the land rented by Mennonites near Concepción in eastern Bolivia. Fires account for a third of forest loss per year in the country. Burns for agricultural purposes are legal. Big landowners seeking to clear land for other uses besides agriculture are not deterred by fines of $200 per thousand acres burned.Matjaž Krivic

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.

Deforested land used for soy cultivation abuts forest in San Ignacio de Velasco. In parts of Bolivia, deforestation is transforming forests into savannas, reducing access to water and, with extended periods of drought, accelerating the warming effects of climate change. Since 1939, the average air temperature in Bolivia has increased by more than a degree Celsius. In regions with the highest deforestation rate, the average air temperature has increased by 2-3 degrees Celsius.Matjaž Krivic

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 vaquero, or cowboy, takes his cows home to his ranch near Concepción. More cattle means more fires, less forest and water, land degradation, reduced biodiversity, and accelerated climate change. Matjaž Krivic

“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.”

The scars of deforestation near San Jose de Chiquitos. In recent years, machine clearing of forests has drastically increased, supported by legislation facilitating heavily subsidized fuel, funds for agricultural technology, and corruption among local politicians and state officials. Matjaž Krivic

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.

A grain silo building site in San Ignacio de Velasco. In the last two decades, the rate of primary forest loss in Bolivia has roughly doubled. Matjaž Krivic

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.

Hundreds of cattle on a ranch near Concepción. Matjaž Krivic

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.

Abraham Giesbrecht Braun's children pose on the family's carriage in Steinbach Colony. Matjaž Krivic

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.”

View of deforested land in eastern Bolivia. After Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bolivia has the third-highest deforestation rate of primary tropical forests. The country ranks 12th worldwide in biodiversity, but it is rapidly losing its animal and plant species.Matjaž Krivic

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.