Although the forests of the Beni can appear endless when you fly over them by plane or pass through by boat, in fact, they’re disappearing at an alarming rate. In such a vast area no one can tell exactly how fast the forests are disappearing, even with satellite monitoring, but latest estimates suggest that Bolivia is losing about three thousand square kilometres of forest a year, one of the highest rates worldwide; much of it is in the Beni, with catastrophic consequences for the region’s unique ecosystems.
The causes of this deforestation are various. The most obvious culprits are timber companies, ranging from small gangs with chainsaws to major commercial operations. Rather than clear-cutting the forest, they concentrate on valuable hardwood species such as mahogany and Spanish cedar. But for every tree they extract several others are damaged, and the trails they cut into even the most remote areas open the way for colonists who are responsible for even greater destruction.
Successive Bolivian governments have seen the comparatively empty lands of the Amazon as a solution to poverty and land shortage in the highlands, encouraging the migration of poor farmers from the Andes, who have moved down into the lowlands, clearing the forest to plant food and cash crops. Every year towards the end of the dry season the skies above Bolivia are obscured by thick smoke from thousands of fires set to clear the forest for agriculture and cattle pasture, a process known as chaqueo. Yet when the forest cover is slashed and burned on a wide scale, nutrients are quickly leached away by rain, and within a few years soil fertility declines so much that the land becomes useless for agriculture.
Having finally recognized the potential biological value of the country’s rainforests, the government has now established extensive national parks and other protected areas in the Amazon, as well as recognizing large areas as indigenous territory (arguably the most effective way of protecting the rainforest) and introducing new laws to limit logging and forest clearance. Bolivia, moreover, is now the unlikely world leader in forest certification, with more than two million hectares of forest certified. Yet the immense scale and remoteness of the region makes enforcing legislation almost impossible, and many of the protected areas exist only on paper.