Soy, beef and gold gangsters: Why Bolivia and Venezuela won’t protect the Amazon

Bolivia wants to chop down trees to grow soy, beef and palm oil while Venezuela is unwilling or unable to restrain illegal gold mining

Why Bolivia and Venezuela won't protect the Amazon

An illegal miner rests outside a mine in Venezeula in 2012 (Reuters/Jore Silva)


This month’s Amazon summit brought together leaders from eight countries to sketch out a plan to protect the rainforest, but ended without a pledge to end deforestation by 2030 in the final document.

That target was pushed by Brazil but met the opposition of the Bolivian government, according to Brazilian officials quoted in the Financial Times and the Guardian.

“We tried [to include some deforestation targets], but Bolivia explicitly asked for it to be deleted,” said one official, “Venezuela was perhaps [also] reluctant, but since Bolivia was so strongly [opposed], they did not need to speak against it”.

Bolivia and Venezuela were also the only two Amazon nations not to sign a pledge to protect forests at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in 2021.

Between them, they hold roughly a seventh of the Amazon. But their governments are permissive when it comes to extractive activities in those areas—and in both countries deforestation is on the rise.

Agribusiness ambitions

Bolivia’s reported position at the Amazon summit is in line with its policies at home, which prioritise development and the export of agricultural commodities, among others.

Bolivia’s soy and beef exports are small compared to those of Brazil and Argentina, the regional agriculture giants. But they are growing, and the Bolivian government has set ambitious targets for the sector.

To meet them it has built infrastructure, kept taxes on agriculture low and subsidised fuel. It has also handed out forested public lands to internal migrants while authorising more forest clearing and decriminalising illegal deforestation.

Rapidly accelerating deforestation

According to Fundación Tierra, a Bolivian NGO, deforestation averaged roughly 300,000 hectares a year, an area the size of Hong Kong, between 2016 and 2021.

For three years running, Global Forest Watch has ranked Bolivia third in the world for loss of primary forest, ahead of Indonesia and behind only much bigger forest nations Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yet there’s no sign of the government reducing its support for agribusiness. Declining gas exports have made agricultural exports all the more important to maintain the country’s international reserves.

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“It’s a sector that, even if it doesn’t generate much in the way of taxes, is very important for foreign exchange,” said Enrique Ormachea, an investigator at CEDLA, a Bolivian NGO.

Bolivia’s lack of foreign exchange has damaged its international credit rating, pushing up the price it pays to borrow money.

Recent policies aim to produce palm oil, boost beef exports to China and build biodiesel refineries that would use Bolivian produce—all of which would further expand the agricultural frontier.

Venezuela’s gold rush

On the other side of the Amazon, Luis Betancourt is the head of Venezuelan NGO Grupo de Investigaciones sobre la Amazonía.

He told Climate Home: “In the Venezuelan Amazon we don’t really have deforestation for ranching or large-scale agriculture, what we have is illegal mining.”

According to the IMF, between 2013 and 2021 Venezuela’s economy shrank by more than four-fifths. Millions left the country in search of work. Many others went into small-scale gold mining.

Why Bolivia and Venezuela won't protect the Amazon

An illegal gold mine in the south of Venezuela, pictured in 2012 (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

The government looked to mining to replace the revenues lost with the collapse of the oil industry. In 2016, President Nicolás Maduro decreed the creation of the Orinoco Mining Arc, taking an area that holds roughly a tenth of the nation’s landmass and five national parks and opening it up for mining concessions.

RAISG, a network of NGOs, has detected almost 2,000 mining sites in the Venezuelan Amazon, where it is estimated some 189,000 people work.

Mines are controlled by armed groups, including guerrilla groups and mining gangs known as sindicatos. Investigations by Insight Crime indicate many are linked to organised crime and backed by elements of the Venezuelan state, who take a cut of the profits.

Lack of interest

One study put the loss of forest in the Venezuelan Amazon at 140,000 hectares between 2016 and 2020, accounting for 1.6% of the total loss across the Amazon in that period.

Asked why Venezuela might have resisted a pledge to eradicate deforestation by 2030, Professor María Eugenia Grillet, an ecologist at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, said it was perhaps because that would imply committing itself to something it cannot achieve in the short or even medium-term.

“Because ultimately the government doesn’t seem interested in the conservation of our Amazonian forests,” she said. “This illegal gold mining seems to be promoted by a certain part of the state, by corruption, by unregulated illicit activities—and by the political, economic and social crisis of the country.”

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