On August 28, Bolivia shipped 96 tons of beef to China, its first shipment to the Asian country. Bolivian President Evo Morales, Chinese officials, and representatives of Bolivian livestock companies celebrated the event as the start of a promising business relationship.
The inauguration was held amidst a national crisis, while wildfires ravaged the Bolivian Amazon. Environmental organizations blamed Morales’ government for the fires, after passing a series of laws beneficial to the agricultural sector but detrimental to natural areas. Activists attended the event in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Santa Cruz department, with signs that read: “killer cattle farming.”
During two months, more than 7,000 members of the Armed Forces, the Police, and firefighters fought the flames in the Amazon with international support. The heavy rains of early October put an end to the fires that had already destroyed nearly 10 million acres of forest, according to official government data.
The Amazon covers 24 percent of the entire Bolivian territory and extends across five departments, including Santa Cruz department, which leads in livestock production with 43 percent of the 10 million total herd, according to Bolivia’s National Institute of Statistics. Before Bolivia started to export beef to China, the country only exported to Peru and Ecuador. According to official data, only 18,000 of the 250,000 tons of beef produced in 2018 were bound for the international market.
The beef export agreement signed with China in April 2019 raises great expectations for the Andean country. With a population of 1.4 billion, China is the fastest growing beef market in the world, importing more than 1 million tons in 2018, indicated international market researcher Indexbox.
During the event inaugurating the first beef shipment to China, Óscar Ciro Pereyra, head of the Confederation of Cattle Ranchers of Bolivia, provided details about the country’s goal for 2030: to produce more than 200,000 tons of beef for export, which would mean revenues of $800 million in foreign currency.
Between 2013 and 2015, Morales’ government passed three laws that granted pardons to people committing illegal deforestation for agricultural use. In September 2015, the government also passed a law authorizing the clearing of up to 20 hectares (instead of 5 hectares) on small properties. The decree signed in July 2019 authorizes controlled fires in Santa Cruz and Beni departments — which were both affected by the wildfires— to increase beef production and exports.
The government’s agricultural frontier expansion plan seeks to increase the surface of cultivated areas from 8.4 million acres to more than 24.7 million acres in 2025.
Environmental activists stress that the plan does not address the issue of deforestation. According to a report from the Friends of Nature Foundation, an environmental group based in Santa Cruz, cattle grazing is responsible for more than 60 percent of forest loss in Bolivia.