Logs Dragged Through Loophole in Bolivian Forest Law

By Mike Ceaser

LA PAZ, Bolivia, January 24, 2000 (ENS) - Three years ago Bolivia passed a new forestry law, supported by environmentalists, intended to ensure that all logging was done sustainably. But some environmentalists fear a "one-time" exception approved by the Supreme Court will chainsaw a hole right through the law.

On October 27, 1999 the Bolivian Supreme Court issued a "one-time, temporary and fixed period" decree that indigenous groups could sell the lumber that was already cut on their territories before the decree's approval.

According to the decree's preamble, it is intended to protect indigenous peoples' rights and guarantee the sustainable use of their resources. The income from the wood sales is supposed to go to health and education services for the indigenous communities. But some environmentalists believe the exception makes the forestry law's protections irrelevant.

"If we're going to have these kinds of exceptions then it's a joke," said Carmen Miranda, executive director of the Beni Biological Station (EBB), a protected area in the Bolivian tropics. "There's no quantification of the lumber already cut."

Miranda believes corruption will enable indigenous groups and loggers to continue cutting trees and to cut them in other areas and pass the wood off as that cut on indigenous lands before the deadline.

"We're not talking about a [specific] volume of wood to be sold," she said. "We're talking about all the wood they want."


Bolivian forest (Photo courtesy http://www.procitropicos.org)
On the other hand, Casto Villarroel, spokesman for the La Paz-based Environmental Defense League (Lidema), said it is only common sense to make use of the already cut wood.

"This is wood that's discarded, that's not being used," he said. "The indigenous people live in very difficult conditions and this resource is rotting. Using it is common sense."

Villarroel also pointed out that the law includes many controls on the lumber's origin and volume.

But Miranda said that determining the origin of lumber and when it was cut will be very difficult. She fears that once they hear of this new decree, landowners will cut their valuable trees as fast as possible and later claim the lumber was cut on indigenous territories before the approval of the Supreme Court decree.

While the new forestry law has improved the situation, Bolivia's forestry industry and the government control system are famously corrupt. A 1997 thesis by David Tecklin, a U.S. university student, described how campesinos, lumber companies and local authorities in the Beni region of northern Bolivia cooperate to commercialize illegally cut wood. Mahogany and other valuable woods have already been logged out of many parts of tropical Bolivia.

Miranda also fears this will be just the first of many exceptions to the forestry law which says that "a management plan is an essential requisite for all types of forest utilization." Miranda also believes that the process of dragging logs out of the forests will kill many other trees, since this activity is not being regulated either.

While indigenous representatives told "La Prensa" newspaper of La Paz that they supported the Supreme Court decree, officials of the Indigenous Peoples Center of La Paz (CPILAP) said that many indigenous peoples would not be able to take advantage of the exception because their territories had not yet obtained titles from the government. They also said that rampant corruption meant that cut lumber would continue being commercialized no matter what.

"The laws aren't respected," said Heriberto Maza, CPILAP organization secretary. "Everything will continue the same."

Jorge Avila, chief of the Forestry Chamber of Commerce's Department of Law and Environment told "La Prensa" that the law treated law abiding businesses unfairly.

"We are required to strictly follow the norms of forestry production - environmental care and commitments to invest and support local communities," he said. "The law should be the same for all users of the resources."