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Beni; surviving the crosswinds of conservation.

The beni biosphere reserve (BBR), home of the Chimane Indians and the first protected area to become fully implemented in Bolivia, is leading the way for the conservation of the natural and cultural resources in this extremely diverse Andean country.

In 1988 when I was working for the Bolivia Program at.conservation International a friend gave me a copy of a newly published book, Pueblo de leyenda, written by Rodolfo Pinto. The author took me by surprise. Through parallel stories, a thousand years apart, he talked about the Beni, the so called "region of winds" in Moxeno language. He told a story about the land of Paititi, populated by vigorous and hard working indigenous people who harvested their living off the luscious tropical forests and savannas of Moxos. At the same time, he told the story of the Beni of our days, as seen by a professional explorer, a Quixote who came to find the testimony of a nation rich in history and suffering. I could not help but feel part of both stories.

Our conservation work in the Beni, I thought then, was a battle of times, cultures and peoples trying to come together in one legendary place, in the same environment but with so many one-sided visions. Somehow the cause for nature's and people's future had been divided, and the goals seemed separate. I remember quoting from Pueblo de leyenda, "It is hard to start a fire with one stick of wood, if we could just get all the firewood together in one pile ... boy, we'd be cooking."

Now, four years later, tremendous strides have been taken for the conservation of the natural resources of Bolivia. Bolivians are successfully setting national priorities for conservation and a framework for conservation investments has been instituted. At the same time, historical events have furthered the indigenous cause in the country.


Landlocked in the heart of South America, Bolivia is a nation of astounding contrasts and breathtaking landscapes encompassing tropical, subtropical, and montane life zones. Roughly three times the size of California (1.1 million km2), Bolivia contains snowcapped mountains in the West and salt lakes and dry forests in the central Altiplano. In this region, legendary civilizations such as the Tiwanaku (500 BC) and the Inca empire (1200 AD) flourished. East of the Andes, cloud forest and a mosaic of grassland savannas, rivers, and tropical forest constitute 70 percent of the country.

Bolivia's diverse ecology is matched by the diversity of its culture. Its population, estimated at six million in 1980, is concentrated largely in the highlands. Mestizo, Aymara, and Quechua represent roughly 80 percent of Bolivia's population, with approximately 15 percent of European ancestry. The highlanders were, and still are, highly organized societies, unlike the fifty-five ethnic groups in the eastern lowland which comprise approximately 5 percent of the country's population and have been traditionally isolated from one another.

Biologically, Bolivia is one of the richest nations in the world with a plant diversity of 18,000 known species, and a wealth of avifauna, harboring up to one third of all the bird species found in the neotropics. Economically, however, (according to World Bank data) Bolivia is the poorest country of South America, with the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, and an infant mortality second only to Haiti's and almost double that of Guatemala.

The threats facing biodiversity in Bolivia are numerous. Forest and soil resources of the eastern slope of the Andes and lowlands are under increasing pressure as migrants move from the highlands, partly in response to the deterioration of agricultural soils at upper elevations. Unequal land distribution and, more recently, the collapse of the tin mining industry (which formerly contributed 70 percent of the country's GNP) has resulted in more pressure on the lowlands as local peoples increasingly rely on cattle ranching, mahogany extraction, and drug trafficking as economic alternatives to meet their basic needs. On a more positive note, after over a decade of political and social turmoil, Bolivia is experiencing its third democratically elected government, led by President Jaime Paz Zamora.

The Beni Province, set in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, is part of the Amazon Basin and contrasts starkly with the highland plateaus and subtropical valleys to the west. Second largest of Bolivia's nine provinces, the Beni is almost four times the size of Costa Rica. The region is a complex blend of eastern Andean slopes, seasonally flooded savanna, forest, lakes and rivers. It is sparsely populated, with an estimated one inhabitant per sq. km., and isolated from Bolivia's population centers by lack of roads.

In 1966, William Denevan, a geographer and researcher of aboriginal civilizations, speculated that as many as five hundred thousand Indians may have inhabited this area before its discovery by Spanish explorers. A hundred thousand linear drained fields, numerous canals, and large and small mound fields are still seen in the Beni savannas, where there is seemingly little opportunity for agriculture because of seasonal flooding.


The Ecosystem Conservation Program in the Beni, an example of regional planning for conservation and development, is a product of the long-term commitment to conservation by a group of Bolivian institutions, the people of the Beni, and professionals in Conservation International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

Conservation in Bolivia - as it is understood today - is quite recent. For many years and diverse reasons this biologically rich country escaped the plans and agendas of the larger conservation organizations. In 1985 a group of Bolivians and some key international institutions, among them Estacion Biologica de Donana, The Nature Conservancy and later Conservation International, initiated a serious multidisciplinary effort for the preservation of natural resources in the region.

The Beni program was founded on the basic premise that conservation should go hand in hand with development. Important consideration was given to the belief that long term conservation in the tropics will only succeed when three conditions are met: local institutions take the lead, local knowledge is efficiently used and integrated, and social needs are fulfilled. In this scenario, foreign conservation organizations play specific roles as purveyors of technical assistance and catalytic financial support.

The Beni Biosphere Reserve (BBR) is an outgrowth of the Beni Biological Station, created in 1982 under the supervision of the Bolivian Academy of Sciences and the Estacion Biologica de Donana. The Reserve, containing 135,000 hectares, is home to the Chimane Indians and a small group of mestizos. It is an area of diverse forest formations bounded on the northeast and west by vast extensions of open, seasonally-flooded savanna grasslands. The region supports 13 of Bolivia's 18 endangered tropical animal species, and a preliminary survey identified more than 450 species of birds, 8 species of primates, 5 of cats and 40 species of bats. In 1986, this area was recognized officially by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve - an area designated for multiple functions, including integrating native populations into the ecosystem.

For five years, an inter-institutional team worked to expand knowledge about the area, formulate a management plan, and efficiently incorporate the BBR into its regional context. Lead by Bolivian biologist Carmen Miranda, the team was comprised of members of the Bolivian Academy of Sciences, the San Andres National University, the Bolivian Conservation Data Center, the Beni Interdisciplinary Center for Development, and the Center for Community Studies. Financial and technical support was provided by Conservation International. Under the leadership of Dr. Mario Baudoin of the Bolivian Institute of Ecology, a series of essential technical tasks were carried out, including the biological inventorying and development of preliminary vegetation maps of the Reserve. Population surveys were made by the Bolivian Museum of Ethnography and Folklore and the University of Florida, and additional information was gathered by the Smithsonian Institution's BIOLAT Program. All of this data played an important role in the initial zoning of the Reserve.

By 1986, the BBR team was focusing on environmental education to determine effective ways of influencing resource use among local people. The program worked with two important population centers near the Reserve, El Totaizal and San Borja, through formal and informal education systems. Radio was used as principal vehicle of communication with and among indigenous inhabitants of the area. Currently plans are in the works for public campaigns to stimulate environmental awareness.

Institutionally, the BBR has grown and relies on a well trained staff. A three person office in La Paz allows for international and national networking. In the field, El Porvenir ranch, the Biological Station's headquarters, has a resident Scientific Coordinator, an Administrator and an initial Park Guard body. The accommodations in El Porvenir are also used by full time researchers, potential project personnel and visitors.

Recently, the Bolivian government has taken great interest in the Reserve as a baseline for development and colonization and the Regional Forest Service has appropriated 7 percent of the timber production taxes directly for conservation work in the BBR. The BBR's present challenge is the integration of the needs of its own inhabitants, Chimane Indians and mestizos, into the Reserve's management guidelines and services. Appropriate forums and decision making processes need to be implemented so that scientists and local inhabitants can exchange information and make joint decisions. Miranda comments, "the central objective of BBR's strategy during the nineties is the consolidation of the Reserve and its people, working for one another and encouraging lasting change."


In November 1986, the Forest Reserve surrounding the BBR changed status. Through a decision of the regional government, this area was opened to the extraction of timber. The change in status was said to be part of the government's effort to monitor and tax timber extraction which, according to locals, "had been going on informally for a number of years. The decision was intimately tied to local pressures and governmental operational budgets.

The area in question, known generally as the Chimane Forest, is inhabited by four ethnic groups: the Chimane, the Moxeno, the Yuracare and the Movima, all of them at different levels of assimilation to the more Westernized way of life of the mestizos in the area. This smaller population of mestizos is comprised of old time cattle ranchers, loggers, newly arrived colonists from the Andes, and commerical dealers. Most of the mestizos reside in the towns of San Borja and San Ignacio - located on the fringes of the Chimane Forest - which boast populations of 17,000 and 10,000 respectively.

By February, 1987, the Chimane Forest had become a mosaic of restricted use sectors determined by regional policies already in place - i.e., the regional government's decision to grant timber concessions in a sector of the forest, and the potential for land use. Population distribution within these areas and provincial boundaries were not taken into account in the intial zoning. The diverse ecosystem under consideration was comprised of: the Chimane Permanent Production Forest (590,000 hectares), where some of the oldest and riches mahogany and cedar strands were being selectively extracted; the Yacuma Regional Park (130,000 hectares), an area of savanna where cattle ranching is prevalent; an area set aside for watershed protection (225,000 hectares) with virtually untouched and unknown forests; and the Beni Biosphere Reserve (135,000 hectares).

Later that year, the Beni Regional Forestry Service invited the Beni Biosphere Reserve and Conservation International to assist in creating a sound forestry policy for the exploitation of the Chimane Forest Reserve. The three institutions thus became the the center of a project to develop a management plan and the necessary institutional structure for the sustainable use of the resources within the one million hectares surrounding the Beni Biosphere Reserve.

Then on July 13, 1987, Conservation International, led by Maria Teresa Ortiz, signed an agreement with the Bolivian government which included the first debt-for-nature swap in history. With this landmark negotiation, an integrated, multi-sectorial environmental management effort was launched. Planning was initiated through an Inter-institutional Commission (CTI) supported by the Beni Forestry Service, Conservation International and the local Association of Lumbering Companies. Socio-economic analyses carried out by the CTI identified human settlements, colonization trends and potential resource use, and recommended that local people be included in the planning process and long-term management. CTI evaluations also called for immediate attention to the Permanent Production Forest. By the end of 1988, the International Timber Trade Organization had granted three years of technical and financial support for a forestry program in Chimane. Unfortunately, these projects seemed to increase the lumber interests' power to destroy the forest.

Ultimately the CTI's work became a vital instrument in encouraging historical changes in the Chimane Forest regarding the territorial claims of indigenous peoples, impacting the future of indigenous peoples in Eastern Bolivia as well. The concerns of the Indian peoples had been voiced by a federation called the Central de Cabildos Indigenales Moxenos at the Decision-Makers Forum sponsored by CTI in November, 1988, in Trinidad (the capital of Beni). By the end of the year a demand was made to the central government (under President Paz Estenssoro) to grant territorial rights to the four principal tribes inhabiting the Forest, and in early 1989 the CTI was dissolved and the Chimane Program officially established.

The national government recommended that lands be given to the Indians in the forest fringe leaving timber concessions in the center. This plan was rejected immediately by the indigenous peoples as biased. Finally, in September, 1990, more than 300 Indians from the Beni region marched 400 miles from Trinidad to La Paz during 32 days. Along the way they were joined by another 400 native inhabitants. In reaction to this "March for Dignity and Territory," Paz Zamora signed four executive decrees, three of them complying with native territorial demands, and the fourth establishing a commission to draft an Indian law that will give legal standing to traditional leaders and governing bodies.

The institutions involved in the area are currently readjusting their plans. One-third of the Beni Biosphere Reserve is now Chimane Indian territory, which extends into the former watershed protection area. Half of what was formerly the Permanent Production Forest is now the Multiethnic territory. The Beni Interdisciplinary Center for Development and the BBR are developing the Preliminary Management Plan for the Multiethnic Territory, home of the Moxeno, Yuracare and Movima. Conservation International is focusing on strengthening the Greater Chimane Council and exploring with them the sustainable production and fair commercialization of the jatata palm, one of their forest products sold in local markets. According to Bolivian anthropologist Guillermo Rioja, "we believe that the most effective and ethical method of sustainable use of the tropical forest reserves of the Beni is through assistance to the self determined activities of the traditional - and now legal - owners of the forest, its indigenous peoples." The Chimane Program has restricted its jurisdiction to the remaining lumber concessions and is still struggling with seemingly unbearable timber extraction.

Much remains to be done in the Beni and Bolivia has taken the challenge wholeheartedly. President Paz Zamora has made conservation a national priority in Bolivia. In 1990 he declared an "ecological pause," calling for a moratorium on the granting of new logging concessions pending further study of forest reserves and forest policies. More recent governmental initiatives relevant to biodiversity conservation include the establishment of the General Secretariat for the Environment and National Environmental Fund which will coordinate and allocate international financing.

New winds are blowing in Bolivia. Like the surazos - winds from the south bringing cold and mist - they have arrived suddenly, causing unsettling weather, but bearing fruit. The celebration of life seems to be revitalized and ready for the next test of nature. In our quest for a better future for the forest and its people, we have learned, as one Beni leader put it, "great efforts and great successes are not the work of a single individual or a single institution ... they are the product of much inspiration, patience and endurance."

Liliana Campos-Dudley is the Regional Coordinator for Andean countries at Conservation International in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Bolivia's Beni Biosphere Reserve
Author:Campos-Dudley, Liliana
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1992
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