Unique Bolivia Park Begun by Indigenous People

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 13, 2004
The parched, southeastern corner of Bolivia is the unlikely home to a
park that houses Latin America's highest diversity of large mammals, and
is the stage for an unusual story of protected-area creation and

"The park remains the only national protected area in the Americas created as the result of an initiative by an indigenous organization," said Michael Painter, Bolivia program director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has helped manage the park since its creation in 1995.

The Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park is primarily a sparsely populated dry forest scrubland that receives less than 20 inches (500 millimeters) of rain each year and temperatures routinely rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

Despite the arid climate, the park serves as a refuge for jaguars (Panthera onca), Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), and Chacoan guanacos (Lama guanicoe), the latter of which there are only 140 left in Bolivia.

It is also home to giant armadillos (Priodontes giganteus), brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira), white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari), pumas (Puma concolor), tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), and a diversity of reptiles and birds.

"Many mammals have adapted to the driest parts of the Chaco where they go without water for several months each year," said Painter. "Tapir, peccaries, and brocket deer appear to survive on cactus, while carnivores like jaguar and puma [survive] on fluids from their prey."

In addition, the park and adjacent lands are home to indigenous peoples who took the initiative to create the park and negotiate an impact-and-management agreement with the owners of a pipeline that passes through the area.

Park Creation

Historically, the Chaco dry forest spanned across regions of southeastern Bolivia, Paraguay, northern Argentina, and Brazil, but much has been lost in recent years to agriculture and ranching.

The Capitania de Alto y Bajo Izozog (CABI), an organization that represents the Izoceño indigenous society, recognized that unless stemmed the agricultural frontier would encroach into lands of the Chaco they deem as culturally and economically important.

WCS, eager to preserve Chacoan wildlife, joined forces with CABI beginning in 1991, helping the organization tackle the technical and administrative challenges of establishing a protected area, such as drafting management plans and performing wildlife research.

The collaborative effort paid off: the Bolivian government established the Kaa Iya del Gran Chaco National Park in 1995 and partnered with CABI to manage it. The park covers 8.4 million acres (3.4 million hectares), an area larger than the U.S. states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

Patricia Caffrey, who worked with the World Wildlife Fund in Bolivia until 2001 and is familiar with the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park, said the Bolivian government's decision to create the park and allow CABI to co-manage it was a positive step.

"It certainly has to be applauded and supported," she said. Her concern is how the park, surrounding lands, and CABI hold up under pressure from oil and gas companies and land-hungry, non-indigenous settlers.

Bolivia-Brazil Pipeline

At the center of Caffrey's concern is the 1,900-mile (3,000-kilometer) Bolivia-Brazil pipeline, which crosses the northern portion of the park, threatens biodiversity along its entire length, and impacts indigenous territories to the west and east of the park.

The pipeline is owned by a consortium of companies under Gas TransBoliviano and the Brazilian Gas Transport Company.

Plans for the pipeline's route were in place before the Kaa Iya del Gran Chaco National Park was created, but with the support of WCS, CABI negotiated an agreement that compels the pipeline companies to accept responsibility for the impact of their operations on the local people and lands along the pipeline route.

Among other things, the agreement includes a trust fund that helps pay for the park's operations and a land titling program that allows the local indigenous people to secure title to their lands adjacent to the park.

WCS says the agreement between CABI and the pipeline sponsors is unprecedented. Indigenous rights activists say allowing the pipeline to be routed through the area sets the wrong precedent.

"The policy should be avoiding all entry into protected areas and not using them as money making ventures," said Atossa Soltani, executive director of AmazonWatch, an environmental and indigenous rights organization based in Malibu, California.

Caffrey, who now works for Save the Children in Washington, D.C., agrees with Soltani and said that the U.S. $4 million "settlement" is inadequate to address the long-term impacts of the pipeline.

Painter said since the pipeline route was already in place, CABI is to be commended for insisting that the pipeline companies accept responsibility for its impacts where it crosses through the park as well as the indigenous territories adjacent to the park.

"While reaching the most favorable financial agreement possible was one objective of the process, the main objective was to establish a framework for a continuing relationship with the pipeline sponsors to ensure that long-term impacts would be addressed," said Painter. "This effort was, for the most part, successful."

CABI and Gas TransBoliviano continue to collaborate in the management of the pipeline right-of-way and both are board members of a foundation they jointly created that supports the continuing conservation and sustainable development of the park and surrounding area.

One of Caffrey's concerns is that the pipeline right-of-way opens up access to the region. "Although it's not the most valuable land around, people do cattle ranch there. It brings in people who can settle, who are more politically powerful, they can grab land titles faster."

So far, Painter says the right-of-way has not turned into a road, though the pipeline companies do travel it as part of ongoing maintenance, and the land titling program has ensured the indigenous lands are not lost to outside land speculators.

To date, 43 Chiquitano indigenous communities have had their lands titled under the program; approximately 675,000 acres (273,000 hectares) have been titled to Ayoreode indigenous communities; and 815,000 acres (330,000 hectares) titled to CABI.

An additional 1.2 million acres (500,000 hectares) is ready to be titled to CABI, but is currently held up by a legal challenge from the Bolivian military, which claims ownership of the land and wants to develop it for agriculture. Painter is cautiously confident CABI will win the challenge.

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