Indians, Forest Rights, and Lumber Mills

The road from Santa Cruz to San Ramon is now paved almost to the railroad bridge over the Rio Grande, an improvement from the mud and ruts I encountered on my first trip in 1984 to work with the forest-management project in Lomerio. Along the way, travelers pass cotton and sugar estates with hordes of destitute temporary workers, and later through a Kansas-like landscape colonized by Mennonites. Most of the original forest cover has given way to commercial plantings of soy beans, cotton, sugar, and pasture land.

At San Ramon, a dirt road leading to the mountainous region of Lomerio splits from the main road. Soon it enters forest again, not the humid forest of the Amazon but a much drier one, more like the temperate forests of the northeast. Small cattle ranches and scattered upland savannahs occasionally break the forest cover.

After several hours of twists and turns, the road reaches El Puquio, a Chiquitano village from which it is possible to see up to 100 miles. Like its residents, the village is neat and well trimmed, each adobe house with a tile roof arranged in perfect order. A tastefully modern but impersonal Catholic church - designed by German architects hired by the German bishop in Concepción - dominates the high point on the west side of the large "plaza" - actually just an open pasture. While the new church doesn't blend into the landscape like the old one of whitewashed adobe and thatch, villagers gather here each evening to sing hymns and practice a few Catholic rituals.

El Puquio, with a population of around 200 Chiquitano Indians, is home to the regional Indian organization, Central InterComunal del Oriente Lomerio (CICOL - Intercommunity Organization of Eastern Lomerio). It is also the site of CICOL's lumber mill. Built between 1988 and 1990, the mill is a key component of the "Lomerio Project," a forest-management project sponsored by CICOL and APCOB, an organization based in Santa Cruz.

Along with three or four similar indigenous - run ventures in Latin America, the Lomerio Project is a seminal experiment. Lowland indigenous peoples in South America have managed their forest homelands for millennia for subsistence purposes. However, today forest management is expected to provide income for local peoples as well. As the Lomerio Project shows, that task is very complex indeed.

The task is complex because Chiquitanos, like indigenous peoples everywhere, are caught in a web of competing needs and demands. Basic subsistence as practiced by indigenous peoples was based on the ongoing conservation of local resources. Each family took only what is needed to live and to fulfill obligations to kin. However, when the need for a cash income to buy industrial products entered the equation, pressures were put on the Indians to exploit that resources base in new ways. And the Chiquitanos are aware that the models for doing so carried out by timber barons and cattlemen in the Santa Cruz area, based on short-term profit and disregard for the sustainability of their activities, are not in the Indians' long-term interest. The Lomerio Project is an attempt to reconcile competing needs; to combine the long-term vision of subsistence practices with short-term needs to generate cash.


Like many indigenous people in the Amazon, the Chiquitanos are establishing a new identity. Before Europeans came, many numerically small, ethnically and linguistically different peoples inhabited the region. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Spanish Jesuits "reduced" the indigenous groups to a sedentary lifestyle centered around missions. Over several centuries, the differing identities and languages merged into that of the Chiquitano, the dominant peoples.

According to Chiqitanos, their great-grandparents, coming from different mission centers, sought refuge in the hills of Lomerio from frequent slave raids during a rubber boom that lasted from 1880 to 1910. Only recently, through political organizing that began in Santa Cruz in 1982, have the Chiquitanos of Lomerio reestablished contact with other Chiuitanos in in Concepción, San José de Chiquitos, San Rafael, and other colonial centers. Faced with invasions of their refuge by non-Indian cattle ranchers and the activities of the timber industry, and encouraged by the emerging Indian organizations, the Chiquitanos of Lomero began talking with APCOB anthropologists and foresters about ways to protect their territory.

In 1984, as a result of the discussions, CICOL and APCOB asked Oxfam America and HIVOS, a Dutch organization, to support a large multi-faceted project for Lomerio's 21 communities. The proposal included plans to manage natural pastures, improve the breed of the cattle, and institute small garden projects, bee keeping, carpentry workshops, and a marketing program for peanuts. The key to the project was its forestry component. APCOB forester Guido Vega argued that only a government-granted timber concession could provide a legal basis for protecting Indian territory because Bolivian law didn't recognize communal titles.

To justify a concession, CICOL had to present a plan to the government for managing the forest and producing lumber. In 1985, Vega and other staff of the Lomerio Project developed that plan and petitioned the government to grant CICOL a timber concession of about 320,000 acres covering the 21 communities. The plan was based on an apparent agreement among the communities to cede their customary rights to the forests to COCOL, which would manage them for everyone.

APCOB's technical team conducted a preliminary forest inventory that allowed it to demarcate some 133,000 acres for inclusion in an initial forest-management plan. The plan called for further demarcating the area in blocks of about 2,500 acres. Each year another block would be brought under management until the entire area was covered.

The plan laid out a combination of techniques for managing forests, ranging from selectively harvesting species with commercial value to creating a network of roads for extracting timber. In addition, the Lomerio Project included plans to enhance natural regeneration, reforest some areas, especially degenerated agricultural and pasture lands, and process timber in a central mill.


In attempting to fulfill its goals, the Lomerio Project has passed through at least three different phases.

At first, APCOB's technical team dominated all aspects of the project. It managed funds, carried out most technical functions, and maintained political relations with, pressures on, the government regarding rights to the concession and other legal matters. It did so in the name of CICOL. As a new organization among people with no tradition of inter-community organizing, CICOL was not yet in a position to carry out those functions itself.

In this phase, which laid the foundations for future work, APCOB's team of foresters, agronomists, and anthropologists studied the terrain and forests, developed relations with funders, and built a project center and nursery. These steps were critical, but the team paid too little attention to multi-community consensus-building in the project. Issue of individual, community, and inter-community rights to land and trees would later become divisive, and disgruntled Indians, priests, and timber barons would use them to drive a wedge between communities.

At the same time, the studies were overly optimistic and too limited in scope. According to a 1991 evaluation by Frederica barclaya and Charles Staver, the first estimates called for harvesting about 80 cubic yards of wood per acre. This estimate fell to 30 cubic yards in 1987, and reduced further to about 10 cubic yards in 1990. Similarly, the economic feasibility studies painted an optimistic picture of costs and benefits, according to an evaluation by Colombian forester Alberto Leguízamo. Perhaps because no one studies market conditions for tropical wood in the Santa Cruz region, the current three-year depression in the market came as a surprise.

Growing internal conflict, on the one hand, and the installation of the lumber mill, on the other, marked Phase 2, which lasted from 1987 to 1990. CICOL began to challenge APCOB's control of the project. In its five years of existence. CICOL had grown in confidence and capacity and wanted its share of the action. That dispute undermined the project's delicate internal equilibrium and led to conflicts within APCOB over how to respond. The chief technical advisor resigned in 1987, and the project lacked direction for a while. APCOB abandoned the Lomerio Project.

These conflicts, normal for a large, complex project, couldn't have come at a worse moment. The Dutch government had just agreed to fund the mill, so pressure was on to use this money. The difficulty in transporting machinery and construction materials to Lomerio, plus the situation of internal turmoil, meant that the mill would be installed gradually over two years.

Despite the pressures and conflicts, the project's reforestation and natural regneration components moved forward as planned. The nursery, built in El Fatima on land lent by that community, initially produced seedings of non-native species such as cypress and casuarina pine. Based on research and experiments conducted by the project team, these species were replaced by such native ones as mara cedro, tajibo, cupesí, and curupaú. In 1990, the nursery produced 30,000 seedings of native species.

Reforestation with seedings from the nursery moved ahead slowly but gradually, although questions of property rights began to emerge as a problem. In general, the lands needing reforesting were used for agriculture and pasture, and families could claim rights over them. Furthermore, these individuals planted the seedings and claimed future production based on that labor. In other words, they argued along conventional lines that people have the right to harvest what they plant. These issues have yet to be worked out to the satisfaction of all concerned.

The extraction of timber from the forest and the start of lumber production in the mill in 1990 characterize the third and current phase of the project. The mill, which is medium size, can process 6,000 square feet of hardwood a day using a band saw powered by a diesel generator. The project owns a truck for transporting logs to the mill and a tractor for moving them in the mill yard.

A major question now is whether the mill can operate profitably. According to Leguízamo, the mill must process at least 20 logs a day to break even, but the forest crews have provided at best 14 logs a day so far. During 1990, the mill processed 524 logs in 100 working days, a quarter of the amount needed; 1991 production was not much higher.

The reasons for low production are many. In the first place, the project has only one truck. The distance between the mill and logging sites averages 21 miles. To supply 20 logs, the truck would have to make two round trips a day, difficult under the best of conditions in this region. The project tried hiring a private trucker to provide one load as day, but the expense became too great to bear when there was not market for lumber.

Second, to extract timber, the project needs to build and maintain a network of secondary and tertiary roads to logging sites. The project has proposed adding 2.5 miles of road a year, but it should build far more than that, given the low production rates. This would mean more investment in both machinery and labor and planned.

Third, CICOL has not yet secured access to areas with the best potential for production. Bolivia has yet to grant legal rights to the concession, despite seven years of lobbying by CICOL, APCOB, and CIDOB, an Indian confderation that brings together CICOL and a dozen other brings together CICOL and a dozen other confederations in eastern Bolivia. Originally, the problem was getting the government to annul an existing concession to much of the area, based on the argument that no one had worked that concession, which covered areas inhabited by the Chiquitano. CICOL won this case, but another lumber company petitioned for a concession and began working an area that overlaps about a fifth of CICOL's concession. This question has yet to be resolved and has become a pretext for not granting the CICOL concession.


The idea of managing forests is extremely important, especially when the actors are indigenous peoples with ancestral rights to the land and forests. But when forest management also has to provide income for local peoples and their organizations, it becomes a task demanding business experience. Instead, running the enterprise are Chiquitano Indians who have never kept accounts, let alone run a business, and who are selected by 18 communities in a delicate political process based on consensus. It should come as no surprise that the project is a tangle of problems.

Some problems arose because CICOL and the integrated-development project both grew in part out of a Chiquitano desire to gain independence from the Catholic Church, which dominates the region politically and economically. By its very existence, CICOL challenges the authority of the priest in San Antonio de Lomerio. At the same time, the forest-management project directly competes with a large lumber-mill complex owned by the Bishop of Concepción. This mill has allegedly taken timber from Lomerio illegally for years.

To counter the Lomerio Project, the church promoted the idea that each Chiquitano has private-property rights to forest resources. Three communities separated from CICOL and demanded that "their" area be respected. Even some communities remaining in CICOL pushed the project to respect their "property" rights as well.

In 1991, this situation forced CICOL and APCOB to negotiate a new agreement with the remaining 18 communities about which areas the project would manage and log and how many trees would be cut each year. This agreement clearly demarcates the area CICOL will manage and log, the areas over which communities or families have property rights, how many logs can be taken from those "private" areas, and what price the project will pay for the logs. It also marks the areas of the dissenting communities, denying the project access to perhaps 30 percent of its original area.

Property rights aren't the only obstacles to success. Because lumber has to be sold at a profit, an attractive aspect of the Lomerio proposal was its marketing component. CIDOB had a barraca (lumber depot) next to its Santa Cruz headquarters to service the marketing needs of a mill installed in Zapoco under the guidance of APCOB. CIDOB agreed with CICOL to market the Lomerio mill's production from this barraca and to use CIDOB's truck to carry lumber from Lomerio.

However, lumber mills and barracas had mushroomed around Santa Cruz in the lumber boom of the 1980s. Finer woods - mahogany, cedar, morado - went to Argentina, Brazil, and Europe. Other woods were bought locally, principally for construction and by the mining industry. However, in the late 1980s, the world lumber market entered a depression, and the Bolivian mining industry collapsed. At a time when the large barracas that dominated the market are having difficulty surviving a glut of both high-quality and construction-grade lumber, the small mill in Lomerio, far from the city and with irregular production, has had to lower its price to cost, or below, to sell its lumber. Moreover, CIDOB's small barraca can't compete in this market. During recent visits to Santa Cruz, I've seen Chiquitanos from the Lomerio Project selling their lumber to the highest bidder.

Nevertheless, the Lomerio Project holds great potential despite its setbacks, and it must be judged as part of a long, slow process of trial and error in which capitalist market principles clash with communal subsistence principles, in which principles of scientific management clash with management based on local knowledge, and in which imminent poverty and local need clash with principles of harmony, balance, and sustainability.

Yes, it is disappointing that the Lomerio Project is not yet turning a profit in harmony with nature. But it needs time and room for mistakes. What the Chiquitanos are trying to do is much too important to rush. And, as we have seen, the Chiqitanos have already surmounted enormous obstacles to organize themselves, to put forward their demand for territorial recognition by the government, and to find new ways to meet the needs for cash income that respect the long-term perspective of their cultural heritage.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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