Concerned about the environmental impacts of paving the highway that crosses the region, residents of a town on the agricultural frontier pressured the city to create an integral conservation unit covering 37% of the municipality’s territory, including the most fertile land.
Such a script is unlikely in Brazil, where agribusiness, contrary to the creation of protected areas, dominates politics and the economy in states with heavy deforestation, such as Mato Grosso and Rondônia.
But it took place in Roboré, a Bolivian city of 25,000 inhabitants in the Chiquitânia region. There are rivers that flow into the Paraguay River, the most important in the Pantanal.
The creation of the Valle de Tucavaca Municipal Reserve took place in 2010, when the highway that links Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s main economic hub, to Puerto Suarez, on the border with Brazil, was inaugurated. The road works ended the historic isolation of this part of the country and increased the migratory flow and interest in the land, including that of large Brazilian farmers, who are pushing for deforestation.
“There are times when it’s necessary to decide,” says Roboré mayor, José Eduardo Díaz, 45, in an interview in his office. “It is the only space we have as an oxygenation lung. The creation [da reserva] it was being worked on, but it never became law. In 2010, we took on this responsibility. Because Roboré stopped firmly, closed the road [em protesto]. Then you create and respect yourself.”
Díaz, currently in his second non-consecutive term, was the one who signed the reserve law. At the time, it was the first initiative of its kind in Bolivia.
The size of the protected area is surprising. With 263,000 hectares, Valle de Tucavaca is almost twice as large as the Pantanal National Park (135.6 thousand hectares), the largest Brazilian conservation unit in the Upper Paraguay basin.
The fact that it is a large municipal unit also draws attention. In Brazil, the sum of all full protection municipal conservation units amounts to just 135,000 hectares. The biggest one is the Natural Park of Naviraí (MS), with 16 thousand hectares. Data are from ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation).
Currently, Tucavaca has an administrator and four forest guards — a larger team than that of the Pantanal National Park, which only has two technicians.
Despite its dimensions, Tucavaca is only the sixth protected area in extension of the Pantanal and Chiquitana areas. The largest, Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park, covers 3.4 million hectares.
The result is that, while 46% of the Upper Paraguay basin in Bolivia is under strict protection, in Brazil this percentage drops to just 2%. The data are from the Bolivian government and ANA (National Water Agency), respectively.
“We are taking care. The mountain ranges are the sources of our water. If, suddenly, we authorize mining, in a few years, we will regret it, we will not have water for our people”, says Díaz.
For the project manager of the NGO FAN (Friends of Nature Foundation), from Santa Cruz, Carlos Pinto, 45, the management of conservation units with local participation is the crucial factor for environmental preservation. “It’s very motivating to work in Roboré. Talking to people here, we see an identification with their natural environment.”
With preservation formalized, the main activity in Tucavaca is tourism. The paving of the highway made it possible for the residents of Santa Cruz to visit, 408 km away.
The entry point is the small and well-preserved community of Santiago de Chiquitos, an old Jesuit mission. From there, you walk to the top of a mountain, from where you can see the entire valley.
Several rock formations on the edge of the precipice make up the landscape. Another tour is an archaeological site with cave paintings. Santiago also hosts a famous Renaissance and Baroque music festival, suspended by the pandemic.
Tucavaca is an important conservation area for the Chiquitano dry forest, a seasonal deciduous (loss of 50% or more of the leaves in the dry season) and semideciduous (loss of 20% to 50%) forest.
This vegetation occurs in a fragmented form in South America, according to the biology professor at UFMS (Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul) Geraldo Damasceno Júnior. In the Brazilian Pantanal, it appears in Morraria do Urucum, in Corumbá (MS), and in the Serra da Bodoquena National Park (MS), contested in court by farmers.
“In Brazil, these forests are protected by the Atlantic Forest Law”, he says. “But in Mato Grosso do Sul, there is still no understanding of environmental agencies in the sense of prohibiting deforestation of seasonal forests.”
According to the biologist, the most worrying situation is that of the Urucum Hill, near the border with Bolivia. There, companies have obtained authorization to deforest, for the exploration of iron ore.
“The Bolivians are much more careful than we are. Seasonal forests grow on very high fertility soils. There was a lot in Dourados, in the south of the state, but soy entered very heavily and there is almost nothing left,” he says.
The occupancy history partly explains the difference. In Brazil, the colonization and introduction of cattle in the Pantanal region began in the 18th century and accelerated in the 20th century, decimating indigenous peoples and privatizing the territory.
In Bolivia, the relative isolation had less impact on traditional populations and vegetation. The Chiquitano people, the most numerous, have around 90,000 people.
This isolation, however, has greatly diminished in recent decades. Under the Evo Morales government (2006-2019), which completed the paving of the highway, the lowlands of the east started to receive settlers from the altiplano who promote deforestation, as well as large agricultural projects by Brazilians and Argentines.
There are also large communities of girls, a Christian denomination with a Russian majority. In addition, mining companies, mainly behind iron ore, have arrived in the region.
The protest in Roboré, in 2010, was aimed at preventing the implantation of a federal settlement of Inra (National Institute of Agrarian Reform). For regional leaders, it was an attempt to change the demography to favor the former president’s MAS (Movement to Socialism).
The road also fueled the increase in fires in the region, which, like on the Brazilian side, is in the third year of severe drought. Several outbreaks usually appear along the route. In 2019, Bolivia registered its worst forest fires, a loss of 6.4 million hectares (slightly larger than Paraíba).
The department (equivalent to a state division in Brazil) most affected was Santa Cruz, where Chiquitânia is located, with 65% of the area burned. Despite several fires in the surroundings, Tucavaca escaped almost unscathed.
This year, with the prolonged drought, fires once again occurred above average. In August and September, an effort between government institutions and civil organizations managed to preserve Tucavaca again. As of October 15, fire in Bolivia had consumed 3.4 million hectares. Data are from the NGO FAN.
The pressure on Pantanal and Chiquitânia should continue to grow with the opportunities brought by the road. In June, President Luis Arce, an ally of Morales, was in the region and signed an agreement with the Chinese company Sinosteel to set up a steel mill.
The objective is to industrialize iron ore, which is explored on a small scale in the El Mutún mountains, very close to the border with Brazil. This is a project that has had several implementation attempts since 1970.
In addition to serving the domestic market, the production can be exported through the Paraguay River, the only sovereign outlet to the sea in Bolivia, which lost its coast to Chile in the Pacific War (1879-1884). Currently, a small iron ore production is taken to Uruguay through the Busch port, which is still accessed by dirt road.
In Colonia, the village closest to Mutún, the feeling is one of mistrust, the result of decades of failed projects. Founded by veterans of the Chaco War (1932-1935), disputed with Paraguay, the community of simple houses and dirt streets lives off agriculture and the few jobs created by incipient mining.
“The president came here, and the Chinese started to work,” says leader Felizardo Aguayo, 60. “But there are problems among the West [La Paz] and the Orient, that doesn’t allow for advancing. There are even problems between us, the community is divided, some want to take advantage. But if we unite, this country will rise.”
The report was produced with the support of Documenta Pantanal.