The Tipuani River valley, one of the richest areas in biodiversity and endemic species in the northeastern mountain range of Bolivia, is also the country’s major gold mining region. Underground and open pit mines have caused significant environmental damage, including degraded lands, soil erosion, and rampant deforestation, as lumber is used to build and maintain mine shafts.
“Mining is usually considered a serious problem because of mercury use, but mercury is hardly ever used in this region,” says Robert Müller of the Bolivian Conservation Association. “Deforestation is the critical issue.”
Müller directs a project that aims to recover eroded soils, reforest the region with native tree species, and offer residents training in agro-forestry, so they have options other than working in the mines. Launched eight months ago, project staff are now working in the mining community of San Juanito-Rinconada. The Bolivian Conservation Association, known as TROPICO, plans to extend the initiative to the entire Tipuani valley as well as to other mining areas.
“We do not intend to stop mining,” Müller emphasizes. “Our goal is to encourage residents to extract lumber from tree farms and work sustainably, over the long-term. This is not an easy task, because miners are used to spending their wages quickly.”
Most of the neighboring towns sprung from mining camps, and resources were once plentiful. Residents must now confront the fact that gold is becoming harder to extract, while landslides and floods — caused by deforestation and resulting erosion — are increasingly common.
As part of their information campaign, TROPICO sponsors environmental education programs for the miners and their children. The nonprofit group has held workshops for families and painting and puppet contests for students, who used conservation themes in their art and craftwork. TROPICO posters warn against the tradition of purposely setting fires to till the soil.
“This project has been an eye-opener, and we are very thankful for this,” says René Machaca, president of La Rinconada community. “In the long run, reforestation will benefit mining, and it also brings us back to farming.” Machaca says he and his neighbors now understand why it’s important to till soils without setting fires and to work with the future in mind. With help from TROPICO staff, they established a tree nursery with 30,000 seedlings, which will be used to reforest nearly 40 acres in badly eroded pastures, providing a future source of wood and fruits.
While he acknowledges that the community is facing a difficult economic situation, Machaca points out, “Mining is like playing the lottery, but growing crops such as citrus fruits, bananas, rice, yucca and plantain will have a positive effect.”
Müller notes that the project is near the Apolobamba nature reserve and the Biological Corridor of Vilcabamba-Amboró, a forested expanse that begins in the Vilcabamba mountains in Peru and stretches to Amboró National Park in Bolivia. The corridor forms part of the Tropical Andes, one of the Earth’s 25 areas with the greatest number of endemic species of flora and fauna, according to Conservation International. The Andes region, which extends to Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, encompasses 185 million acres and holds 45% of the world’s biodiversity.
The three-year TROPICO program is funded by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, which is a joint initiative of Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the MacArthur Foundation, the World Bank, and the government of Japan.
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index: