The Bolivian countryside is undergoing radical transformation, critically endangering the region’s rich biodiversity.

Bolivia has the third highest deforestation rate of primary forests in the world, right after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 14% of all the forest has already been lost to industrial agriculture of soy, maize, and cattle ranching. The federal government has encouraged agricultural expansion through subsidies and national pension funds. By 2025, it plans to triple the size of cultivated land and cattle herds. Land in Bolivia is cheaper than in neighbouring countries, and speculation is widespread. Seeking short-term profits, local and foreign buyers fuel the conversion of the country’s tropical forests into savannahs.

As forest fires intensify, the temperatures progressively increase. Communities face repeated droughts while coping with the spread of new diseases.

View of deforested land in the north-east of the Santa Cruz department (eastern Bolivia), where a single tree is left. From 1976 to 2021, Bolivia lost 8.6 million hectares (an area the size of Austria) which is equivalent to 14% of its forests, according to Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN). The country ranks 12th among all countries in biodiversity, but it is rapidly losing its animal and plant species.
The Mennonites colony west of San Ignacio de Velasco uses fire to clear land for agricultural purposes. The intensity of fires has been increasing. The Authority for the Inspection and Social Control of Forests and Land (ABT) admits that from 2012 to 2021, 60% of deforestation was illegal.
View over lines of burned forest, cleared by the new community of ‘interculturales’ in the municipality of San Rafael in eastern Bolivia. The three main deforestation factors are (1) domestic and foreign companies, especially Brazilian ones, (2) immigrants from the highlands of Bolivia who are granted land by the government (campesinos interculturales), and (3) Mennonites – an ultraconservative Christian church community.
Grain silos building site in San Ignacio de Velasco. In the last two decades, the rate of primary forest loss in Bolivia has roughly doubled. The turning point was in 2015 when Evo Morales’ government abandoned an economic model based on oil and natural gas exports and replaced it with the promotion of agriculture and livestock. For this, it needed land in forests and in the territories of indigenous communities. “This is a serious wound in environmental policy, and the result are fires and massive forest loss,” said Gonzalo Colque, executive director of the environmental NGO Fundacion Tierra.
View over soya fields east of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The main drivers of deforestation in Bolivia are the expansion of areas for soybean production and cattle ranching for domestic consumption and export. In total, as much as 2/3 of the agricultural land is dedicated to cattle breeding or the production of feed for it.
Machine clearing the forest and preparing the land for agriculture near San Jose de Chiquitos in eastern Bolivia. The intensity of deforestation has drastically increased, supported by legislation and government spending.
A portion of forest burns on land rented by Mennonites near Concepcion. Fires in Bolivia account for 1/3 of forest loss per year. In the Chiquitania region, tropical dry forest fires are constant from August to October. With small fines, at $200 per thousand acres burned, the fires pay off for prominent Brazilians and Mennonite landowners. The worsening effects of climate change exacerbate the traditional dry, hot weather, making it more challenging to control the fires. In 2019, more than 5 million hectares of forest was burned – an area bigger than Costa Rica.
View over soya fields and the remaining forest near San Ignacio de Velasco in eastern Bolivia. The sharp cut between the barren dry land, where soybeans will soon be planted, and the dense dry tropical forest is a cliché image of tropical forest destruction.
Geometrical shapes of soya fields east of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the capital of the department of the same name. It is no coincidence that the most deforestation, as well as the most fires (more than 2/3 of all in Bolivia) occurs in this department, which is the center of agriculture in the country. The plains in Santa Cruz are entirely dedicated to soybean production and cattle breeding.
The Tucavaca Valley forest reserve in the east of Bolivia. One solution for Bolivia’s forests is sustainable tourism. In the small town of Robore, which is a 3-hour drive from the border with Brazil, the inhabitants found a formula for success. They did not receive state support for the protection of forests and water resources, so the municipality established a reserve on the initiative of the residents. Control over illegal logging is carried out by six employees from the local community. The reserve, together with the nearby natural spa with hot springs of Aguas Calientes, is a popular tourist spot that allows the inhabitants of the poorest South American country to live a decent life. It is proof that the forest is most valuable if it is managed sustainably.
View of the Santa Anita cattle ranch close to Concepción. Bolivians are big meat lovers, especially beef. 80% of the cattle is intended for domestic consumption, the rest is exported, especially to China. By 2025, the government plans to increase the number of cattle from ten to more than 22 million animals – two cattle per capita.
Vaqueros on the Santa Anita ranch working with their cows, near Concepcion in eastern Bolivia. “Only 17% of agricultural land-in-use is in the hands of private individuals, but they meet 70% of Bolivia’s meat needs. These are established farmers who have been involved in cattle ranching for five or six generations and do not foster deforestation,” said Alejandro Hurtado, vice president of the Fegasacruz (Santa Cruz Cattle Raisers Federation), the most important cattle production association in Bolivia.”
Vaqueros on the Santa Anita ranch working with their cows, near Concepcion in eastern Bolivia. “Bolivia is a developing country, where the main goal is the fight against poverty and hunger. All Bolivians should have access to food,” said Alejandro Hurtado, vice president of the Fegasacruz (Santa Cruz Cattle Raisers Federation). 
Vaquero Angel on his horse next to a newborn calf at Nueva York ranch, near San Ignacio de Velasco in eastern Bolivia. This is one of few ranches owned by a woman. The ranchers do not see themselves as the culprits of deforestation, rather they place the blame on the agricultural communities that the government settles in the Chiquitania region.
Brothers Isaac and Jacob on their farm in the Santa Anita colony. Mennonites are members of the tightly knit Anabaptist Christian group that began arriving in South America in the early 20th century, in search of freedom or religion, exemption from military service, isolation and lands to cultivate. They reject modern ways of life; they live in isolated communities, travel by horse-drawn carts and tractors, and speak an old German dialect (Plattdeutsch), the language of their ancestors.
Women milking cows at their cheese producing farm in the Mennonite colony Santa Anita. According to data from the last population census in 2013, there were about 70,000 Mennonites living in Bolivia in 99 colonies consisting of several families. Each family owns 50 hectares of land, and some also rent private land.
Vaqueros Miguel and Pedro are taking cows to the waterhole near the Santa Anita ranch near Concepcion in eastern Bolivia. “All ranchers say they do not burn forests. And all farmers claim they grow soya sustainably,” says biologist Oswaldo Maillard, who heads the Dry Tropical Forest Observatory at the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitan Forest (FCBC). He believes that livestock farmers will no longer expand to new areas and that soybean growers are more problematic.  
Franz and Josef are Mennonite service workers from the Santa Rita colony, working with new sophisticated equipment on the soya fields near San Jose de Chiquitos in eastern Bolivia. Mennonites quickly and efficiently convert forests into soya and corn fields or pastures. Their expansion and associated deforestation are driven by rapid demographic growth. When they outgrow one area, they move to another and there they “remodel” the forests into fields and pastures.
Mennonite minister Mr Abraham at the Santa Anita colony on his tractor with metal wheels. The Mennonites have faced criticism from environmental groups who argue that their practices contribute to soil erosion, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. However, the Mennonites argue that they are simply trying to make a living and feed their families, and that they have a right to use the land as they see fit.
Vaqueros on the Santa Anita ranch working with their cows, near Concepcion in eastern Bolivia.
Vaquero Miguel taking his cows home to the Santa Anita ranch near Concepcion in eastern Bolivia. More cattle mean more fires, less forest and water, land degradation, biodiversity decline, and boosting climate change. The climate change-related problems are already strongly felt in Bolivia.