UNESCO supports Beni Biological Station Biosphere Reserve, Bolivia, to confront a social, environmental and health emergency
Along with other countries in Latin America, Bolivia has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and Bolivia's indigenous peoples have suffered disproportionately from the direct and indirect health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The experience of the Tsimane and Movima indigenous communities of the Beni Biological Station Biosphere Reserve (EBB RB) show how these complex situations create unequal impacts. These communities, that practice mainly subsistence agriculture, with some fishing, hunting, supplemented by raising animals on a small-scale, selling some crops and arts and crafts, rely to a large extent on traditional and local knowledge.
However, they face challenges that become more difficult during times of crisis. Less than half of the communities have health clinics, with no roads or easy access to many of the communities, and there are high rates of communicable diseases, for example, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. In this context, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social and economic consequences of quarantines. Moreover, social and political upheaval, in the form of widespread protests and government instability have disrupted supply chains for basic necessities, including food, medicine and fuel.
If that were not enough, 2020 has seen one of the most widespread and long-lasting droughts across much of South America. In EBB RB this has contributed to several outbreaks of forest fires which have threatened not only the biosphere reserve’s protected area, but also the food supply and homes of the biosphere reserve’s indigenous communities.
However, between the redirection of limited resources to combat COVID-19, limits on transport caused by closures and social unrest, the need to isolate indigenous communities for their own protection, and a high rate of COVID-19 infection among protected area officials and other government officials, it has not been possible to manage the fires using normal protocols.
EBB RB, with support from UNESCO and the NGO, Senda Verde, responded to this complex emergency by developing a contingency activity, consisting of community-based capacity building in fire management and prevention, together with a health check and monitoring visit to communities that have not had ready access to health services.
In September 2020, 4 community capacity-building workshops were held with 155 community members and park rangers, volunteers and community brigades, as well as key preventative activities such as setting up early alert protocols, community-based routine maintenance activities. Such community-based activities are especially important in remote communities that rely on fire as a tool for subsistence and small-scale agriculture, but must adapt their practices to contend with changing conditions.
The fire management and prevention capacity-building teams that visited the remote communities were accompanied by voluntary medical teams, permitting community health checks, including COVID-19 testing.
Beni Biological Station was admitted to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 1987. It is located in Beni Province of northeast Bolivia and consists of approximately 135.000HA of Amazonian forests and seasonally flooded savanna.
In its draft management plan, EBB BR has prioritised the conservation of 9 species, including the endangered Beni titi monkey and the jaguar. In 2020, EBB BR was also recognised as an area of importance for the conservation of bats by the Latin American Bat Conservation Network.
The total human population of the Biosphere Reserve is approximately 4000 people, approximately 80% of whom are Tsimane or Movima indigenous peoples.