The VICE Channels

    Bolivia Passed a Smart Law to Protect the Amazon, But It Probably Won't Work

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Image via Sam Beebe/Flickr

    The Amazon is still hurting, but recent months have seen renewed efforts to save what's left of the incredible rainforest. Brazil says deforestation is way down, and is planning on its first comprehensive survey in 30 years. Now Bolivia, one of the poorest and most loosely-regulated Amazon countries, has passed a law regulating farm use in an effort to both boost agricultural production and protect its portion of the Amazon.

    The goal of Ley 337, which was passed last month, is aimed at putting previously-cleared swaths of forest to use while also protecting the forest that's left. According to the law, landowners that illegally cleared forest prior to 2011 can reduce their fines if they either develop productive agriculture on that land, or reforest it. 

    The issue at hand is that the Amazon is often burned to clear farmland. That massive release of minerals and carbon is quickly washed away, which means cleared land is often only productive for a few years. (It's not that tropical soils are "bad," as some people suggest, because they're able to play host to the incredible biomass of the rainforest in the first place. It's that stripping soil doesn't lock nutrients into one place.)

    Once land is depleted, the cheapest option is to clear more. That creates a steady pace of deforestation that leaves barren land behind, and which is why the Bolivian law is so smart: Rather than continue that pace, the country wants to keep industrial agriculture (which can effectively condition soil) on converted land, which will both protect forests and increase food production.

    But there's one problem: Deforestation has been on the rise in Bolivia, largely driven by agribusiness, and in a country with little enforcement and plenty of corruption, the new law may not have any teeth. According to Mongabay.com:

    Agribusiness is now a powerful lobby in Bolivia and in fact pushed for the new law, which was enacted shortly after the country's Law of the Rights of Mother Earth went into effect. In the view of one conservationist, who spoke condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his organization's work on the ground in the region, Ley 337 can be viewed as the industrial agriculture lobby's response to the "Mother Earth law", which sets a high bar for environmental protection. He said Ley 337 carries environmental risks if not carefully implemented.

    "If the goal of is to ensure not only food production but also conservation, monetary resources generated by fines should be directed towards the 'mitigation and adaptation mechanism' established for sustainable forest management in the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth," he told mongabay.com, adding that as currently construed, the law could encourage deforestation. "This bill would be an incentive to future deforestation, as it can create the expectation of future pardons to illegal deforestation, especially if resources are used to promote productive use of illegally deforested land."

    "The negative incentives are clear because the established fines per hectare are very low [$10 to $60 per ha] considering the profitability of the agricultural and livestock production in the region. Probably a large majority of produces will prefer to pay, formalize and produce."

    In other words, the law isn't particularly firm about prventing farms from clearing more land because it sets a precedent of pardoning illegal land-clearing with small fines. Now, if it's a truly-one time deal, that's not a bad thing, as you want to incentivize producers to stick to the land they've already got. But for a country with a loose legal system and a well-connected ag lobby, the law could end up as little more than lip service towards protecteing the Amazon. I mean, even if the law doesn't encourage future conversion itself, you still have to enforce it, and securing a massive region like the Amazon wouldn't be easy even if Bolivia had plenty of police resources.

    But the base idea is still a good one: Rather than continue to clear the Amazon, countries need to look towards making the land that's already been cleared more productive. The old slash-and-burn model is terrible for conservation, and it's also terribly inefficient with regards to agriculture. Brazil, for example, has put a renewed emphasis on developing efficient agriculture, and while most of it is centered in regions south of the Amazon, it's paid off immensely, and could be replicated to a degree in Amazonian regions. Developing a more efficient ag model is a win-win.