Across this corner of eastern Bolivia, peasants torch the forest for subsistence crops, while soy producers clear trees to plant one of the world’s great cash crops. Their relentless push, much of it legal, has given Bolivia the highest rate of Amazonian deforestation and underscored a little-known trend that environmentalists say should be a wake-up call for the world’s greatest forest.
While environmental campaigns have, for decades, focused on Brazil’s Amazon, today in South America, it is the enormous expanse of Amazonian forest outside Brazil, in a moon-shaped arc from Bolivia to Colombia and east to French Guiana, that is facing its most serious threat.
In Brazil, the enforcement of land-use laws reduced deforestation by 76 percent in eight years — from 10,424 square miles in 2004, when a swath bigger than Maryland was cleared of jungle, until last year, when the country’s National Institute for Space Research reported that 2,471 square miles had been destroyed.
But more than 40 percent of the Amazon is beyond Brazil’s borders, spread across eight countries in a carpet of green six times the size of California. These countries are poorer and less stable than Brazil, with less capacity to control clear-cutting of trees. Government agencies that regulate land use are spread thin, and some of those countries, including Bolivia, actively promote development in the jungle.
Satellite data and fieldwork by environmental and forestry ministries in the region show that deforestation in the non-Brazilian Amazon rose from an annual average of 1,930 square miles in the 1990s to 2,779 square miles last year.
“There’s more deforestation going on in the Andean Amazon than in the Brazilian Amazon,” said Timothy Killeen, a Bolivia-based ecologist and geographer who works with environmental groups and has been studying deforestation in the Amazon for 25 years. “Before, Brazilian deforestation was four times as great as in the Andean Amazon. Now the Andes has more. We’re winning the battle in Brazil but losing the battle in the Amazon.”
Deforestation is not increasing in every country with Amazonian forest. Indeed, recent preliminary data from Colombia and Ecuador show a reduction in clear-cutting. And in all the countries that contain a piece of the Amazon, including Brazil, more than 80 percent of the forest remains largely intact.
But in Bolivia, where the Amazon is vast but just a seventh the size of Brazil’s, the amount of territory deforested annually is more than half as much as was lost in Brazil. Peru, which has a stretch of rain forest bigger than Texas, is seeing hundreds of square miles fall annually to chain saws, fires and machinery. Some of the smaller countries, such as French Guiana, have seen a dramatic spike in deforestation.