Rainforest Road May Threaten Bolivian Jewel, Study Finds

Amazonian forests in Bolivia. (Photo by Oriol Massana & Adrià López-Baucells)

(CN) – A new law passed by the Bolivian government could further exacerbate deforestation and threaten rare plant and animal species in the nation’s most biodiverse protected rainforests, a new study finds.

Enacted in August 2017 by Bolivian President Evo Morales, the law downgrades the legal protection of the Isiboro-Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory, known as TIPNIS, its Spanish acronym. The park harbors four indigenous groups, many plant species that do not exist elsewhere and emblematic wildlife species like the jaguar, giant otter and marsh deer.

The law paves the way for the construction of a new 190-mile road cutting through the park, which lost more than 113,000 acres of forest from 2000 to 2014, according to the report published Monday in the journal Cell Press.

“While many discuss the potential impacts that the planned road could have in the future, very little is spoken about current ecological impacts in the area,” said first author Alvaro Fernandez-Llamazares, an environmental researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland. “Our analyses show that TIPNIS is already facing rampant levels of deforestation.”

Roads in tropical forests often lead to further habitat conversion, and more than 58 percent of deforestation in the park is found within three miles of existing roads, according to the team.

“We were surprised to discover that one of Bolivia’s most iconic national parks could be facing such alarming levels of deforestation,” said co-author Monica Moraes, a biologist at Bolivia’s Universidad Mayor de San Andres.

To Moraes, the loss of more than 113,00 acres of forest in the park “is simply unbelievable, considering that the park is not only one of the main biodiversity hotspots in Bolivia, but also one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth.”

Deforestation of Bolivia’s rainforests has occurred to support the farming of coca, from which cocaine is derived. (Photo by Rosember Hurtado)

While food security is frequently cited as justification for constructing roads, the team notes that recent deforestation in the park is associated with the cultivation of coca, from which cocaine can be extracted. With increased coca cultivation and new incentives for oil and gas exploration across Bolivia, the researchers say that downgrading the park’s legal protection will likely lead to even greater biodiversity losses.

The researchers urge Bolivia’s government to reconsider the road plans.

“Bolivian delegations have been very active in climate change negotiations and have vehemently advocated for the codification of the rights of Mother Earth in several international policy frameworks,” Fernandez-Llamazares said.

“The road would most likely open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems that, as a signatory of the (United Nations) Convention on Biological Diversity, Bolivia will surely struggle with.”


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