Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Illegal logging in Bolivia

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Illegal logging in Bolivia - A History of Land Tenure Issues


Bolivia Area Map with Forest Cover

Bolivia is a completely land locked country situated in the center of South America. It has three primary geographic zones: the Andean highlands in the southwest, the Yungas and Valles on the moist slopes and valleys on the eastern side of the Andes, and the tropical lowland plains, which contain most of the forested areas. Bolivia is covered by approximately 55 million hectares of forest (World Bank[1]), of which about half is classified as primary forest, the least impacted and most biodiverse form of forest (Mongobay[2]).

There are 36 recognized Indigenous peoples in Bolivia. The Quecha and Aymara of the west Andes comprise the majority, with the Chiquitano, Guarani, and Moxeno as the next most populous (IWGIA[3]). The greatest current challenge faced by these peoples apart from illegal logging complications is the likely adverse consequences from the search for new oil and gas reserves and the ensuing seismic work, which directly impact their territories.

This Wiki page presents an analysis of the problems related to illegal logging in the country of Bolivia. The Food and Agriculture department of the United Nations (FAO[4]) defines the following terms used in this page:

  • Affected stakeholders - Those with a direct interest in the resources. They may depend on the resources for their livelihood, or are involved in direct exploitation.
  • Interested stakeholders - Those with a more indirect interest in the resources, such as agencies or institutions concerned with managing the resources.
  • Land Tenure - a relationship among people with respect to land (FAO[5]). More generally, the rules of tenure identify how rights to property are allocated within society.

Framing the Problem

Illegal forest activities are widespread in the Bolivian lowlands where 85% of the country’s forests are located. Cordero[6], based on estimates for the year 2001 prepared by CAF Development Bank, reported that at least 50% of the domestic consumption of timber came from illegal sources at that time. A 2012 World Bank report estimates illegal logging as a percentage of total timber experts is as high as 80% (Gonclaves[7]).

Lack of Incentives to Stop Illegal Logging

Illegal Logging

The research conducted for this wiki page found that the principal underlying cause of illegal logging in Bolivia can be traced to insecure land tenure, while the principal reasons for its perpetuation through time are unrealistic forestry regulations, institutional weakness of the national forestry agency, the entrenched asymmetrical power of traditional elites and the lack of participation of civil society in controlling forest crime. Not having clear rights to individual property discourages citizens from becoming inclusive members of the state they dwell in. Capital and social infrastructure are difficult to establish and grow through time without legal enterprises as a foundation. Avenues for resolving disputes over land claims cannot be established, and so a culture of lawlessness is created which extends a culture of isolation from the mainstream of society. Collectively, these foundational problems keep the poor trapped in a cycle of poverty, while corrupt, opportunistic business people take advantage of these communities outright. The poor may be forced to collude in illegalities owing to their inability to establish legal frameworks for their business enterprises.

There are five principal activities that constitute the scope of illegal logging in Bolivia (Pacheco[8], Cordero[9]):

  1. Occupation by cattle ranchers, and agricultural producers of public lands that were formerly allocated to forest concessions.
  2. Range of direct logging activities from logging without permits to not complying with forest regulations.
  3. Illegal timber transport and smuggling.
  4. Timber processing from illegally obtained wood.
  5. Illegal use of permits (e.g. use the same permit for several harvests).

The government of Bolivia does not have a strong record of aggressive persecution of illegal operations. Pacheco[8] reports that the lack of incentives to harvest legally include:

  1. Lack of historical precedent for prosecuting illegal activities.
  2. The vulnerability of public institutions to corruption, including the institutions from the central to the local level of government. These institutions adopt passive behaviors toward illegal acts.
  3. The lack of governance in remote areas, principally in the zones where there is an active process of agricultural frontier expansion. Here, crime typically benefits the local elites, or social groups who, on account of their local power, have captured the local process of decision-making, and subsequently have influence at the central level.

There are very few winners from illegal logging activities, and many more losers. Winners include the owners of companies who sell the illegally obtained goods on domestic or international markets, often at many multiples of the cost of obtaining the products. Local residents often receive very little compensation for the dangerous work of bringing the timber to the market. Local communities lose out on income that could sustain infrastructure and the general standard of living. When it is not clear that an individual or community owns the land that they draw a living from, they lack an incentive to invest in and properly care for the land. The government or any large timber company can come in and take the best trees at any time. The Implications section below further elaborates upon the winners and losers of illegal logging activities.

History of Changing Land Tenure

Verticle Timeline.png

The Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) is responsible for implementing land reform in Bolivia. Bolivia has already experienced two major land reforms, one in the 1950s, and one in the 1990s. The first land reform was an outcome of the 1952 revolution and its aim was redressing the conditions of inequality and extreme poverty that were the very reasons for the uprising (Kay & Urioste[10], Pelligrini[11]). In 1996, the country pursued the most aggressive model of decentralization of forest resources of countries in Latin America (Pacheco[8]). Property rights were held almost exclusively by the state until the mid-1990s when about 20.7 million hectares of the 76 million hectares that comprise the Bolivian forested lowlands were granted to forest companies (Hunnisett[12]). The approval of Forestry Law 1700 was a major milestone that was supposed to provide instruments for the poor to manage and extract forest resources legally. The law instituted requirements for forest management plans, forest inventories, harvest limits, seed tree retention, and annual reports, as well as including rights for indigenous communities to manage their own forests for timber (WRI[13]).

This transfer of tenure, however, left the majority of the ownership in the hands of just a few large timber companies. The state instituted revenue generating system for these concessions was originally based on timber volume based fees, which were difficult to track. This system was quickly replaced by an area-based taxation system. Yet timber removal was not a large enough industry to justify companies paying fees for retaining large areas of unharvested trees, so many forest concessions were given back to the state (Pacheco[8]). Another effort to further democratize the process of land titling occurred in 2006, but enforcement has been lacking throughout each iteration of reforms. However, progress has been made on land titling. From 1996 to 2006 9.2 million ha were titled (to various non-governmental stakeholders, while from 2006 to 2009, another 31.5 million ha were titled to non-governmental stakeholders (Pellegrini[11]). In 2002, 53% of the forest estate were publicly owned by the state, of which about half are under specific user rights or ownership, including about 12.6 million ha of indigenous community lands. Ten percent were owned by private individual and industries, and 5% were owned by ASLs (see below) (ITTO[14]).

Lack of Clarity for Land titling Reform

Pelligrini[11] reports that the focus of land reform in 1996 was on agrarian issues, while most of the land addressed in the reform process is forest. The current agrarian focused land titling process is not addressing forest management issues that individual and community stakeholders directly affected by forest management need to consider. The issue of land titling reform is being revisited throughout Latin America at a time when forests are being increasingly titled to communities (Sunderlin[15]).

Affected and Interested Stakeholders

"Affected" stakeholders in Bolivia include indigenous peoples, large and small scale forest entrepreneurs, and more generally rural peoples living in or close to forested areas. Interested' stakeholders include local and foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other donor agencies. Affected stakeholders did not have rights to the land until the mid-1990's since it was owned and controlled by the state. The Bolivian government, with support of interested stakeholders, did adopt a sophisticated method of land use planning which included mapping the biophysical attributes of the soil to the community needs of an area, with consideration of the interest and the knowledge of local communities. Public land use plans (Planes de Uso del Suelo, PLUS), identified about 40 million ha as permanent production forest, or land that would only be used as forest, and ideally would be used for some sustainable forest operations. However, the PLUS were financed by interested stakeholders (donor agencies), so there is some criticism that they were approved to keep donors and the domestic environmental movement satisfied (Pellegrini[11]). There has been a lack of enforcement of the provisions, showing a lack of political will toward enacting a system truly orientated toward local and indigenous peoples' needs.



Illegal logging has negative local effects on the local environment, as well as potential larger scale effects on the region. Local effects include a reduction in biodiversity, since harvesting typically removes a particular species without consideration of the effects on the local biome, as well as destroying the undergrowth since there is no incentive to leave the land in a healthy state for future resource extraction. Poor harvest practices can lead to increased runoff of soil, muddying rivers and making the soil less capable of supporting a healthy mix of indigenous species. Larger scale issues include releasing carbon to the atmosphere adding to global warming issues, as well as reducing the future carbon sequestration rates of healthy forests.

Political and Economic

Political implications are often tied to economic implications. If the state is unable to collect revenue from the country's resources, it has less power to implement governmental policies. Illegal loggers do not pay the proper taxes for the value of the extracted resources, which leaves the whole country worse off.

It is estimated that 50% of the harvest in Bolivia is illegal. This valuable potential income is removed from the local area in several ways.

  1. The poor sell cheap. Valuable logs that are removed and sold on the black market are often resold in destination markets for many multiples of the purchase price.
  2. Revenue loss can undermine efforts to place the forest sector on a sustainable footing, as lost revenue is not available for reinvestment in the sector. Furthermore, because illegal logging is typically unsustainable, future sources of employment and export revenues are not realized.

Social and Cultural

The social and cultural impacts of illegal logging are diverse. Illegal logging undermines the rule of law and is often associated with corruption (Goncalves[16]). It may also entail a lack of recognition of the land and resource use rights of forest communities, or of the rights of other concession-holders. In other words, a lack of clarity in land tenure. This can have negative impacts on the livelihoods of local people and result in conflict. Also, illegal logging jobs are generally unstable and volatile, which keeps local communities from being able to cohere and provide consistent basic services to families. Cultures that depend on forest resources for religious beliefs and other cultural values may not have access to resources or sacred areas. Areas that are culturally important to their community could be cleared or altered at any time.

Moving Forward: Empowering Local Communities?

The situation of small-scale timber extractors and indigenous groups has improved compared to the past. The mid-1990s constitutes a dividing line in the way in which forest resources were both allocated and used in the Bolivian lowlands because new opportunities were created for indigenous people, small farmers and small-scale loggers to expand the benefits they derive from forest resources use. Pacheco[8] identified three benefits for small scale forestry from these changes:

  1. Indigenous people’s rights over their territories were formally recognized.
  2. Private landholders were granted rights over the forest resources located within their properties, and hence they were allowed to develop logging activities within their landholdings.
  3. Small-scale loggers, who were used to working informally within forest concessions and protected areas because they had no legal rights to access forested areas, also gained access to some forest resources within municipal forest reserves.

Though indigenous communities have gained the rights to exclusive access to their forest resources within their territories, problems still persist in some cases (Roper[17]). In situations where small scale foresters and indigenous people want to take commercial advantage of forest resources, they are required to develop forest management plans following regulations approved by the forest service which were developed for large scale forest concessionaires. These regulations are not suited for small land parcels and the cost and expertise required to meet these regulations are not reasonable for smaller entities (BOLFOR et al[18]).

Case Study: Yuracare People

Local Social Associations

The Forest Service grants 40-year concessions to Local Social Associations (ASLs), which are local community forests with forest management plans approved by the Forest Service. Many of the loggers in these collectives used to harvest forests illegally due in part to the legal impediments to accessing productive forests. Yet many of the ASLs face standard small business issues such as a high degree of financial and technical vulnerability, deficient organization and administration, and lack of capacity to provide large volumes to quality formal markets (Quevedo[19]).

Indigenous lands belong to the so-called Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (TCO), or Original Community Lands, and are legally granted to indigenous peoples by the Bolivian government. These lands are considered private lands, and are legally equivalent to other forms of land tenure rights recognized by the Bolivian constitution. These stakeholders have gained exclusive rights to forest resource use inside their territories. On average, approved indigenous plans cover 26,000 hectares, which generally is less than the total TCO land. Despite the traditional knowledge of indigenous people regarding natural forests, today this sector probably faces the largest difficulties in implementing long-term commercial forest management plans. Similar to the ASLs, this is largely due to their lack of experience in business administration and wood processing, and lack of capital.

Case Study: Yuracare People[20]

In response to these issues, some of the regulations have been made more flexible, including the formulation of forest management plans, to allow small farmers and indigenous people to harvest some forest areas in areas less than three hectares. Private properties less than 200 hectares were exempted from having to develop forest management plans, and in some cases individuals were granted the right to harvest more than once in the same forest area. The regulations targeting forest management in municipal forest reserves were also made more flexible allowing some ASL’s to initiate their forestry operations without having completed their forest management plans, and in areas that were still in the process of being declared as municipal reserves. These different measures have reduced illegal logging to the extent they have facilitated the legal use of forest resources. Yet these measures were not able to arrest other associated illegal acts but rather prompted them. (Pacheco[8])


Two areas which have shown some improvement in Bolivia include the fact that the state is appropriating larger amount of rents from forest resources, when compared with the past, from private users of forest resources extraction, and it is more equitably distributing the financial resources among the different levels of government, including municipalities from where the forest resources are extracted. The second is that compliance is better with good practices for forest management observed, evidenced by the larger expansion of certified areas (Pacheco[21]).

Forest Certification

Historically, the Forest Service was contaminated by corruption – with exceptions of course – and the timber industry acted freely. The most important attempt to increase the efficiency of the forest administration was the decentralization of the Forest Service in 1985, an action that did not achieve its objective: the problems that existed at the national level were replicated at the local level (Quevado[19]). National campaigns from NGO’s demanding sustainable forest management led to a slow increase in public awareness that eventually led to Bolivia having one of the highest rates of forest certification in Latin America. Currently, Bolivia is a leader in voluntary forest certification under the FSC label, with 2,042,856 million hectares of forest under sustainable management (WWF[22] 2017). However, for unclear reasons, forest certification peaked in 2008, and has been declining at least through 2013 (Espinoza[23]).


Agricultural Expansion thru 2025


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  2. (2016). Forest data : Bolivia. Retrieved October 7, 2017, from
  3. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). Retrieved October 23, 2017, from
  4. Stakeholder Groups. (2011), (October), 2011. Retrieved from
  5. What is Land Tenure. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2017, from
  6. Cordero, L. (2006). Forest certification in Bolivia. Confronting Sustainability: Forest Certification in Developing and Transitioning Countries, 303–336. Retrieved from
  7. Goncalves, M. P., Panjer, M., Greenberg, T. S., & Magrath, W. B. (2012). Justice for Forests.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Pacheco, P. (2002). Decentralization of forest management in Bolivia: who benefits and why? Bolivia Country Análisis of Tropical Forests and Biological Diversity, 1–34.
  9. Cordero, William. 2003. Control de operaciones forestales ilegales con énfasis en la actividad ilegal. Documento Técnico de BOLFOR 120/2003.
  10. Kay, C. and M. Urioste. 2007. Bolivia’s unfinished agrarian reform: Rural poverty and development policies. In: Land, poverty and livelihoods in the era of globalization: Perspectives from developing and transition countries (Akram-Lodhi, A.H., S.M. Borras and C. Kay). London and New York: Routledge.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Pellegrini, L., & Dasgupta, A. (2011). Land reform in Bolivia: The forestry question. Conservation and Society, 9(480), 274.
  12. Hunnisett, Gary. 1996. The Forest Sector and Deforestation in Bolivia. La Paz: The World Bank.
  13. World Research Institute. Forest Legality Initiative. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from
  14. ITTO. (2006). Status of tropical forest management 2005. International Tropical Timber Organization, 302.
  15. Sunderlin, W., J. Hatcher and M. Liddle. 2008. From exclusion to ownership? Challenges and opportunities in advancing forest tenure reform. Washington DC: Rights and Resources Initiative.
  16. Goncalves, M. P., Panjer, M., Greenberg, T. S., & Magrath, W. B. (2012). Justice for Forests.
  17. Roper, J. Montgomery. 2000. Whose Territory is it? Resource Contestation and Organizational Chaos in Bolivia's Multi-ethnic Indigenous Territory. Paper read at LASA 2000, at Miami, FL.
  18. BOLFOR, MDSMA, and Superintendencia Forestal. 1997. Normas Técnicas para la Elaboración de Instrumentos de Manejo Forestal Comercial (Inventarios, Planes de Manejo, Planes Operativos, Mapas) en Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (Resolución Ministerial No. 136/97). Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Quevedo, L. (2006). Forest certification in Bolivia. Confronting Sustainability: Forest Certification in Developing and Transitioning Countries, 303–336. Retrieved from
  20. León R, Uberhuaga P, Benavides JP, Andersson K. Public policy reforms and indigenous forest governance: The case of the Yuracaré people in Bolivia. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2012 [cited 2017 Oct 15];10:195-207. Available from:
  21. Pacheco, P. (2003). Law compliance: Bolivia Case study, 1–25.
  22. World Wildlife Fun. Forest Certification. Retrieved from
  23. Espinoza, O., & Dockry, M. J. (2014). Forest Certification in Bolivia: A Status Report and Analysis of Stakeholder Perspectives. Forest Products Journal, 64(3–4), 80–89.

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This conservation resource was created by Dwight Chapman.