In Bolivia, prospectors are digging craters and poisoning rivers in Madidi National Park. This natural treasure stretches from the Andes to the Amazon. Intensive farming, meanwhile, is ravaging the country’s Amazon forests, including the Chiquitania, the largest dry forest in the world. Fires set, mostly to illegally clear land, often turn into runaway blazes that leave behind deserts of scorched earth.

*This article is part of a joint investigation by InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute on illegal mining, wildlife, timber, and drug trafficking in the Bolivian Amazon. Read the other chapters here, or download the full PDF.

Bolivia’s 60 million hectares of Amazon– which spans part of the departments of Pando, Beni, Cochabamba, La Paz, and Santa Cruz– boasts some of the basin’s most biodiverse wilderness. Bolivia’s Amazon is often forgotten, with other countries receiving the bulk of international attention. Yet, the country trails only Brazil in terms of annual forest loss. 

In 2022, Bolivia lost a record 245,177 hectares of primary forest, the most ecologically significant forests on Earth for carbon storage — which accounted for 12.4% of the total deforestation across the Amazon that year. To put that in perspective, Colombia’s and Peru’s Amazon regions, which combined form a territory of some 127 million hectares, or just over double that of Bolivia, accounted for just 12.2%, according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), a network dedicated to tracking deforestation in the Amazon.

Most deforestation in Bolivia’s Amazon is driven by gold mining and widespread land clearing for agribusiness. In other Amazonian countries, such activities are illegal or at least regulated.

Bolivia has only a semblance of laws designed to stop environmental destruction. The reality is that actors involved in deforestation are left unchecked by the government, thanks to their power and influence. Gold mining cooperatives, soy farmers, and cattle ranchers are all shown extraordinary lenience. They exploit power vacuums, legal loopholes, incoherent or conflicting regulations, and weak enforcement. And they use legal, semi-legal, and illegal means to lay claim to vast tracts of forest to further their business interests. 

SEE ALSO: Fueling Forest Loss: Motors of Deforestation in the Amazon

The scope of what is legal “is so broad, and the will to enforce existing laws is far less than in other Amazon countries,” said Cecilia Requena, senator for Bolivia’s Citizen Community Party, and head of the Commission on Land and Territory, Natural Resources and the Environment. “At the same time, significant illegality isn’t classified as organized crime,” she stated. Requena has faced physical attacks and threats during her investigative trips to the region.

Much of Bolivia’s massive Santa Cruz department, which encompasses one-third of the country, is set aflame every year. Speculators slash and burn forests, knowing the government’s land titling agency will later provide them concessions. Farmers produce soy and beef on the deforested lands. They sell to commodity traders whose due diligence of their suppliers is limited at best. Always hungry for new tracts of land, farmers head deeper into Bolivia’s Amazon, encircling Indigenous territories and encroaching on reserves.

At the same time, Bolivia’s mining cooperatives employ heavy machinery and massive barges to dig up Amazon waterways in search of gold. In some cases, the cooperatives – which began as simple unions but have evolved into more powerful entities – serve as fronts for Chinese, Colombians, and other foreigners who illegally subsidize mining efforts. Exporters are known to whisk gold of unknown providence out of the country, thereby laundering it

As gold mining has boomed in Bolivia, so have mercury imports, which are used to separate gold dust from sediment. Bolivia signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury about a decade ago, a United Nations treaty through which more than 100 countries promised to cut their mercury pollution. But Bolivia’s government continues to allow an uninhibited influx of the toxic metal, eschewing even basic regulations, such as requiring importers to be certified.

The country is by far the biggest importer of mercury in the Americas. Until recently, Bolivia’s number-one supplier had been Mexico, but now it is Russia, which has not ratified the Minamata treaty. 

The surge in imports has fueled a brisk trade in smuggled mercury. Bottles of mercury are transported across land and river borders into Peru and Brazil, whose Amazon regions are currently experiencing a catastrophic illegal gold rush. The widespread use of mercury by prospectors is contaminating rivers and forests, and poses a significant threat to the lives of Indigenous people.

Although not as widespread as the industrial-scale activities of mining and agriculture, illegal logging has also resulted in significant losses of Bolivia’s Amazon forest. National parks and reserves, which are lightly monitored, are especially susceptible. Trafficking networks steal mara wood, a vulnerable and valuable mahogany species, which is then smuggled to Peru and Brazil for export. In addition, Bolivia has a domestic market for illegally sourced wood.

Bolivia’s wildlife is also being plundered. Jaguars, in particular, are killed for their parts, which are prized in Asia. Road construction by Chinese companies through Bolivia’s Amazon has opened the way to further incursions by the jaguar traders. Environmental groups have documented seizures of hundreds of the felines’ fangs and claws in shipments headed to China, via networks run out of Chinese-owned restaurants and shops.

SEE ALSO: Amazon Rainforest Under Attack From All Sides

Canaries, cockatoos, parrots, and other birds are peddled in local markets and smuggled to neighboring countries for the pet trade. River turtles are threatened by rampant poaching for their eggs and meat.

Furthermore, Bolivia’s Amazon hinterlands have become a drug trafficking corridor to Brazil. In the departments of Pando, Beni, and Santa Cruz, primitive camps for cocaine production have sprung up in the middle of forest reserves. Waste from the refinement process, which includes gasoline and chemical pollutants, is dumped into rivers. Airstrips carved into forests serve small planes that take off from Peru.

Though growing coca for consumption is legal in Bolivia, the area used in its cultivation has outstripped the 22,000 hectares officially permitted by the government, reaching some 29,900 hectares in 2022. Nearly 500 hectares of coca are being grown in Indigenous and natural reserves. Estimates have put the illegal drug trade in Bolivia to be worth as much as $2 billion annually.

The intersection between environmental crime and other criminal structures in Bolivia is less firmly established than in places like Colombia, where armed groups are piggybacking environmental crime onto a long history of drug crime. But opportunities for such a nexus could emerge in Bolivia. For example, several experts said profits from the Colombian cocaine trade are suspected of funding Bolivian gold mining operations. 

Combating environmental crime in Bolivia requires some of the same steps as those needed by other Amazon countries in the region, such as improving enforcement of protected areas and preventing the smuggling of timber, mercury, wildlife, illegal gold, and land grabbing related to the aggressive agricultural expansion on both sides of the Bolivia-Brazil border. Corruption that facilitates environmental crime must also be tackled. 

But Bolivia presents a unique challenge. By design, institutions meant to control mining and agricultural activities are weak and ineffective, and penalties for environmental crimes are mostly theoretical. The country must address this situation soon if the intention is to halt the imminent destruction of its Amazon.