Bolivia’s indigenous communities are taking action to protect their forests and prevent forest fires through sustainable forest management. This allows them to benefit from natural resources while protecting their areas from deforestation caused by agribusiness and factory farming.
Deforestation and wildfires are increasing worldwide, exacerbating the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and local livelihoods.
In 2019, Bolivia experienced one of the largest environmental disasters caused by human activities; The Chiquitania ecosystem caught fire, particularly affecting protected areas and indigenous communities. This disaster was mainly due to the development of extensive agriculture and livestock breeding.
Endangering forest protection and forest fire prevention
A study by the Office of Supervision and Social Control of Forests and Soils (ABT) shows that illegal logging in the country has accounted for more than 50% of total deforestation in the last five years, becoming the biggest threat to the spread of fire (ABT, 2019).
In addition, Chiquitania, considered unsuitable for large-scale agriculture due to its ecological importance, high climate sensitivity and low land usability, suffered from the expansion of its agricultural frontiers, mainly for monocultures and livestock farming. This process accelerates forest damage through deforestation and the associated risk of forest fires.
Preventing and minimizing the impacts of wildfires requires strategic actions by local forest managers as well as governments that promote alternative productive solutions that offer greater local opportunities, such as social forest management, agroecology and ecotourism.
Contrary to popular belief, responsible forest management also includes a commitment to protecting forests. Logging benefits indigenous communities by encouraging them to maintain the ecological balance in the intervention areas so that they can continue to use them in the coming years. As forest protectors and primary users, indigenous peoples have a strong interest in forest protection.
Community Forest Management Plan for Indigenous Communities
The Community Forest Management Plan is a technical and legal tool for sustainable forest management that has been used by indigenous organizations in Bolivia for decades. This plan involves cutting down trees to produce timber, leaving behind non-timber species or species that have no commercial importance.
Only trees of suitable diameter for use are felled from selected species of wood, respecting seedlings and young trees. Furthermore, only 80% of suitable trees are used and the remaining trees are maintained as nurseries to preserve the species and support its ecological functions. Additionally, community forestry organizations recognize the importance of watershed protection to maintain forest moisture and protect wildlife, which is a key factor in seed dispersal.
Anacleto Peña, general director of the Central Indigenous Community Center in Lomerío, pointed out that community forest management plans will strengthen territorial governance by establishing responsibilities for the control of illegal logging, heat sources and other activities that, above all, can affect the integrity of the forest Protecting their territory and combating the effects of climate change.
Public forest management, effective fire protection walls
Since 2019, forestry activities in the Chiquitana region have been severely affected. The two areas with the highest wood production, TCO Lomerío and the municipality of San Ignacio de Velasco, were affected by the fire: in the first case, more than 30% of the area was destroyed, in the second case, more than 20% of the area. More than 1 million hectares affected (2021, Licona et al.)
Nevertheless, the forest communities represented a positive scenario, as the forests of the forest social management plan are characterized by a low probability of forest fires. The risk of fire starting and spreading is lower because it has no influence on external factors such as agricultural land, densely populated areas and roads.
Licona, a member of the Bolivian Forestry Research Institute, noted that legal access of indigenous communities to forests has a direct impact on forest protection, as it promotes and guarantees legal certainty for effective forest management and protection.
Community forest management plan as a forest protection mechanism
Active forest management in Bolivia took place on the territory of the Guarayo indigenous population, where deforestation under the active management plan was insignificant: less than 0.5% of the total area. On the other hand, there is a tendency for land use change in areas without forest management planning or non-urbanized areas, accounting for more than 20% of the area (2021, Quiroga et al.). In this sense, Alfredo Moirenda, President of The Guarayos Indigenous Association, said that it respects the rules of forest use and ensures the natural regeneration of the forest.
Disputes and conflicts over land threaten the existence of many indigenous territories, especially in areas such as Guarayos and Chiquitanía, where the expansion of agricultural activities and the creation of new settlements requires the conversion of forests into agricultural land or pastures. However, effective territorial control through the application of what is established in the forest management plan will allow indigenous communities to stop putting pressure on their territories and demanding that the state respect the rules of its own decision.
According to the regulations, the forest management plan provides for a 20-year use cycle, so that the forests under forest management remain protected during this period without becoming agricultural or commercial land. Once the cycle is complete, the surface of the first phase is naturally restored for new uses, making it a sustainable process, meaning the forest surface is preserved forever.
Restoring the forestry sector in Bolivia can increase the benefits for local populations who benefit from forests at the community level by maintaining various ecological, economic and cultural functions, thereby promoting awareness of forests as a material asset of society. Therefore, it will be beneficial for government authorities that control access and use of Bolivia’s natural resources to consolidate forest management as a related productive activity. As well as compliance with land use types when assigning agricultural rights and clearing plans.
- Licona, J.C, Peña, M., Soriano, M., Baldiviezo, JP 2021. Impact of the 2019 fires on two forest types in Chiquitanía. IBIF, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
- ABT 2019. ABT Public Hearing – Management 2019: Report on the results achieved.
- Quiroga, E., Gómez, H. & Guevara. A. 2020. Active forest management as a tool to prevent deforestation in Guarayos Province (Santa Cruz, Bolivia). Bolivian Forestry Research Institute, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. 41 p.
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