From machetes to maps: How a ‘red line’ eased conflict in Bolivia’s Amazon

© Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro

Editor’s note: In a patch of Bolivian jungle, longstanding conflict over competing land claims had hit a boiling point, threatening to erupt into violence. A recent case study from Conservation International (CI), produced by CI’s Center for Global Policy and Government Affairs, shows how an explosive situation was calmed through willpower, trust and a simple map. CI’s Candido Pastor gives a firsthand account.

I remember the first time I made the four-day trek into the heart of Bolivia’s Carrasco National Park (CNP) 12 years ago like it was yesterday. I knew it would be a challenge to help communities agree on the boundaries of the protected area, given the high level of tension between indigenous communities, illegal migrant farmers and park authorities over land rights, but I was unprepared for just how intense our first meeting would be.

After hiking four days from the nearest road through the jungle to the Quechua village of Arepucho, I and other members of my group (which included representatives from the government seeking to support the boundary creation process) suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a mob of protesters wielding machetes. One of the leaders of the protesters — mainly made up of illegal coca farmers who had migrated into the region and were now clashing with the legal farmers already living here — threatened to kill anyone involved in this process. I did my best to remain calm and not panic, but as fear pierced through me, I had a sudden vision of being detained here against my will for weeks — or worse.

But just then one of my companions spoke up. Dismissing the danger, a woman from the government told the armed protesters that if they were not willing to be part of the discussion, they would have to leave. Remarkably, this tactic worked; by giving them a role in the conversation, she changed the whole dynamic and defused the tension.

Over the past 30 years, Bolivia has tried to protect its valuable forests from agricultural clear-cutting by establishing a protected area system that covers more than 16 percent of the country’s territory. Although community-level conflicts like this one have too often stood in the way of successful conservation efforts, the progress made in Carrasco National Park since 2004 proves that these challenges can be overcome.

The origin of conflict

Bolivia is a country rich in culture and natural resources, yet half of its 11 million inhabitants live in poverty. Close to half of the population also identifies as indigenous; these people have strong cultural and economic ties to the land and forests.

Located in eastern Bolivia between the Amazon and the Andes, CNP is one of the most biologically diverse protected areas in the country. As one of Bolivia’s wettest places, it’s highly important for the hydrological regulation in the Amazon basin. Today, an estimated 40,000 people — mainly mestizo peasants — live on the edges of the park. That population is quickly growing as new coca farmers move into the area and increase demand for productive land for use in agriculture, agroforestry and raising livestock.

In the first decade after CNP’s establishment in 1991, the government park rangers used the extreme protection approach, prohibiting all natural resource use by the communities. This position was the origin of the conflict between the two groups — compounded by the fact that the boundaries of the CNP were established without consideration for the rights of the local populations or their traditional use of the area. At the height of it, ranger camps were set on fire and rangers were forced out.

ci_85524597Illegal deforestation and habitat loss in Bolivia are rapidly degrading ecosystems and the benefits they provide to people. (© Trond Larsen)

Opening lines of communication

To reduce these conflicts, the Bolivian government initiated several attempts to establish a so-called “red line” in the northern section of the park separating the protected area from land the communities can use.

When I started working in CNP in 2001 to support this red line process, I knew from my previous experience working on ecotourism and livelihood development in Madidi National Park that community participation and buy-in to the process were essential. The communities and the government in CNP had never successfully sat down together, listened to each other’s perspectives and found common ground.

After our unsettling first encounter with the protesters in CNP, the park rangers, land titling authority and I started asking questions. We explained the legal process and the benefits of having clear borders between the CNP and the communities, as well as discussing perceived threats and issues with the people involved. This dialogue would continue for nearly a decade. (Learn more about this process in the video below.)

Factors for successful negotiation

Two factors were critical to the successful negotiation that eventually defined a 66,949-kilometer (41,600-mile) border around the entire park, which is currently off-limits for human activities:

1. Political will supporting the process at all levels of government, from the local protected area director all the way up to the Bolivian president. In fact, President Morales played a significant role in reaffirming CNP’s importance and the authority of the park staff, and intervening when power struggles between the different actors threatened the park’s conservation.

2. Establishing trust between everyone engaged in the process. The park rangers, community leaders and representatives from state institutions and CI walked the park boundaries together, took GPS measurements and ensured proper documentation of the red line so all parties understood where it was. In the process of negotiating this boundary, these groups built confidence in each other by balancing flexibility and steadfastness, which also helped prevent future conflict.

Ultimately, thanks to a lot of patience and commitment from CI and the local government authorities, we ended up with a better understanding of the needs and rights of the parties in conflict. Tensions tend to arise when people don’t have access to the information they need. Now, local people are more aware of their land rights as a basis of the agreement between the various groups using the land. In addition, the creation of the red line will be key to help reduce future threats to this forest, such as road construction through critical forest areas.

There is still much work to be done in CNP, especially in the long process of establishing a management plan that promotes sustainable production in the communities. CI continues to support the process by which different stakeholders can come together and agree upon mutually beneficial uses of the protected area. It hasn’t been easy, but today Carrasco National Park serves as a solid example of how conflict over natural resources can be resolved peacefully.

Candido Pastor is the technical manager for CI Bolivia.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Carrasco National Park in Bolivia covered in fog. (© Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)