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Forestry in Bolivia

By HENRY S. KERNAN, Member of the United Nations Mission to Bolivia

Whenever the balance sheet of the world's renewable natural resources is drawn up, the largest question mark stands beside the Amazon Valley. Centuries of exploration in her immense stands of hardwood timber have revealed the merits of a few dozen species out of thousands. But the Amazonian forest as a biological environment capable of producing wood and influencing the soil and climate has yet to be discovered.

Bolivia's share in this forest, and in the far poorer one on the Paraguay River, covers 128 million acres (51,801,600 ha.) and provides 32 acres (12.95 ha.) for every inhabitant. These facts rank her among the wealthiest countries in the world as regards forest resources.

There is no doubt that forestry should take a vital part in a prosperous and well-balanced economy, but the problem of integrating this resource into a culture based upon mining and highland farming cannot be overlooked.

This article attempts to deal with this problem. It avoids the prophecies and fantasies which often plague discussions of little-known tropical jungles. It is based upon facts from three sources: published material, interviews, and field observation. These facts are incorporated into a description of the various forest types and of the industry which has arisen to exploit them. The Government's efforts to regulate such exploitation and the question of safeguarding both the productive and protective aspects of forest land is then discussed.

The article intends to justify a forest policy of conservation and renewal. Such a policy, if followed, can protect Bolivia from the horrors that will inevitably follow from the destruction and neglect of her forest resources.

Forest Resources

Forested land in Bolivia covers about 128 million acres (51,801,600 ha.), or nearly 40 percent of the area of the Republic. The volume of sawtimber produced has been estimated at 256,000 million board feet (604,160,000 m³) and the number of species at more than 2,000. In general, the various forest types are of extreme complexity, differing with regard to composition, size classes, and quality. They are made up of evergreen and deciduous hardwoods; for, with the very minor exception of Podocarpus sp., there are no conifers. The richest forest is that on the eastern slopes of the Andes and along the rivers of the Amazon drainage. This forest is largely in a primeval condition. In eastern Bolivia, on the almost imperceptible divide between the Amazon and Paraguay Rivers, there is an equally large area of low, dry forest which has been profoundly modified by fire. The same geographical factors that shape every phase of Bolivian life have likewise determined both the character of tree growth and its present degree of usefulness. Physical barriers still separate the centers of population from the best forest lands and thus give to their timbers a value more relative to the means of transport than to their inherent qualities for industrial use.

The forests around Mt. Sajama, near the Chilean border, offer a striking example of this fact. They are composed exclusively of a small, slow-growing and gnarled member of the rose family called keñua (Polylepsis tarapacana). The wood of this tree can yield excellent fuel and charcoal, but has no other use beyond supplying short poles for fences and huts. Undoubtedly the keñua was once more widespread; but for centuries the Aymara Indians, desperate for fuel in their harsh climate, have been cutting down these trees until now they remain only in one remote and almost uninhabitable district of windswept puna. Thus a species of poor natural qualities has attained a high value and has almost been destroyed because it was relatively accessible.

Elsewhere the Altiplano is treeless, and the landscape is only occasionally varied by the native kishuara (Buddleia sp.), or by such exotics as eucalyptus (Eucalyptus sp.), pine (Pinus insignis), or cypress (Cupressus sp.), which have been induced to grow around occasional houses.

East and southeast of the Altiplano there is a broad belt of steep slopes, narrow valleys and sharp peaks which are formed as the Andes drop off toward the eastern lowlands. As the climate becomes milder and the rainfall higher at the lower elevations, tree growth is more prominent. It is said that parts of this area were once heavily forested with such valuable trees as Spanish cedar (Cedrela sp.), and walnut (Juglans sp.), but this is a moot point.

The fact is that tillage and grazing have so exposed these soils to wind and rain that erosion has reached an advanced stage. Tree growth is now confined to a scattering of scrubby legumes (Leguminosae), moue (Schinus molle), and willows (Salix sp.), These are seldom allowed to reach maturity. They are gradually being hacked to pieces for fuel and small building material, and forest associations that could stabilize the soil are not allowed to develop.

Afforestation has so far been largely confined to the valleys about La Paz, Cochabamba and Sucre. Here a veritable rush for planting eucalyptus is taking place. The Bolivian Railway Company and the University of Cochabamba maintain nurseries and grow fuelwood and mine props on a commercial rotation of five to ten years. With the help of the Extension Service at Tamborada, which distributes 15,000 seedlings each year, innumerable landowners have entered the business. These enterprises have often shown excellent profits, but are severely limited by the fact that eucalyptus needs fairly good land here and cannot grow quickly without irrigation.

The Yungas lying eastward from La Paz have a natural cover of dense forest on account of the mild climate and high rainfall. Before they were largely destroyed by careless and excessive cutting, the quina trees (Cinchona sp.), of this area provided the world's highest grades of quinine bark. The Yungas have also yielded some castilloa rubber from the caucho tree (Castilloa sp.), Little use, however, has been made so far of the excellent woods because the steep mountainsides and narrow valleys preclude extensive and low-cost logging.

The forest region of most immediate interest and probably of most permanent value lies among the eastern foothills of the Andes and out on to the flatlands in a belt of varying and ill-defined width. From Yacuiba on the Argentine border north to Santa Cruz, such hard and heavy woods as walnut, quebracho (Schinopsis sp.), and various kinds of tajibo (Tabebuia sp.), predominate.

At Santa Cruz the forest turns and follows the Andes northwest through a region of high rainfall (1,500 to 2,000 millimeters) and excellent soils that extends all the way to Peru. In this belt are found the finets stands of tropical hardwoods in Bolivia. They can favorably be compared with those of other countries. The topography, between mountains to the west and llanos to the east, is flat to rolling and is generally well drained. The climate and low latitudes (14° to 18°C.) ensure rapid growth. Apart from palm, and inferior woods, there is a usable average of about 10,000 board feet (111.9 m³ per ha.) to the acre. The development of individual trees is often superlative and the variety of genera almost beyond belief. A typical square mile would reveal over a hundred varieties, and at least twenty-five with outstanding properties for industrial use, including mahogany (Swietenia sp.), of excellent quality.

More remote but equally rich in fine woods is the vast and dense jungle that lies between Peru and the Beni River and broadens northward to include the whole Department of Pando and the neighboring Province of Vaca Diez. An extension of the same type follows the Guaporé River southward along the Brazilian frontier to its headwaiters and those of the Paraguay River. Besides mahogany, this forest also has Para rubber (Hevea sp.), especially toward the north where several rivers converge to form the Madeira.

Eastward from Santa Cruz rainfall becomes less and the dry season more marked. Tree growth becomes lower, more open, and of poor quality for anything but railway ties, planks and fuel.

Problems of Forest Resource Development

Certain obstacles to forestry in Bolivia are fundamentally the same as those which other tropical countries have met and are solving. With their experience to draw upon and with the demand for wood at a very high level, Bolivia is fortunate in having her timber resources largely intact.

Difficult and remote terrain coupled with a poorly developed transportation system is the most prominent obstacle to be dealt with. The best forests receive torrential rains and are near rivers that flow away from the centers of population instead of toward them. Moreover, not a single first-class road or railway connects them with the Altiplano. Any further development of the forest resources, therefore, presupposes that rail, road, and water transport becomes increasingly available; and conversely that planned forest exploitation and industry integrated with other forms of economic progress can stimulate and pay for this transport.

The bewildering complexity of a tropical hardwood forest and the high proportion of hard, dense woods create further problems of utilization that have not yet been solved. The present tendency is to use only byproducts or a few high-value trees and thus bring about a progressive deterioration in the composition of the forest.

The difficulties of complete utilization require a rather complicated type of miring and marketing process. It can only be sustained by a high level of economic activity which can supply the capital and absorb the products. Bolivia's over-dependence upon the ups and downs of the mining industry and the stagnation of economic development in other fields are not conducive to the orderly and sustained development of her forest resources.

The influence of land ownership upon forestry has long been recognized and studied. The verdict has been the same in country after country, and proves beyond doubt that forestry only progresses where land tenure is reasonably clear and stable, where ownership bears some relation to the size of the economic units to which they are attached, and where at least a modicum of land is under permanent public ownership.

Unfortunately Bolivia inherited from colonial Spain a pattern of land ownership which has not fulfilled these conditions. Titles and boundaries are in a thoroughly chaotic state and will become the subject of endless litigation as land values increase.

Furthermore, ownership, such as it is, seldom corresponds to the needs and interests of the owner. Lacking any inducement to invest money in land upon which he pays no tax and to which he has but a vague title, the owner i= likely either to ignore his forest altogether or to subject it to the two most wasteful types of exploitation burning them for agricultural clearing and high-grading for specially valuable products. The first destroys the forest and subjects the soil to perhaps irreparable damage, while the second results in a forest that is permanently depleted.

Land has always been plentiful in Bolivia and hence the traditional policy of the Government has been to hand out these large tracts with no serious provision for use, payment, or taxes. Otherwise, it has no land policy whatsoever. Large areas - no one knows how large - are recognized as belonging to the Republic, but only in the sense that no one has established a title to them. They can be acquired in almost unlimited quantities simply by proving that they are public domain and paying a cadastral fee.

Perhaps one reason for this lies in the cultural tradition of the Bolivian people. Neither their Spanish nor their Indian forbears were a forest-dwelling or a wood-using race. They sought the uplands and built of earth and stone. Hunger for wood and skill in its use, so often found in the races of northern Europe, were not part of their make-up, and the same is true of their descendents today.

A people that is unfamiliar with wood is likely to be indifferent to the forest that produces it. Hence the careless and uncontrolled burning of great areas to provide pasture for the half-starved cattle of the Beni. Hence the chaco system of shifting cultivation. Hence the lack of any management policy whatsoever with regard to what is left of the people's forest property.

History and Present Status of Forest Industry

Although Bolivia has a history of 400 years of European settlement, wood has only entered significantly into the national economy within the last 50 years. Prior to that it was practically confined to those primary uses which can most easily be made of the trees on hand. Fuelwood and poles were used in quantities, planks and beams were cut by hand, and numerous small articles of daily use were fashioned of wood. This type of artisan industry continues and undoubtedly absorbs a greater volume than the more formal type that has since appeared.

The first product to enter the export market was cinchona bark from the Yungas. The tree from which it comes is rather a delicate one and requires special conditions for growth. Plantations have not been successful in Bolivia; and as a result of the scarcity of trees, competition from other countries, and from synthetic products, the industry has dwindled. There was a spurt of interest in the industry, during World War II, but the gathering of bark from wild cinchona trees will probably go the way of so many other purely extractive industries and eventually disappear.

Tapping wild Hevea trees in the northern provinces has likewise been a precarious but persistent occupation and has kept "Beni" rubber on the international market. It is currently yielding about 2,000 tons (1,814.4 m.t.) a year, though that figure was trebled during World War II.

For several decades the small handicraft industries using wood have been in a state of decline. Local timber supplies have given out while a larger population and a more advanced economy have demanded wood manufactured more precisely and more abundantly, and in forms that the small industries were unable to supply. Hence the rising imports of softwoods from the United States of America and Canada, which in the typical pre-war year of 1938, amounted to 15 million board feet (35,400 m³.)

Added pressure for wood has come from the mines and railroads which have been expanding steadily. They also fumed to foreign sources and sought mine props and ties from Chile and Argentina.

The outbreak of World War II created shortages of these industrial items - shortages which still cannot be met by foreign purchases on account of high prices, depreciation of the national currency, and active markets throughout the world. With five railroads under construction and world metal prices rising, the demand for props and ties is bound to remain high. The market for wood in other forms such as construction lumber, flooring, veneer, furniture, charcoal, and fuel has creased such fantastic situations as could scarcely be duplicated elsewhere. Rough lumber is flown to La Paz by airplane from the Beni 500 miles (804.5 km.) away. Charcoal is-made under incredible difficulties at Sajama and carried three days by llamas to the railway at Charaña, 150 miles (241.4 km.) from La Paz. At Cochabamba eucalyptus leaves are used for firing bricks.

The result of such demands has been the rapid growth of a lumber industry using native timbers and faced with all the usual difficulties of operating in remote and underpopulated areas. In addition there is a notable lack of proper machinery. Of the seventy-odd establishments that might be termed sawmills, perhaps half-a-dozen are capable of fuming out 5,000 board feet (11.8 m³) a day. Usually their only products are rough boards, although several machines produce flooring and one a satisfactory grade of plywood. Trade standards of grading have not been established and statistics of production are unknown.

An odd assortment of North American, European, and home-made equipment is pressed into service. For lack of boilers, mills are often powered by Diesel oil brought at great expense by truck or airplane. Although men are scarce in the frontier regions where these sawmills, are located, lavish use is made of hand labor.

This lumbering is most active in that forest lying just to the east of the Andes, which has been designated as the richest and most accessible. Reyes, due north of La Paz beyond the last Andean ridge, has six sawmills and an airport for transporting their output. The Yungas have one mill operating. Cochabamba has five mills, and receives lumber by truck from the Chaparé and Santa Cruz areas for reshipment by train to the Altiplano. About 35 mills are in the general vicinity of Santa Cruz. The railways north from Yacuiba and west from Corumba have created demands for ties and fuelwood that are met locally. In addition, Riberalta and Trinidad have become small lumber exporters by airplane.

Problems of Forest Industry

In endeavoring to meet the rising demand for wood products, the lumber industry has had to contend with certain difficulties that are particularly acute in Bolivia.

One of these is a transportation system that was designed to serve the mining interests on the Altiplano. To date not a single first-class road or railway connects the Altiplano with the forest areas. Furthermore, the primary route that will cross the mountain barrier from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz has been laid out to run through a treeless zone and not, as might have been possible, through the heavy forests east of the mountains.

River transportation cannot be looked to for help in supplying domestic need because the rivers of the Beni converge at the northern tip of the country, as far as possible from the national markets. They are also subject to floods and have almost imperceptible gradients. Hence the channels are winding and shallow.

Under these circumstances air transport has been resorted to and has succeeded as a short-term means. It is, however, a vivid indication of how badly Bolivians need lumber, and to what length they will go to get it, rather than attempt an adequate long-term solution.

Further impediments that have an immediate effect are the exchange controls, which operate as a subsidy to the import of lumber, and the internal taxes, which only hamper trade and yield no compensating revenue to the government. There are also various export restrictions.

The need for proper woodworking machinery has become acute. The portable sawmills made in North America are adapted only to certain kinds of woods and log sizes. Even they are difficult to import, and such items as tools and parts are not readily available.

The problem of skilled labor always looms large when forest operations have to be conducted under primitive conditions. In Bolivia this is particularly so because the industry is a new one and the workers are accustomed to their own hand methods. They often refuse to use saws for felling trees and paevies for rolling logs. They also cling to the custom of sawing logs only into 9-foot lengths (2.7 m.). Although operators often complain of the shortage of workers, they show little ingenuity in using those they do have, and very little concern for their safety.

Forest enterprises are so far all on a small scale and hence their needs for credit are not excessive. They are, however, often forced to build expensive roads to reach timber stands. Climatic conditions may force them to log for only a few months and wait the rest of the year with a large inventory. Under these conditions the need for some credit is obvious.

So far the demand for native woods has been highly selective, accepting only a few species and neglecting the others. The reason for this lies partly in custom and partly in the complex nature of the forest. Most of the woods have not been studied and have not yet become established on the market.

A final obstacle relates to the whole problem of land ownership. Although much standing timber is available, the delays and uncertainties of establishing title are a continual threat to long-term and efficient forestry operations.

Problem of Forest Laws

The first decree relating to forest exploitation was issued in 1939. It declared Mt. Sajama to be a national park and prohibited further cutting of keñua. It further required permission to cut or destroy forest trees, proclaimed reforestation to be obligatory, and ordered municipalities to maintain nurseries. The rewards and penalties which were to be enforced by the local authorities were specified in detail. Since that time seven other decrees have appeared which reiterate the same points.

These laws do indicate a laudable concern for the forest resources, but all contain such grave defects that it would be impossible to enforce them, even if the Government were disposed to try. They lay far too much stress on planting and on the supposed magic of permits. Beyond a rather complicated schedule of fines and rewards no provision is made for carrying them out. To declare that cedrela may not be used for fuel and that reforestation is obligatory throughout the Republic is to be at once too specific and too general, and reveals a lack of study, statistical facts, and field experience.

Forest law is not a subject which can be dealt with in a hasty or sentimental fashion. In Bolivia it attempts to regulate the relations between a biological complex that is very large and not well known, and a people accustomed to use that resource with no restrictions. It is a pioneer people familiar with such purely extractive industries as mining and shifting agriculture. The restraint required to handle a renewable resource will be difficult to instil.

Forest Protection

The problem of forest fire is not the same in all parts of the country. The Yungas, for example, are of great importance not only on account of the timbers which they can produce but even more because they are the headwaters of streams which cross what is potentially the most productive land in Bolivia. Unfortunately the type of very ancient shifting agriculture that has taken root here is of low productivity and great destructive power. Woodlands are felled, burned, and cultivated for a dozen or so years before they are allowed to revert to brush and, eventually, trees. The fires that are set to clear off a particular tract often spread beyond the limits, damaging brush and grasslands though they probably do little harm to the woods, which are too dense and moist to burn. The population of the Yungas is still sparse and tree growth is luxuriant. Barren, eroded slopes are, therefore, as yet not common. They do exist, however, as an ugly reminder of what has happened in other Latin-American countries that have had the same problem and neglected it. Floods, silting and poverty are the inevitable results.

In north-central Bolivia there is a very large area that is too dry and too poorly drained to support forest growth. This section, known as the llanos, is a grazing country. Great herds of half-wild cattle roam over it in search of water in the dry season and the coarse native grasses at other times. It is the almost universal custom of ranchers to burn the range in order to stimulate the growth of the young pasture. Quite probably the perimeter of the forest is being pushed back by these fires. As the ground cover is burned off and the soil is exposed to direct sunlight, it becomes drier and more prone to burn when the next fire occurs. Young saplings are killed and the tree type gradually gives way to thorny brush arid coarse grasses.

The most acute forest fire problem occurs in eastern Bolivia where the natural cover is a low inflammable forest and where the dry season lasts throughout, the months of June, July and August. A desultory cattle industry contributes to the problem as it does to that further north, and for the same reasons.

It is made more acute by roving bands of Indians who do not follow roads and who find travel more convenient through woodland that has been burned. Their activities are particularly difficult to control because they are completely outside the law.

The problem has further been intensified by the wood-burning railway which now operates between Corumba and San José, and which is being extended to Santa Cruz. Following a well-known and predictable pattern, the incidence of fires has increased precisely where a demand for fuelwood and ties has been created. The soils of this region are subjected to progressive and irreparable damage as the humus is destroyed and exposed to wind and water erosion. A railway and a desert are being created at the same time.

The question of overcutting likewise varies and depends upon the region involved. Reference has already been made to the continued destruction of the keñua around Mt. Sajama, where a unique forest type of great botanical interest is being destroyed for a small amount of charcoal.

In the valleys to the southeast of the Altiplano, the comparatively heavy rural population is interested principally in hillside farming and grazing; trees are considered only as a source of fuel. As a result, both the forest and the land have reached a state of utter degradation unparalleled even in Bolivia. What exists here is not an acute problem of overcutting, but the results of a problem that was acute two hundred years ago.

The rain forests of northern Bolivia are endowed with mahogany, one of the world's most valuable woods. The irresistible temptation, especially in a country with difficult transport problems, is to cut only the mahogany and to use it for purposes which could be met with other woods. The proportion of mahogany in the forest thus steadily decreases. Inferior species take its place and a permanent deterioration results. Almost every forest type has experienced the same kind of selective cutting or high-grading in the early stages of exploitation. The tragedy is not that the mahogany is being cut - for it should be used as wisely as other resources - but that so little of its value is realized that it is used for pig pens and cart wheels. Such waste is a symptom of an underdeveloped forest economy.

The abovementioned railway east from Corumba towards Santa Cruz is creating other problems besides that of fire. At present they are predictions rather than actualities, but the example of other countries is so notorious, that they should not be neglected.

The locomotives on this line burn wood. While there is nothing inherently objectionable in this fact, the enormous quantities of wood needed to operate a railway cannot be permanently secured from an open, slow-growing forest type unless special care is taken. In less time than anyone imagines when looking at the seemingly interminable stretches of forest, it will recede to uneconomic distances. Each year fuel will be supplied with greater difficulty and ultimately it will be imperative either to maintain plantations or find another fuel that need not be renewed.

The same danger exists with regard to the deposits of iron ore whose development is planned for the region about Matun, just south of the railway on the Brazilian frontier. Bolivia has no coal deposits and the assumption is that charcoal will be used to smelt the ore. The pattern of overcutting, neglect, and wood famine is again too notorious to be overlooked.

The foregoing discussion adds up to the plain fact that a forward-looking policy is required for supplying the needs of Bolivia's people and for protecting them from the horrors of forest devastation and wood famine. Trees can supply the wood that they so desperately need. Forests can protect the soils, the streams, the wildlife, and the beauty of their mountains. Forests can help to build the houses, to support the railroads and mines, to provide the exports upon which the living of the Bolivian people depends.

Private industry has shown the initiative to expand and operate against odds that would be considered insuperable in many other countries. It needs official help, however, in exploiting one of the finest forests left intact in the world; and guidance to make sure that this - forest will be used wisely and permanently for the benefit of all Bolivians, both those of today and those to come.

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