Bolivia Blazes Trail ... to Where?

Conservation measures appear to have taken a back seat to commercial logging interests. DEBT-FOR-NATURE SWAP

IN the two years since the world's first debt-for-nature swap set up a buffer zone around an existing Amazon forest preserve in Bolivia, not a single tree has been planted under the required reforestation program. But thousands of mahogany trees have been hacked down by Bolivian lumber companies, and the newly created 3.7 million-acre territory has become the focus of a heated dispute between powerful logging interests and local Indian tribes.

According to indigenous Moxo Indians, whose complaints find substance in the government's ballooning logging figures for the buffer zone, the environmental objectives of the five-year debt swap agreement are in jeopardy.

The July 1987 agreement was supposed to balance Indian interests against Bolivia's need to harvest and export its valuable fine woods. But Indian leaders of the Moxo tribe say the lumber companies are taking over the forest and eradicating the mahogany trees.

``The lumber men want to do away with everything,'' said Jos'e Guasebe, vice president of the Moxo Indian Council. ``They don't want to leave a single tree.''

In the summer of 1987, the Bolivian government agreed to create a 2.7 million-acre buffer zone of controlled development around the 500,000-acre Beni Biosphere Reserve. The area is home to native Indians and 13 endangered animal species. In return, the Washington-based ecology group Conservation International (CI) retired $650,000 of Bolivia's $4.5 billion foreign debt by purchasing for $100,000 heavily discounted debt certificates.

The novel arrangement was greeted in the United States as a potentially significant step in addressing both Latin America's debt crisis and its ecology problems, and it was followed by debt-for-nature swaps in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

Press coverage of the Bolivian project focused on its environmental protection objectives, but the project also pursued development goals. CI, a private, non-profit organization established six months before the debt-swap agreement, set out to demonstrate in Bolivia ``that conservation can work in harmony with agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and other economic development projects,'' says the group's brochure.

Under the terms of the debt swap, CI was to assist the government in supervising timber cutting - though illegal logging was already prevalent - in the Chimanes Permanent Forest, the largest of the three areas that make up the buffer zone created by the debt deal.

The forest lies about 100 miles west of Trinidad, in the northeastern department of Beni. Bolivia has a forest area nearly equal in size to the state of Texas, and lumber earns more for the country's hard-pressed economy than any other legal agricultural export. (Cocaine is probably the Bolivia's largest agricultural export.)

Two months before the debt agreement was signed, the Bolivian government granted seven lumber companies permission to set up saw mills in the Chimanes forest. They went to work immediately, with no quotas to limit them. Government figures show that the loggers cut down about 2,500 mahogany trees in the Chimanes forest in 1987, or 14 percent of the total amount of lumber harvested in Bolivia that year.

In 1988 the number of trees felled in the forest nearly doubled, to 4,900. This year timber cutting is expected to increase again, but the government is now imposing a ceiling on the quantity.

As a condition for granting the timber concessions, the government required loggers to carry out reforestation in the Chimanes forest, but the companies have yet to plant a single sapling. Lumber companies have made and broken similar pledges in the past without penalty, and there has never been a successful reforestation program in Bolivia.

Roberto Velasco Cu'ellar, who owns the company with the largest timber concession in the Chimanes, says businessmen have been reluctant to reforest because it takes 80 to 100 years for a mahogany tree to grow to maturity. In that time, he said, wood may be replaced by other building materials in the United States, which is Bolivia's main market for lumber.

Bolivia's fine woods are rapidly disappearing into the bandsaws of the country's 175 lumber companies. Mahogany has been harvested to virtual extinction in the neighboring department of Santa Cruz, causing lumber companies to move north to Beni.

Mr. Velasco, president of the Beni Forestry Chamber of Commerce, says the Chimanes reforestation will begin ``this year.''

The project is being financed with $1.2 million from the International Tropical Timber Organization, a Japan-based organization of lumber buyers and sellers. The government, the lumber companies and CI have contributed seed money to get the reforestation going.

``In any case we are not damaging the biomass of the forest,'' said Velasco. ``At the most, we only take out one tree every acre.''

The companies claim the rights to all the mahogany trees inside their concession areas. This puts the loggers in conflict with the Indians, who use mahogany trees to construct homes and canoes as part of their semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The Indians are worried that the roads built by the loggers will attract settlers, who will burn down the forest and convert it into farmland. Velasco said ``it is the government's responsibility to stop that.''

An estimated 25,000 Indians live in and around the Chimanes forest. They were not consulted before the government opened up the forest to logging and then further legitimized logging operations with the debt-for-nature agreement.

Of the three Indian groups in the area, the Moxos have the longest history of contact with white society, and they are leading the resistance to the logging.

``It's not the lumber we're fighting for, but the territory,'' Moxo leader Mr. Guasebe said in an interview. ``The wood companies are going to have to give up some of the land conceded to them.''

Under Bolivia's 1953 Land Reform law, Indians are entitled to individual plots of land, but the Moxos are asking for 500,000 acres to be owned and managed collectively. They say this is the only way they can preserve and protect their part of the Chimanes forest as an integral ecosystem.

``We have learned to take care and maintain the ecology because we know that it guarantees our existence,'' Moxo leaders wrote in a letter to the minister of Indian affairs in October.

In December, a delegation of Moxos met with Bolivian President V'ictor Paz Estenssoro to push their demand for territory. The president expressed his sympathy for their cause and promised to take action before leaving office this August.

Additional support for the Indians has come from Beni civic groups and from the regional branch of the government forestry agency, but the lumber companies say they are determined to keep what the government has granted them.

CI has lined up with the lumber companies in opposing the Indians' demand for a single, integral territory. Instead, it has proposed that they be given separate areas forming an Indian ``archipelago'' within the Chimanes forest.

CI wants to integrate the Indians into wider society. ``The Indians should not be left alone and isolated,'' said Lu'is Goitia, who heads CI's forestry projects in Bolivia. Mr. Goitia acknowledged that CI did not meet with the Indians living in the Chimanes forest before carrying out the debt-for-nature swap. Guasebe said that since the swap, CI officials have come to see him but haven't followed up.

``They offered to help us, but they haven't done it yet,'' said Guasebe.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Bolivia Blazes Trail ... to Where?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today