Indigenous groups call for gov’t intervention as land grabbers invade Bolivian protected area

Iván Paredes Tamayo on 12 November 2021 | Translated by Sarah Engel, Mongabay:

  • Bajo Paraguá – San Ignacio de Velasco Municipal Protected Area was created on February 12, 2021, to protect 983,000 hectares (about 2,429,045 acres) of primary forest in the Chiquitania region of Bolivia.
  • But despite its new protected status, residents are reporting invasions and human settlements in Bajo Paraguá, claiming the colonizers were land traffickers.
  • On-site investigation and satellite data and imagery show ongoing deforestation.
  • Local leaders, including those of Indigenous groups that live in Bajo Paraguá, are calling for government intervention – while also alleging connections between land grabbers and government officials.

This article is part of a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay Latam and El Deber, a Bolivian news source.

On Feb. 15, three days after the creation of Bajo Paraguá – San Ignacio de Velasco Municipal Protected Area, the first hints of illegal activity began. Residents reported invasions and human settlements in the new protected area, claiming the colonizers were land traffickers.

“The people who want to get in here have never lived here. We were born here, raised here, and we are going to die here, and we have rights,” said a resident of Picaflor, one of the four Indigenous communities established in the protected area. The resident wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

The new Bajo Paraguá – San Ignacio de Velasco Municipal Protected Area, also known as the Bajo Paraguá Forest Reserve, is in José Miguel de Velasco province in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department. The protected area was created on February 12, 2021, to protect 983,000 hectares (about 2,429,045 acres) of mostly primary tropical forest in the Chiquitania region. The Chiquitania region’s ecosystem was hit hard by forest fires in 2019 and 2020. Approximately 8 million hectares (19,768,430 acres) were destroyed in the fires.

Claims of government complicity 

Local residents and authorities had hoped that official protected status would shield these forests from further deforestation. However, Moisés Salces, the former mayor of San Ignacio de Velasco, said that the government has not intervened in the situation despite complaints. He claimed that members of the government may even be connected to land grabbing in Baja Paraguá.

“These are people from the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), connected to the national government, who give partisan offerings by handing out land, as they have always done. They are land traffickers,” said Salces, who added that the settlers are not from the area.

The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) is led by the former President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and is the political party of the current administration. The current President of Bolivia, Luis Arce Catacora, is a member of MAS and was Minister of the Economy during Morales’ presidency.

Tito Arana is a representative of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest (FCBC) in the San Ignacio de Velasco municipality. Arana said the FCBC has linked settlers inside the protected area to rural unions tied to the MAS. He claims that this connection has allowed land grabbers to quickly obtain titles to land, unlike Indigenous communities that have been living in Bajo Paraguá for generations.

“They arrive with documentation in their hands to get directly to the land. This is the concerning part, since there have been Chiquitano communities here for 50 years that still cannot process their documentation,” Arana said.

Oswaldo Maillard, coordinator of the FCBC’s Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory said that there is “a permanent colonization movement” among people who “settle in forests, clear them, and later sell that land.”

According to an FCBC report published in early 2021, deforestation in Bajo Paraguá began accelerating in November 2020 and that 67 hectares (about 165 acres) within the protected area – together amounting to an area the size of 77 soccer fields – had been deforested by the beginning of 2021.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland and visualized on Global Forest Watch show deforestation has continued in 2021, with large areas burned in September and October near recently developed roads and previously cleared areas. According to residents, soybean fields and roads are proliferating in and around Bajo Paraguá.

Bajo Paraguá’s forest is transitional between Chiquitano dry forest and Amazon rainforest, and is also known as the Amazonian seasonal evergreen forest. At least 79 tree species are found in the protected area, and its forests are roamed by wildlife such as jaguars (Panthera onca) and bush dogs (Speothos venaticus).

The forest of Bajo Paraguá also supports four Indigenous communities that live within the protected area: Piso Firme, Florida, Porvenir, and Picaflor. Piso Firme, Florida, and Porvenir are members of the broader Chiquitano Indigenous group, while Picaflor connected to the Guarasugwe group. Earlier this year they issued a joint statement denouncing land trafficking in Bajo Paraguá and criticizing government inaction.

“We are victims of organized groups of land traffickers who promote the plundering of our municipal protected areas and our lands, the plundering of our natural resources, and the promotion of illegal human settlements and, therefore, the expansion of the agricultural frontier,” the statement reads. “[Land grabbers] threaten the rights to a home, work, culture, dignity, health, education, and the very existence of the Indigenous people, all of them outlined in the Political Constitution of the State.”

A gap in protection

Rosa Leny Cuéllar, coordinator of the Consortium of Connected Conserved Sustainable Ecoregions (ECCOS) and technical director of the FCBC, said that the ability of Bolivia’s central government to create protected areas was limited to the 22 that currently exist. Cuéllar said that because of this, municipalities have been establishing their own, such as Bajo Paraguá, in an effort to curtail environmental destruction.

“Bajo Paraguá was seen as a potential site for the conservation of water sources and of endangered species, but ultimately, the driving force for its protection is due to the fact that it is the only mechanism to avoid being taken over by people who come from other places,” Cuéllar said. She added that ECCOS is part of a consortium of six organizations — five Bolivian and one Brazilian — dedicated to conservation in the Chiquitania region.

“Everyone knows that there are illegal human settlements in Bajo Paraguá. The INRA was even asked to prohibit burning in the area, but so far there has not been a response to the processes that took place between civic and local authorities,” Cuéllar said.

The National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) is the agency in charge of regulating settlements in Bolivia and is overseen by the Ministry of Rural Development and Land. INRA director Eulogio Nuñez did not respond to requests for comment.

However, in public statements, Nuñez said that municipal protected areas should be managed by the municipalities that contain them. Which, in the case of Bajo Paraguá, would be San Ignacio de Velasco. “If it is a municipal area, it corresponds to the municipalities,” Nuñez said in a previous statement.

Senator María Muñoz Rodríguez is the former director of the “Bartolina Sisa” National Confederation of Campesino, Indigenous, and Native Women of Bolivia (CNMCIOB-BS) and is now part of Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

“We know that there are questions about land trafficking [and about] other people who form communities and later sell the land, but we have not [looked] into the trafficking. We will make a request to investigate those cases,” Muñoz said.

According to former mayor of San Ignacio de Velasco Moisés Salces, at least seven non-native communities have been established in Bajo Paraguá. Salces said no one is actually living in these communities, which suggests they were established as a guise for land trafficking.

San Ignacio de Velasco representatives say they are fighting to defend Bajo Paraguá. The civic leader of San Ignacio de Velasco, Dino Franco, said that he and other members of the municipality sent a message to the INRA to request that the agency enter the protected area to verify the presence of human settlements. Franco said that, so far, they have not received a response.

“We are attentive to what is happening, and we will not permit more settlements in our protected area. We do not want politics to damage our areas. Those who have political endorsements will enter another person’s house to destroy it,” Franco said.

A shelter allegedly constructed by the colonizers in Bajo Paraguá Municipal Protected Area. Image courtesy of the Mayor's Office of San Ignacio de Velasco.
A shelter allegedly constructed by the colonizers in Bajo Paraguá Municipal Protected Area. Image courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of San Ignacio de Velasco.

“I want to tell you that I assume the commitment, as mayor [of San Ignacio de Velasco], in the defense of the environment, and we are opposed to the plundering,” said Ruddy Dorado, who began his term as mayor of San Ignacio de Velasco earlier this year.

Dorado said that Nuñez, the INRA director, was scheduled to visit on June 6, but that this visit was suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Deputy María René Álvarez of the Creemos Alliance said that no authorities have responded to them “about the illegal entry of human settlements and the construction of roads that took place.” She added that the Creemos Alliance documented settlements in Bajo Paraguá and petitioned the INRA for support, but that “the problem has not been resolved nor responded to.”

Another road carved through forest in Bajo Paraguá. Image courtesy of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest (FCBC).
Another road carved through forest in Bajo Paraguá. Image courtesy of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest (FCBC).

Deputy Rolando Cuéllar, who represents the Santa Cruz department and is a member of the MAS party, requested that the INRA investigate claims of invasions of Bajo Paraguá. “If there are illegal damages, they must be punished,” Cuéllar said.

A small first step

“The INRA was asked to come to the area to verify the invasion of our territory. Up to this point, they have not arrived. We live from our land; my family cultivates açaí; it is our livelihood,” said Pedro Pereyra, the First Grand Captain of the Guarasugwe Nation, one of the Indigenous groups that inhabits Bajo Paraguá.

On June 9, the central government took a first step when a commission from the Social Control Authority (ABT) — an agency nested under the Ministry of the Environment and Water and which oversees the forest and agricultural sectors — was dispatched to the Bajo Paraguá protected area. The ABT verified the presence of settlements and confirmed that there has been no authorization for any deforestation in the area.

Deforestation in Bajo Paraguá. Image courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of San Ignacio de Velasco.
Deforestation in Bajo Paraguá. Image courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of San Ignacio de Velasco.

“Because no one has the corresponding authorization from the INRA nor from the ABT, at the moment of the inspection in the deforested area, the commission from the ABT issued a subpoena for those responsible for this incident,” said Jesús Fuentes, an official from the ABT of Santa Cruz.

But Hortencia Gómez, the chief of Piso Firme, urged the government to do more than issue a subpoena.

“We are ready to defend our land with tooth and nail. We want to ask all of the authorities, and the President [Luis Arce], to listen to us and to protect our territory from the colonizers,” Gómez said.

Santa Cruz governor Luis Fernando Camacho subsequently announced the formation of a departmental commission to defend protected land in the Chiquitania region. Fernando Camacho said that “an audit corresponding to all of the plundering, settlements, and land trafficking has been introduced to the [Departmental Agricultural Commission].”

This story is a translated and updated version of one reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published in Spanish on our Latam site on July 12, 2021.

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