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In Bolivian Andes, new protected area offers ‘a breath of fresh air’

© Juan Pablo Urioste

The pristine cloud forests and vast grasslands blanketing the western slopes of the Bolivian Andes are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

This week, a remote municipality in Bolivia’s highlands announced a plan to ensure they stay that way. 

With support from Conservation International, Guanay established a law to protect one-third of its land, spanning 110,837 hectares (273,884 acres) of cloud and montane forests — an area nearly twice the size of Singapore.

The Guanay Protected Area will help guard against deforestation driven by unsustainable agriculture and mining, which have already claimed nearly 60 percent of surrounding forests, according to the Global Forest Watch.

“Some of the most intact and undisturbed forests in northwestern Bolivia can be found in Guanay,” said Conservation International’s Gabriela Villanueva, who provided technical support for the creation of the protected area. “The establishment of this protected area will help us make sure that Guanay’s forests — and the services they provide to people and wildlife — remain for future generations.” 

Due to its wide range of altitudes and habitats, this area is home to unique wildlife, from spectacled bears — South America’s only native bear species — to Peruvian dwarf deer. The area will also protect one of the only known populations of Oreobates zongoensis — the so-called “devil-eyed” frog, which was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered on a recent Conservation International expedition in Bolivia.

Not only will this protected area help conserve native wildlife, it will also help maintain the critical services that nature provides for communities in and around Guanay, she added.

“As climate change accelerates, heavy rains and flooding are becoming more frequent in the upper valleys of Guanay,” Villanueva said. “These changing weather patterns are aggravated by human activities.”

“Mudslides stemming from deforestation in nearby municipalities have already claimed lives in Guanay,” she added. “This new protected area will help keep its forests intact, ensuring a natural barrier to flooding.”

For the communities that have lived in this area for hundreds of years — including Aymara Indigenous communities of San Juan de Challan and Challampaya — the forests also provide food, raw materials and clean water throughout the year. 

But the forests within the Guanay Protected Area don’t just benefit local people; they play a crucial role in mitigating climate change by storing vast reserves of “irrecoverable carbon” — carbon that is potentially vulnerable to release from human activity and, if lost, could not be restored by 2050. 

Protected and conserved areas remain one of the most important tools for conservation, with enormous potential to guard against climate breakdown and the loss of wildlife — while also enabling local communities to benefit from the resources nature provides. Additionally, these areas form a line of defense against outbreaks of zoonotic diseases — that is, diseases such as COVID-19 that spread from animals to humans. 

And at a time when more countries undermined rather than supported nature in decisions made after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Guanay municipality’s dedication to conservation is “a breath of fresh air,” according to Eduardo Forno, the country director of Conservation International Bolivia. 

“By deciding to protect a large part of its land, Guanay is setting an example for other municipalities in Bolivia and across South America,” Forno said. “Conservation is not only in the hands of national governments or international agencies. Towns and local communities — even those like Guanay, with a population of about 200 people — can have a big impact on protecting nature, mitigating climate change and preventing future disease outbreaks."


Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: San Juan de Challana community in Guanay, Bolivia (© Juan Pablo Urioste)