Industrial agriculture threatens a wetland oasis in Bolivia

Gustavo Jimenez, Morgan Erickson-Davis, Mongabay:

  • An oasis within dry Chiquitano forest in eastern Bolivia, Concepción Lake and its surrounding wetland provide valuable habitat for 253 bird, 48 mammal and 54 fish species.
  • However, despite being officially listed as a protected area, cultivation of commodity crops like soy and sorghum is expanding and supplanting habitat.
  • Agricultural activity is also linked to phosphate pollution in Concepción Lake, and some think it may also be contributing to the lake’s dramatic drop in water level.
  • While the clearing is illegal, local government sources say those responsible are simply paying fines and refusing to stop.

It was August 26, 2020. Dirlene Mejía, a park ranger who works in the area around Concepción Lake, a protected area located in eastern Bolivia, had just left for her usual route. When she approached the lakeshore, she noticed an unusual number of dead fish. Surprised by what she had found, she began to walk around the lake. With each step, she found more dead animals.

Mejía immediately shared her discovery with her superiors, who then advised the mayor’s office in the Pailón municipality. In an interview with Mongabay Latam, the municipal office confirmed that the dead fish covered about 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) of beach around the southern part of the lake.

However, what seemed to be a shocking discovery was not surprising for Erwin Menacho, a 66-year-old resident of El Cerrito, a community about 10 kilometers (about six miles) from the protected area. Menacho said he previously witnessed a similar event in 2001.

“There were many lifeless fish … scattered throughout the entire lake. It was like an animal cemetery; it was very sad to see so much death,” said Menacho, recalling the incident from almost 20 years ago.

When Menacho learned of Mejía’s discovery, he rushed to join an inspection of the protected area organized by the Pailón municipality. There, the team noted several large areas had been denuded of native vegetation.

“Before, there was no deforestation; now, it’s all cleared. I believe that this is one of the reasons why the lake has emptied so much,’ Menacho said.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show a spike in deforestation of the Laguna Concepción protected area between October 26 and December 21, registering more than 9,000 deforestation alerts.  This deforestation was significantly higher than in years past, according to the dataset.

Local authorities say those responsible for the deforestation are settlers that subscribe to a sect of Christianity, collectively called Mennonites, who are cultivating large fields of soy and other commodity crops – and are knowingly doing so illegally.

Agroindustrial takeover

In May 2002, Concepción Lake was declared a Ramsar Site, which is a categorization awarded to certain wetlands for being important reserves of water and biodiversity. In July 2002, the mayor’s office in the Pailón municipality also decided to create the Concepción Lake Municipal Protected Area.

At the time, activities related to livestock already existed around the body of water, but only on private property. The mayor’s office in the Pailón municipality has identified a total of 13 properties around the lake. “It has been verified that livestock activity and the free transit of these animals around the southern part of the lake have caused soil compaction,” said Nadir Arias, head of the Pailón municipality environmental unit. Arias is particularly concerned by two Mennonite communities —California and El Cerrito— that are operating within the protected area within five kilometers (about three miles) from the lake.

In the late 1990s, the municipality was largely covered in forest. There were many timber-producing tree species —including the cuchi (Myracrodruon urundeuva), the curupaú (Anadenanthera colubrina), the morado (Libidibia ferrea), the verdolago (Terminalia amazonica), the jichituriqui rojo (Aspidosperma cylindrocarpon), and the soto (Schinopsis haenkeana)— in the area of influence around Concepción Lake.

Much of this diversity of flora, however, was lost as agricultural activities intensified in the area. While local communities farm subsistence crops, most of cleared land around Concepción Lake is farmed for commodities including soy, sorghum, sunflowers and corn. According to the Concepción Lake Management Plan, four properties are responsible for the majority of agricultural activity around the lake.

By 2009, the mayor’s office in the Pailón municipality had identified 20 Mennonite communities within its municipal territory. However, the agricultural capacity of the land in the area began to attract an increasing number of settlers.

“In the last 10 years, more Mennonites have been coming here; before, there were not so many. Every time, they occupy more land in areas that had been vacant,” said Máximo Montaño, a council member in San José. In some cases, according to Montaño, Mennonite communities have obtained land inside the protected area from people who already had property titles.

The Laguna Concepción protected area comprises some 130,000 hectares (321,237 acres). In 1986, agricultural activities were taking place on 570 hectares (1,409 acres) of its land, according to the Observatory for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest, with support from the Eccos Project. By 2010, that number reached 14,714 hectares (about 36,359 acres), and by 2019, 34,094 hectares (about 84,248 acres). Researchers estimate that at this rate, 74,841 hectares (about 184,936 acres) – more than half – of the protected area will be lost to agriculture by 2050.

Authorities say that while some of the agricultural plots were authorized, more recent expansion has taken place without approval. Flouting environmental regulations does not seem to be much of a concern to the communities, according to Arias.

“They deforest, and it is concerning that when we attempt to audit them and ask them who authorized those clearings, they respond that they already paid their fine, and with that, they consider the issue to be closed already,” Arias said.

Arias added that when the municipality contacted the government —which is in charge of administering the protected area— to ask what actions or controls were taken in regard to the agricultural activity in these Mennonite communities, the government referred them to the Bolivian Forest and Land Authority (ABT).

Arias said the municipality has its hands tied when it comes to applying sanctions to those responsible for the loss of forest, and that the institutions responsible for regulating the activities in the area do not act.

“Unfortunately, we are limited to controlling what happens to only one kilometer around the body of water,” Arias said. “The appropriate institutions should at least demand reforestation, but nothing is happening.”

Mongabay Latam contacted ABT to ask how many deforestation permits they authorized in the Concepción Lake protected area and its area of influence, but did not receive a response by the time of this article’s publication in Spanish.

In May 2015, with the enactment of the Law for the Conservation of the Natural Heritage of the Department of Santa Cruz, the protected area became categorized by the government as a Departmental Wildlife Refuge with an area of 135,566 hectares (334,991 acres).

Since then, the government of Santa Cruz is required to coordinate with the municipalities of Pailón and San José to conduct activities for the “conservation of the Natural Departmental Heritage,” as the law states. However, each year, the amount of forested area around Concepción Lake decreases.

Mongabay Latam contacted the government of Santa Cruz about the regulation of agricultural activities in the Concepción Lake protected area. At the time of this article’s publication in Spanish, they had not yet responded.

Every year, thousands of migratory birds travel to Concepción Lake from North America and Patagonia. According to the Concepción Lake Management Plan of 2011, 253 bird species inhabit the area around the lake. These species include the Picui ground dove (Columbina picui), the Maguari stork (Ciconia maguari), the little nightjar (Caprimulgus parvulus), the greater rhea (Rhea americana), and the red-crested cardinal (Paroacaria coronata), among many others. The area’s 48 resident species of mammals include the Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri), the crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous), the black-striped capuchin (Cebus libidinosus), and the jaguar (Panthera onca). The lake itself is home to 54 species of fish.

“The wild animals do not let you see them; when they detect the presence of humans, they hide… last year, we had fires that affected our poor animals. Hopefully the lake does not dry up — what would happen to them?” Menacho said.

In addition to clearing for agriculture, the region was also affected by Bolivia’s heavy fire season of 2019. However, many animals were able to find sanctuary at the lake.

“What happened last year was catastrophic for the flora and fauna,” said Nadir Fernández. “It was not just that trees burned. The park rangers of Concepción Lake reported that a large number of animals went towards the body of water and its surroundings not only for water, but also apparently because it was like their refuge.”

Disappearing lake, polluted water

When full, Concepción Lake covers some 6,000 hectares (about 14,826 acres). While its amount of water varies season-to-season, a recent significant drop in its water level has concerned area residents.

“The current water levels in Concepción Lake are tremendously low, which has not been seen in 18 years, due to the drought and climate change,” Añez said.

However, some wonder if the recent drop might also be caused by diversion of water from the rivers that feed it to agricultural fields, as was the case in 2003 when the lake experienced a similar drop.

“In the Parapetí River area, a diversion was made for a 2,000-hectare property that produced rice,” Arias said. “We are going to do an inspection to see if anyone has done anything similar this year, because the water level is very low.”

The Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest (FCBC), warns that if this wetland disappears, it will affect the migratory birds that use the lake as a resting spot. The lake is also the main source of water for wildlife, especially during periods of drought.

Agricultural activities also appear to be affecting the quality of the water that remains. According to the Concepción Lake Management Plan, the crop fields are leading to erosion of soil into the water, compaction of soil and the runoff of pesticides, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals into the rivers and streams that feed the lake.

Ultimately, it was this last point that likely caused to the mass fish mortality event in August. The government of Santa Cruz concluded that a high level of sodium phosphate in the water likely led to the deaths of the fish.

While not directly toxic to fish, high concentrations of phosphate encourage large blooms of algae, which block light from getting to oxygen-producing plants deeper in the lake. And without enough oxygen, fish will die. According to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, lakes should have no more than 0.05 milligrams of phosphate per liter of water. However, Concepción Lake had 1 milligram of sodium phosphate per liter of water – 20 times the acceptable level – according to Juan Carlos Añez, the director of Protected Areas in the Autonomous Departmental Government of Santa Cruz.

Añez explained that this phosphate came from fertilizer that washed off nearby crop fields. However, because it has been accumulating in the lake for years, Añez said that “it cannot be determined who is guilty.” He added that as water drops in the lake, the phosphate concentration is climbing.

Añez said the government is planning to conduct hydrological studies to analyze the water’s behavior and to construct dams to control the water that flows off the Mennonite colonies’ fields towards Concepción Lake.

Oswaldo Maillard, a biologist from the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest (FCBC), considers this an important initiative. But he said it is additionally necessary to monitor the area continuously to detect any irregular situations. “This will help us to make decisions in time and not be reactive,” he said.

This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first published by Mongabay Latam on December 03, 2020.

Banner image from Planet Labs Inc.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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