Many indigenous communities across Latin America depend on forests for livelihood. In eastern Bolivia, indigenous communities face increasing challenges in forest management due to insecure land tenure, lack of capacity, and state policies that favor extractivism and export-oriented agriculture. This case study examines the dilemma of forest management in the Guarayos Indigenous Territory, with a particular focus on the influence of conflictive policies under Evo Morales administration. Using a combination of literature reviews, semi-structured interviews, and land use/land cover analysis, we investigated the drivers behind the challenges that the Guarayos indigenous community is facing in the forest and land governance and explore potential solutions. We found that deforestation within the Guarayos Indigenous Territory from 2000 to 2017 was primarily driven by agricultural commodity production. Despite its promises on protecting nature and the indigenous peoples, the government weakened the Guarayos indigenous people’s governance capacity through failure of forest law enforcement, prioritization of extractivism and export-oriented agriculture, and support for land titling of external entities. We presented these findings through a case narrative featuring the president of Guarayos indigenous government as the decision-maker. This case study provides an illustrative example of the challenges and management strategies in indigenous land and forest governance in the Latin American context. A Spanish version of this case study is available at https://www.learngala.com/cases/bolivia-forests-esp.

INTRODUCTION

Millions of hectares of forests were transferred from states to local communities between the 1980s and 1990s as the world saw a wave of decentralization of natural resources management [1]. These community-managed forests achieved varying degrees of success in delivering livelihood benefits and conservation outcomes [2]. Successful community forest governance is usually associated with secure land tenure, a well-defined resource boundary that is consistent with socioeconomic boundaries, effective local institutions, strong leadership, a high level of local participation and rule-making autonomy, and effective rule enforcement, monitoring, and sanctioning [35].

In Bolivia, two important legislations passed in the 1990s—the new Forest Law and the Agrarian Reform Law—allowed indigenous peoples to formally claim their ancestral lands and to obtain livelihood benefits from forests. But indigenous communities in Bolivia had faced many challenges in forest management, including slow land titling process, contention from other groups over land tenure and resource rights, demanding forest regulations, weak governance and corruption within local institutions, and lack of state support. The election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president—Evo Morales—in 2006 brought hope to many indigenous groups: he promised to stand firmly by the side of the indigenous peoples and mother nature. With the progressive policies pledged by the new administration, it was expected that new policies would create better enabling conditions for sustainable community forest management.

Yet, over 10 years after Evo Morales came to power, the Guarayos indigenous people in eastern Bolivia seemed to be struggling with increasing pressures on their lands and forests, including the expansion of mechanized agriculture and cattle ranches, settlements of outsiders, decreasing timber prices, and lack of support from the state government for their land rights. The governing body of Guarayos Indigenous Territory, the Central Organization of Native Guarayos Peoples [La Central de Organizaciones de los Pueblos Nativos Guarayos (COPNAG)], recently ended its long internal conflict and recognized Daniel Yaquirena as its new president. Eager to defend the land and forest rights of his people, Daniel Yaquirena needed to find solutions to the complex challenges that the community was facing.

CASE EXAMINATION

A Rough Start for a New Indigenous Leader

On a Monday in July 2017, when the golden morning Sun glimmered on the sparse palm leaves in the tropical town of Ascención de Guarayos (Figure 1), dozens of people had already gathered in the courtyard of the COPNAG office. Inside one of the rustic office rooms, Daniel Yaquirena sat behind a wooden table and trying to finalize what he was about to say to the community leaders who came from all over the Guarayos Indigenous Territory, some of them after a 2-hour motorcycle ride. Whispers came from the anxious crowd as they waited for the start of a critical conversation that would influence the future of their community.

FIGURE 1.

(A) Location of Guarayos Indigenous Territory in Bolivia and (B) Major towns and roads in Guarayos Indigenous Territory. The boundary of Guarayos Indigenous Territory in this and subsequent maps is the land claimed by Guarayos indigenous people in 1996, which entered the National Institute of Agrarian Reform sanitization process. Spatial data source: Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [6].

FIGURE 1.

(A) Location of Guarayos Indigenous Territory in Bolivia and (B) Major towns and roads in Guarayos Indigenous Territory. The boundary of Guarayos Indigenous Territory in this and subsequent maps is the land claimed by Guarayos indigenous people in 1996, which entered the National Institute of Agrarian Reform sanitization process. Spatial data source: Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [6].

In the past week, Guarayos had held an all-community assembly to resolve the conflict within COPNAG that had lasted for the past 5 years.1 Eladio Uraeza, the previous president of COPNAG, was involved in several corruption scandals. He mismanaged the communal forest by selling timber at a low price and put the profits in his personal account. He also took bribes to allow outsiders to settle in the Guarayos Indigenous Territory. Seeing the grave situation, Daniel Yaquirena, then the vice-president, formed a parallel COPNAG aiming to replace Eladio, but the former president would not give up power. For a long time, these two COPNAGs competed for legitimacy as the representative organization of the Guarayos Indigenous Territory. The internal conflicts were costly to the Guarayos people—without a functioning government, they had no one representing their interest in critical community issues, such as land titling and forest management. Many NGOs who used to support Guarayos people had to leave after it became difficult to work in Guarayos. The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia [Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB)], the national representative organization of lowland indigenous groups with whom COPNAG affiliated, had neglected the problem in Guarayos for many years. Finally, the seven community centers (centrales), which formed the base of COPNAG, strongly urged COPNAG to resolve the issue by calling for a general assembly, which was attended by CIDOB. The assembly decision recognized Daniel as the legitimate president.

Coming out of 5 long years of chaos, Daniel and the new COPNAG faced many issues. The most urgent ones concerning their land and forests. The Guarayos indigenous people had been demanding rights to their ancestral land and natural resources since the 1990s, but so far, the state had only recognized formal title for 54% of the land they claimed. Their vast and fertile land attracted many other groups for settlement, among which were agrobusiness, cattle ranchers, miners, and immigrants from the Andean highlands. The settlers not only intensified land conflicts but also threatened the forests on which the Guarayos people depended by converting forests into agricultural land and cattle ranches. On the other hand, the timber business, which formed the main source of income for Guarayos people, had been going downhill in recent years. Owing to a lack of financial resources and technical expertise, the Guarayos people handed over most of the timber extraction to private logging companies. The internal conflicts within COPNAG aggravated the situation; without an organized community effort, they lacked leverage when negotiating with logging companies. In a community with a high poverty rate, falling timber prices had a substantial negative impact [8]. During emergencies, some community members sold their lands at cheaper prices in exchange for quick cash without realizing that the law prohibits dividing or selling land within a collectively-owned indigenous territory.

As the new leader of the Guarayos community, Daniel was eager to defend the rights and livelihoods of his people. But what tools and leverage were available for him? What practical solutions could he suggest to his community members and leaders to secure land rights and income?

The Endeavor Toward Land Rights

Daniel knew well how much it had taken for the Guarayos people to gain what they had. Being one of the 36 recognized indigenous groups in Bolivia, they had long endured exploitation and discrimination, first from the Spanish colonizers and missionaries from the 16th to 19th century, and later, in the 20th century, from the Bolivian State that had been dominated by non-indigenous groups. But they had learned how to fight back. In 1990, together with other eastern lowland indigenous peoples, they organized the first indigenous march in Bolivia to demand territorial rights. In response to the increasing pressure, the State enacted the Agrarian Reform Law [La Ley del Servicio Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA Law)] and Forest Law (Ley Forestal) in 1996, enabling formal recognition of the land and resource rights of indigenous communities.

In the meantime, the Guarayos people created COPNAG and presented a land claim of 2,194,433 ha to the National Institute of Agrarian Reform [Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agrícola (INRA)] in 1996. INRA later immobilized an area of 2,205,537 ha, where all land transactions were supposed to be frozen until the property rights conflicts were resolved [9]. However, several timber companies, who would not give away their previous exclusive access to forests, managed to obtain new timber concessions from INRA within the claimed area by the Guarayos people. Similarly, other third parties contested the land claim and registered their claims with INRA.

As of 2014, 1,297,963 ha (58% of the claim) had been granted to the Guarayos people and 518,091 ha (23%) to third parties, such as ranch owners, private companies, and Andean immigrant communities [10]. The remainder had not been adjudicated (Figure 2). The land titled to Guarayos people was mostly in a remote and inaccessible area, with artificial boundaries created by INRA that did not match the customary use patterns of the Guarayos people. In contrast, the areas where Guarayos people actually lived and frequently used—which are also the most accessible and contested by third parties—still awaited a decision [9, 11].

FIGURE 2.

Land titles in Guarayos. As of 2014, 1,297,963 ha (58% of the claim) had been granted to the Guarayos people and 518,091 ha (23%) to third parties, such as ranch owners, private companies, and Andean immigrant communities. The remainder had not been adjudicated. Spatial data source: Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [10].

FIGURE 2.

Land titles in Guarayos. As of 2014, 1,297,963 ha (58% of the claim) had been granted to the Guarayos people and 518,091 ha (23%) to third parties, such as ranch owners, private companies, and Andean immigrant communities. The remainder had not been adjudicated. Spatial data source: Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [10].

While the demand for territory was under consideration, COPNAG was given the responsibility to govern the Guarayos Indigenous Territory as its administrative authority. Being a young organization originally created to represent the Guarayos people on land title issues, it was not prepared for efficient governance [9, 11]. It lacked a strong link to village-level indigenous organizations. It also did not have organizational mechanisms for the community to hold officials accountable. The state did not provide any resources to enable such structures either. The cost to the Guarayos people were scandals of corruption, illegal sale of land certificates to outsiders, and a 5-year conflict within COPNAG that further divided and weakened the indigenous community.

Forest Management in Guarayos

The 1996 Forest Law recognized smallholder and indigenous people as legitimate forest users and enabled local communities to manage forests as common property [12]. The Guarayos people then formed Forest Community Organizations [Organizaciones Forestales Comunitarias (OFCs)] and established General Forest Management Plans [Plan General de Manejo Forestal (PGMFs)], so that they could extract timber commercially in the abundant tropical dry forests in the area. As the land titling progressed slowly, the forest management plans also helped the Guarayos people to consolidate their control over forested lands that would otherwise be contested by third parties [9]. By 2015, they were acting on 76 forest management plans, covering an area of 1,119,840 ha, and producing about 35% of national timber volume (Figure 3) [13, 14].

FIGURE 3.

Forest management plans in Guarayos Indigenous Territory. By 2015, there were 76 forest management plans, covering an area of 1,119,840 ha, and producing about 35% of national timber volume [14]. Spatial data source: Instituto Boliviano de investigación Forestal [15].

FIGURE 3.

Forest management plans in Guarayos Indigenous Territory. By 2015, there were 76 forest management plans, covering an area of 1,119,840 ha, and producing about 35% of national timber volume [14]. Spatial data source: Instituto Boliviano de investigación Forestal [15].

The forest management plans offered Guarayos people livelihood and—to some extent—better control over their territory. They ensured Guarayos people’s exclusive rights to these forests over logging companies and settlers. Following the requirements of the forest management plans, the Guarayos people only logged a few species of trees that were economically valuable; they also followed a minimum diameter and a cutting cycle of 25 years so that the trees could recover. Daniel liked this arrangement; it was important for him that these forests continue to provide clean air and water for his family, community, and the younger generations. As village elders always said, the people must obey the rules established by the creator Ramoi—by only taking what they needed from nature and always being grateful—otherwise, they would be punished [16].

The Rapidly Changing Landscape

Riding on a minibus along the National Route 9 from Yotaú in the southeast to San Pablo in the northwest, one could find the scenery along the road alternating among cattle ranches with sparse grass, vast cultivations of soy and corn, small towns and villages, and to a lesser extent, tropical dry forests characterized by palm (Figure 4). Daniel remembered that when he was much younger, there were no highways, only endless forests. Men used to go hunting and come back with tapir, deer, or armadillo to feed their family, while women collected cusi leaves and firewood; now, the most common animal in the area were cows.

FIGURE 4.

The scenery along highway route 9 across the Guarayos Indigenous Territory. (A) Forest being burnt next to a soy field, (B) a cattle ranch, and (C) pesticide advertisement by Dow.

FIGURE 4.

The scenery along highway route 9 across the Guarayos Indigenous Territory. (A) Forest being burnt next to a soy field, (B) a cattle ranch, and (C) pesticide advertisement by Dow.

The change was most striking in the more accessible areas along the highway. With the settlement of Andean indigenous communities, Mennonites, farmers, cattle ranchers, and large agricultural entrepreneurs, this area was experiencing rapid deforestation (Figure 5; Table 1). The land owned by Guarayos people was doing better in terms of conserving forests. However, the sheer size of their territory made it difficult for them to exercise full control and illegal activities, such as settlement, deforestation, and gold mining continued apace.

FIGURE 5.

Forest loss in Guarayos Indigenous Territory from 2000 to 2017. About 75% of deforestation was driven by commodity production, including mechanized agriculture and cattle ranching; the rest 25% was driven by small-scale shifting agriculture. Spatial data source: Curtis et al. [17], Hansen et al. [18], and Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [10].

FIGURE 5.

Forest loss in Guarayos Indigenous Territory from 2000 to 2017. About 75% of deforestation was driven by commodity production, including mechanized agriculture and cattle ranching; the rest 25% was driven by small-scale shifting agriculture. Spatial data source: Curtis et al. [17], Hansen et al. [18], and Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [10].

TABLE 1.

Deforestation rate by land title type in Guarayos Indigenous Territory.

INRA land title typeAnnual deforestation rate (2000–2017)
Agricultural land 2.90% 
Cattle ranch land 1.96% 
Community property 2.52% 
Untitled land 1.48% 
Titled indigenous land 0.2% 
INRA land title typeAnnual deforestation rate (2000–2017)
Agricultural land 2.90% 
Cattle ranch land 1.96% 
Community property 2.52% 
Untitled land 1.48% 
Titled indigenous land 0.2% 

Annual deforestation rate ranged from 0.2% in titled Guarayos indigenous land to 2.9% in agricultural land.

Source: Hansen et al. [18] and Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [6].

Agriculture and Cattle Ranching in Guarayos

Population growth, economic development, and westernization of lifestyles together nurtured an increasing global appetite for food, especially animal protein. Many South American countries responded to this global demand by transforming tropical forests into mechanized agriculture, mostly soybean, and cattle ranches. It had become common for farms in China to feed their livestock with Brazilian soy and for dining tables in Russia to serve Paraguayan beef. Bolivia was catching up with its neighbors quickly. The production of soybeans in Bolivia increased from 1.2 billion tonnes in 2000 to 3.2 billion tonnes in 2016 [19]. In 2014, Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera announced that Bolivia would increase its cultivated land by 6.78 million hectares by 2025 [20]. The aggressive expansion of agricultural commodity production brought visible changes to the landscape of Guarayos.

In Guarayos, the dominant group engaged in mechanized agriculture was the Mennonites, a Christian group of the Anabaptist denominations originally from Germany. They lived a secluded life with limited interaction with the outside world. While they rejected some modern technologies, such as cell phones and cars, they embraced others, such as GMO seeds, pesticides, tractors, and airplanes [21]. Other than the Mennonites, Cruceño farmers (farmers from the Santa Cruz region with a European heritage) were also predominantly mechanized. The Andean immigrants, who were of Quechua and Aymara indigenous origins, used a range of farming techniques from slash-and-burn subsistence farming to small-scale plantations, but their use of large-scale, mechanized agriculture was increasing. The excessive fertilizer and pesticide used in large farms were often washed into rivers after rain, causing fish die-offs. This had been a major environmental concern for the Guarayos people who got drinking water and fish from these rivers.

The cattle ranches in Guarayos varied in size, from 10 to 4,000 ha. Owners of the larger ranches were usually rich Cruceños, as they had the capital to invest in large ranches. These ranches required little input, but their productivity would drop over time. As natural pastures were taken up, and soil in older ranches deteriorated, forests were burnt to give way to new ranches.

The Guarayos people themselves were mostly subsistence farmers, planting a diverse range of crops—including rice, corn, plantain, cassava, and cacao—in their small farms called “chaco” in forest clearings. Few families owned cows, and if they did, it was usually a few heads reserved for an emergency. Besides farming, forest activities such as hunting, gathering, and timber extraction played a major role in their lives [16]. The expansion of commodity production pushed Guarayos people away from their forests and traditional lifestyle, and many settled in towns and became laborers for large companies.

The Tough Timber Business

In contrast to the booming agriculture and cattle sectors, the Guarayos people found that their timber business offered declining profits. They used to receive US$25–30 for each cubic meter of tropical wood from the logging companies, but as the internal conflict in COPNAG intensified and competition from cheap imported wood increased, the companies lowered the price to US$8–10/m3, and even US$4/m3 in some remote communities. In comparison, the price for sawed wood increased to US$120–335/m3 in Guarayos and US$374–935/m3 when transported and sold in Santa Cruz de la Sierra [22].

For the Guarayos people, managing the timber business was challenging (Figure 6). The Forest Law was originally designed based on industrial-scale forestry activities. Its requirements were often overwhelming for indigenous communities with little resources. For example, before any commercial timber extraction, communities must create a PGMF, a tree inventory, and an annual forest management plan approved by the Forest and Land Audit and Social Control Authority [Autoridad de Fiscalización y Control Social de Bosques y Tierra (ABT)]. Then, the actual timber extraction required building trails and felling trees using machinery, cutting into lumber in a nearby sawmill, and shipping to big cities like Santa Cruz or La Paz for further processing and sale. This process required strong financial, technical, and management capacities that the community lacked, nor did they receive much support to build such capacity. As a result, they lost their bargaining power to logging companies.

FIGURE 6.

Institutions and relevant actors involved in the governance of forest resources in Guarayos Indigenous Territory in eastern Bolivia. Each square represents an institution or a type of actor, which includes indigenous organizations (blue), state institutions (yellow), other local communities (red), civil society (green), and market (purple). They are further categorized into national and regional actors by the dashed line in the middle. Arrows indicate the directional flow of authority, resources, money, or conflicts. At the center of the governance structure is the Central Organization of Native Guarayos Peoples (COPNAG), the indigenous government authority of Guarayos Indigenous Territory. At the national level, COPNAG is represented by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), a national representative organization of lowland indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Under COPNAG, seven indigenous community centers represent communities across Guarayos, forming the base of COPNAG. Families involved in timber extraction form Forest Community Organizations (OFCs) to manage the General Forest Management Plans. Also under COPNAG, the Guarayos Indigenous Forest Association provides timber-related technical support to OFCs and is supported by the National Indigenous Forest Association under CIDOB. The most relevant state authorities are the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, which processes land titling, and the Forest and Land Audit and Social Control Authority, which regulates forest activities. Many market players, including logging companies, sawmills, and intermediaries, are involved in timber extraction, processing, transportation, and selling to end costumers in major cities. The Forest Stewardship Council provides sustainability certificates to timber operations. The NGO Bolivian Forest Research Institute offers capacity building in forest management. Other major communities living in the Guarayos area include Andean indigenous immigrants (campesinos), Mennonites, and farmers and cattle ranchers from the nearby city Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The internal conflict within COPNAG in the past 5 years gave the logging companies further opportunity to exploit the price. Without community-level coordination and support, each OFC negotiated with the companies individually. In the meantime, the domestic market had relatively lower demand for high-quality tropical wood, favoring cheaper imported timber products.

FIGURE 6.

Institutions and relevant actors involved in the governance of forest resources in Guarayos Indigenous Territory in eastern Bolivia. Each square represents an institution or a type of actor, which includes indigenous organizations (blue), state institutions (yellow), other local communities (red), civil society (green), and market (purple). They are further categorized into national and regional actors by the dashed line in the middle. Arrows indicate the directional flow of authority, resources, money, or conflicts. At the center of the governance structure is the Central Organization of Native Guarayos Peoples (COPNAG), the indigenous government authority of Guarayos Indigenous Territory. At the national level, COPNAG is represented by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), a national representative organization of lowland indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Under COPNAG, seven indigenous community centers represent communities across Guarayos, forming the base of COPNAG. Families involved in timber extraction form Forest Community Organizations (OFCs) to manage the General Forest Management Plans. Also under COPNAG, the Guarayos Indigenous Forest Association provides timber-related technical support to OFCs and is supported by the National Indigenous Forest Association under CIDOB. The most relevant state authorities are the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, which processes land titling, and the Forest and Land Audit and Social Control Authority, which regulates forest activities. Many market players, including logging companies, sawmills, and intermediaries, are involved in timber extraction, processing, transportation, and selling to end costumers in major cities. The Forest Stewardship Council provides sustainability certificates to timber operations. The NGO Bolivian Forest Research Institute offers capacity building in forest management. Other major communities living in the Guarayos area include Andean indigenous immigrants (campesinos), Mennonites, and farmers and cattle ranchers from the nearby city Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The internal conflict within COPNAG in the past 5 years gave the logging companies further opportunity to exploit the price. Without community-level coordination and support, each OFC negotiated with the companies individually. In the meantime, the domestic market had relatively lower demand for high-quality tropical wood, favoring cheaper imported timber products.

A Defender of Nature and the Indigenous People?

Bolivia is known for an advanced legal framework that protects both indigenous rights and nature through the 2009 constitution and the Law of Mother Earth (“Ley de Derechos de La Madre Tierra”). However, to Daniel’s frustration, he did not see much of this commitment turning into reality. As the indigenous representative organization, COPNAG received no financial support from the state government, and therefore all positions were voluntary. The lack of resources not only limited COPNAG’s capacity to support the community but also caused corruption to some extent.

The rights of indigenous peoples’ and nature promised by the constitution were not reflected in the land use and land tenure policies. The INRA law, which guided land titling, required land to be in “productive use” to receive a land title. While the text was ambiguous about what counted as “productive,” in practice, it viewed forestry as unproductive, and in turn, favored agriculture and cattle ranching over forestry [23]. The Guarayos people worried that the settlers might have a better chance of obtaining land titles than themselves as they were cutting down forests to cultivate crops and raise cattle.

Another law that affected the Guarayos people profoundly was the new Mining Law. Passed in 2014, it stated that hydrocarbon and mineral extraction was a “national interest,” enabling extractive activities in protected areas and indigenous territories. In Guarayos, there were several gold mines; They neither required the community’s permission to operate nor shared the benefits with the community. But the community had to endure water pollution from mining operations.

When it came to land allocations, the irony was even more evident. Over 20 years after they submitted a land claim, the Guarayos only received the title for lands that were in remote areas and largely unused by them. The state was still reluctant to support their land title claims in areas most contested by other stakeholder groups. Conflicting land use allocations were often given to the same area (Figures 7 and 8). For example, 54% of the proposed Guarayos Indigenous Territory Land was protected as forest reserves, where the clearing of forests and human settlements were prohibited since 1969, but deforestation was happening in these areas nonetheless. In fact, INRA titled part of the forest reserves for agricultural and livestock uses.

FIGURE 7.

Annual deforestation rate in forest reserves within the Guarayos Indigenous Territory between 2000 and 2017. The annual deforestation rate was 1.92% in Guarayos Forest Reserve and 0.15% in Río Blanco y Negro Forest Reserve, where “it is strictly forbidden to have settlers of any nature, and the felling of trees or clearing of forests for agricultural purposes” (Supreme Decree 12268). Spatial data source: Hansen et al. [18] and Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [6].

FIGURE 7.

Annual deforestation rate in forest reserves within the Guarayos Indigenous Territory between 2000 and 2017. The annual deforestation rate was 1.92% in Guarayos Forest Reserve and 0.15% in Río Blanco y Negro Forest Reserve, where “it is strictly forbidden to have settlers of any nature, and the felling of trees or clearing of forests for agricultural purposes” (Supreme Decree 12268). Spatial data source: Hansen et al. [18] and Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [6].

FIGURE 8.

Conflicting land allocations in Guarayos Indigenous Territory. National Institute of Agrarian Reform titled multiple parcels inside forest reserves for agriculture and livestock uses. Spatial data source: Instituto Boliviano de investigación Forestal [24] and Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [10].

FIGURE 8.

Conflicting land allocations in Guarayos Indigenous Territory. National Institute of Agrarian Reform titled multiple parcels inside forest reserves for agriculture and livestock uses. Spatial data source: Instituto Boliviano de investigación Forestal [24] and Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria [10].

Daniel tried to ask for help from the ABT, but they too lacked the capacity to control illegal deforestation. In the regional ABT office, director Miguel Ugarte told Daniel with a bitter smile: “Look at us. As an office managing the biggest forest production area in the nation, we only have 13 staff, 3 of whom are monitoring more than 2 million hectares of forest with two trucks. Of course, we know about illegal activities in the forests. But with no resources, what can we do?”

The situation might sound surprising to an outsider—after all, Bolivia branded itself as an advocate for indigenous peoples and nature conservation. But from years of interactions with the government, Daniel could attest that what he experienced was quite different.

The Dual Political Discourses of Evo Morales

Born to an Aymara family of subsistence farmers in the Andean highlands, the Bolivian president Evo Morales came from a humble background. After a high school education and military service, he spent his early years as a coca grower in Chapare province, and first rose to prominence through leading the union of coca growers to protest against the forced eradication of coca cultivation in Bolivia led by the United States. In 1998, he founded the Movement for Socialism [Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS)], a left-wing party that later became the major political opponent of the neoliberal government. His discourse of indigenous rights, anti-imperialism, nationalization of the oil and gas sector, and environmentalism were a refreshing sight for Bolivian politics, gaining him popularity especially among the indigenous peoples’, who accounted for over 60% of the population. In 2005, he was elected as the first indigenous president of the country. In his inaugural speech, he announced the end of the colonial and neoliberal era, stating that “The 500 years of Indian resistance have not been in vain. From 500 years of resistance we pass to another 500 years in power.” [25]

Indeed, indigenous peoples’ rights have gained more recognition and visibility in the political realm during Evo Morales’s presidency. In 2007, Bolivia became the first country to approve the U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Rights. The new constitution passed in 2009 included comprehensive indigenous rights. And in 2010, Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth (Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra), declaring that Mother Earth and her life systems, including humans and ecosystems, are entitled to specific rights, such as life, diversity, water, air, and freedom from pollution.

However, to Daniel, this pro-indigenous and pro-nature image of Evo Morales had many loopholes. First of all, the two goals in Morales’s speech—expanding extractive industry and protecting mother nature—were hard to reconcile. While Bolivia opposed the REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation) mechanism for its “monetization of nature,” it embraced the extractive industry without hesitation. In 2014, the oil and gas sector contributed to 8.7% of GDP and 55% of total export value [26]. Another example was the expansion of the country’s agricultural frontier, a major driver of deforestation. According to the government, the expansion of agriculture was to ensure the nation’s food security. But living in an agriculture frontier, Daniel knew that most newly cleared lands were used to cultivate soy, a crop mainly for export. In contrast to the strong support for the extractive industry and agro-industry, more sustainable economic activities such as forestry received little attention or policy support from the state.

Perhaps, it was impossible to live up to the anti-neoliberalism promises—after all, Bolivia was not isolated from the capitalist world system powered by fossil fuels. But what angered Daniel more was how the claimed “indigenous” government often neglected and even sacrificed the rights of some indigenous peoples in the country. The president was still largely popular among Andean highland indigenous groups, such as Aymara and Quechua. However, the more marginalized lowland indigenous groups, including Guarayos, who had supported this government during its early years in power, were now losing faith. Daniel often thought of a relatable struggle of another indigenous territory, the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) [27]. The government proposed a highway that would cut through TIPNIS, facilitating hydrocarbon exploitation, and connecting Pando and Beni departments with the rest of the country. The indigenous communities living within the park protested it for violation of indigenous rights, with temporary success—in 2011, Law 180 was passed to reaffirm the protection of TIPNIS as an indigenous territory and protected area. But in August 2017, Evo Morales passed another law that nullified the park’s untouchable status, enabling the construction of the highway once again. Daniel feared that if the government could easily change the law and take away the permanent status of another indigenous territory, they could do the same to Guarayos if needed. After all, with a population of only 23,910 people, they were not contributing many votes in the presidential elections [28].

Exploring Solutions

In the meeting room, the leaders of COPNAG and the Guarayos community were having an intense discussion. Everyone was eager to move on after the exhausting internal conflict for the past 5 years. They agreed with Daniel that the most urgent issues facing the community were the low price of timber and land conflicts. They felt the frustration about the lack of support from the state government. But, how could they overcome the obstacles and move forward?

“The government doesn’t care unless we unite as indigenous people and show them our strength. We should organize and protest. We should demand INRA to give us titles to all of our ancestral land,” one offered. Protesting could mean danger and sacrifice, but for indigenous minorities who had little lobbying power and few political allies, it seemed to be their only chance. A few years ago, when the government tried to revoke the Guarayos forest reserve for mechanized agriculture, the Guarayos people blocked all the main roads through their territory, and successfully stopped the government’s proposal.

But others pointed out that land title alone would not stop outsider settlement. “Even in the land that we have title, there are more and more settlers. Last year, some of our own people even sold plots for cash out of necessity,” said Ismael Moirenda Arabryu, representative of Ascención OFC. “The timber price is the key. When people earn more money, they don’t need to sell their land,” he continued. This idea was echoed by many.

And how would they increase the timber price? Cayetano Iraipi from the San Juan OFC offered: “The logging companies are taking advantage of us because we were not united—each OFC was negotiating individually. This year, COPNAG must organize all OFCs and negotiate a good price for all of us.” Indeed, as the owners of the forests, they would have greater bargaining power negotiating together.

However, Vincente Candaguira, representative of the National Indigenous Forest Association [Asociación Forestal Indígena Nacional (AFIN)], pointed out that this would not be enough: “We need the logging companies because we don’t have sufficient money or technology. What if we do all the paperwork, tree inventory, road building, tree cutting, and even processing ourselves, instead of paying companies a high price for these activities?” In fact, opportunities were coming up: upon learning that the internal conflict within COPNAG was resolved, several NGOs offered to resume their support. This included the Bolivian Forest Research Institute [Instituto Boliviano de Investigación Forestal (IBIF)], who had extensive experience in technical support for indigenous forest management.

In addition to capacity building support from NGOs, Alfredo Molrenda, president of the Guarayos Indigenous Forest Association [Asociación Forestal Indígena Guarayos (AFIG)] who offered technical support to all OFCs, pointed out another opportunity: next week, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was coming to Guarayos to discuss their new sustainability certification program, which supposingly would open up a new market and increase timber price. But some people were not enthusiastic. Guarayos held FSC certificates a few years ago, but obtaining them was expensive and complicated, and few buyers in the domestic market in Bolivia were willing to pay extra for sustainability sourced timber. “But perhaps we could export our wood to other countries,” offered Alfredo. It was a bold idea—the timber companies they currently worked with only sold in the domestic market, so they would have to find new partners who were capable of timber export. In addition, they still needed to address the issue of low technical capacity and bargaining power. But if they could sell high-quality tropical hardwood such as mahogany to rich buyers in Asia, Europe, and North America, maybe the price would be worth the effort to get certified?

Alfredo’s idea about the international market reminded Daniel of a conversation he had with a group of U.S. researchers. They mentioned a mechanism called “payment for ecosystem services (PES),” where owners of natural resources were paid for maintaining a healthy ecosystem that provided benefits to humans. They pointed out that while Bolivia was opposed to REDD projects—a type of PES program that paid for carbon sequestration benefits, other PES programs had been implemented. For example, in the Reciprocal Agreements for Water [Acuerdos Recíprocos por el Agua (ARA)] program, implemented in Santa Cruz by the Coca-Cola Foundation and the Bolivia Nature Foundation [Fundación Natura de Bolivia (FNB)], families living upstream were paid by lower stream water users for conserving part of their forests [29]. Maybe Guarayos could also find buyers to pay them for the many benefits of maintaining healthy forests?

At this moment, Vincente spoke out again. “These solutions are all important, but let us not forget what our biggest problem was—corruption and conflict within COPNAG.” There was some discomfort in the room, but he continued, “without a strong indigenous government, we cannot achieve anything. COPNAG must have rules, and there must be punishment if rules were broken. We also need to re-structure COPNAG to make it representative of the people. COPNAG will have some funds from timber sales in the communal forest. I suggest using the fund for building the capacity of COPNAG, appoint salaried staff, etc.” This was a new idea for Daniel. He did not see this as a priority—of course, he would not act like his predecessor whose corruption cost the community dearly. He even proposed to put the money from communal timber sale under an account collectively held by COPNAG, instead of individual accounts. But would it be possible that these measures were not enough?

A Third Path?

Throughout the discussion, Josué Urapogui, a representative of the community of Urubichá, remained quiet. When asked for his opinion, he responded, “With all my respect, gentlemen, I believe we are missing a good opportunity. If the timber price is so bad and intensive agriculture or cattle ranching so profitable, why can’t we do those activities just like the others?”

“Most of our territory sits in the forest reserve. We cannot do other activities according to the Forest Law. We also don’t have the financial capacity to do large-scale development,” Daniel responded firmly.

But Daniel was still concerned. He knew that this question would come up again, sooner or later. Personally, he did not fancy the large farms or ranches that only last for 20–30 years before the soil degraded—they have lived with the forests for centuries, it’s part of who they are. However, not everybody thought the same. The world they lived in was changing rapidly. Facing increasing political and economic pressures, the Guarayos people were not only at risk of losing their land and forests but also their identity too. As their leader, Daniel needed to take quick and bold actions to ensure that Guarayos people live well without sacrificing their forests and traditions.

CONCLUSION

The experience of the Guarayos Indigenous People showed that while the Bolivian state government pledged to defend indigenous rights and conserve nature, in effect, it promoted policies contradictory to the interest of indigenous forest communities. Consequently, the Guarayos indigenous community faced great pressure on their land and forest from competing land use. To defend their land rights and forest livelihood, the Guarayos people would need to strengthen their governance capacity, seek support to improve forest management and work with other indigenous groups to demand more favorable policies on land and forest.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. What are the conditions for successful community forest management (based on case narrative and reading materials)?

  2. Are these conditions met in the case of Guarayos Indigenous Territory? Why or why not?

  3. The Morales administration of Bolivia claims to be a defender of mother nature and indigenous peoples. Why did not it lives up to these promises?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

YH conceptualized the study, conducted a literature review, designed research, selected instrument, collected data, performed statistical analyses, and drafted and edited the manuscript. JB supported research design and instrument selection, collected data, and edited the manuscript. AA advised the conceptualization of the study, research design, and edited the manuscript. VC collected data and edited the manuscript. IP advised the research design and edited the manuscript.

We would like to thank all the interviewees for their invaluable time and insights into forest management in Guarayos Indigenous Territory, including Daniel Yaquierna (COPNAG), Alfredo Moirenda (AFIG), Miguel Ugarte (ABT Guarayos), Franc Garcia (Reserva de vida silvestre ríos blanco y negro), Eva Maria Rivera (Autoridad Plurinacional de la Madre Tierra—APMT), Carlos Ivan Zambrana Flores (APMT), Gualberto Ledesma (Federación de Madereros Guarayos), Dr. Jordi Surkin (WWF Bolivia), Ascencio Lavadenz (Federación de Campesinos Guarayos), Anacneto Peña (IBIF), Miguel Angel Crespo (Probioma), Dr. Jean Paul Benavides, José Antonio Martinez, Dr. Mercedes Nostas Ardaya, and members of OFC San Juan, OFC Ascención, Central Inter Etnica Ascención, Central Inter Etinica Urubichá, Unidad Forestal Municipal (UFM)—Ascención, UFM Urubichá, Federación de Ganaderas Guarayos, and FSC Bolivia. We are grateful to the Bolivian Forestry Research Institute for providing key information, connections, and logistical support that made the production of this case possible. We extend our thanks to Dr. Nataly Ascarrunz, Dr. Sébastien Costedoat, Dr. Peter Cronkleton, Dr. David Gill, Dr. Rachel Golden Kroner, Juan Carlos Licona-Vasquez, Dr. Michael Mascia, Siyu Qin, Dr. Marlene Soriano, and Dr. Meghan Wagner for their feedback on the various drafts and presentations of the case, and to Marco Antonio Albornoz-Castro for providing data on forest concessions in Guarayos. Finally, we thank the MSC staff, especially Dr. Meghan Wagner and Edward Waisanen, for their hard work supporting the production of this case study.

FUNDING

This case study was supported by the Michigan Sustainability Cases Initiative, which is funded by a grant from the University of Michigan’s Transforming Learning for a Third Century Initiative and the School for Environment and Sustainability, as well as by the Marshall Weinberg Internship Fellowship from University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS

Appendix 1. Methods (.docx).

Appendix 2. Teaching Notes (.docx).

Appendix 3. Engaged Learning Exercise (.docx).

Appendix 4. Case Analysis Rubrics (.pdf).

1.

According to key informant interviews in 2017, the internal conflicts within COPNAG started 5 years ago (i.e., 2012), although Cronkleton and Pacheco indicated that COPNAG had been split into two as early as 2007 [7].

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Supplementary data