Deforestation and reforestation in Bolivia: A thought experiment

Lykke Andersen

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

Within the Bolivian government, there are parts that encourage a massive expansion of the agricultural frontier, and other parts that work to control deforestation in order to reduce the local and global impacts of climate change. These are pretty much opposing policies, so consider the following hypothetical question: How large an area would we have to reforest in order to compensate the carbon emissions caused by the expansion of the agricultural frontier by 2.5 million hectares, if we wanted to reach carbon emission neutrality by 2030.

The answer to this question depends on a lot of details, such as where the agricultural expansion would be located and also when, where and how the reforestation would take place. However, let’s make a rough estimate based on the following assumptions:

  • The 2.5 million hectare expansion of the agricultural frontier will be well distributed across the country and it will be at the expense of average Bolivian forest, which according to FAO’s 2010 Forestry Assessment has a carbon content of 78 tC/ha (1). The expansion will take place as soon as possible during 2015 and 2016.
  • The reforestation will take place on previously deforested, fallow land, which will be planted with rubber tree seedlings, or some mix of species that accumulates carbon in roughly the same way as rubber trees (see function in Figure 1 below). This reforestation will also take place as soon as possible in 2015 and 2016.

Figure 1: Accumulation of carbon in a rubber tree plantation

Source: Song et al. (2014) “Do the rubber plantations in tropical China act as large carbon sinks?” iForest Biogeosciences and Forestry, vol. 7, pp. 42-47.
Source: Song et al. (2014) “Do the rubber plantations in tropical China act as large carbon sinks?” iForest Biogeosciences and Forestry, vol. 7, pp. 42-47.

There are only about 15 years left until 2030, so, according to Figure 1, by that year the carbon accumulation in the reforested areas would only have amounted to about 40 tC/ha.

If we deforest 2.5 million hectares of average Bolivian forest, we will emit approximately 73 tC/ha (5 tC/ha will remain in agricultural land and pastures), adding up to 183 million tC. To absorb all that carbon by 2030, we would have to immediately plant 4.6 million ha with rubber tree seedlings or something similar that grows to a density of 120 tC/ha over 50 years.

So, as a rough rule of thumb, if you deforest one hectare, you would have to reforest two hectares in order to become carbon neutral 15 years later.

Does it make any sense to simultaneously deforest and reforest? It certainly creates jobs, but it is a bit like digging holes and filling them up again. Actually, it is a LOT like digging holes and filling them up again, as we are talking about planting close to a billion tree seedlings.

There might be something more useful we could use all that labor and money for. We could, for example, increase agricultural production on already cleared land and leave the forests alone. Planting palm oil trees on previously cleared and currently unused land (of which we have at least 3 million hectares available), for example, seems like a win-win strategy:

  • It would absorb massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere over the next couple of decades (could easily make Bolivia a net carbon absorber by 2030).
  • It will require lots of labor to reforest 3 million hectares, so no worries about unemployment.
  • It will generate a steady flow of income for decades, as palm oil trees are productive for about 20 years and can be used equally well for food or for bio-fuel, and is also used in numerous other industries (e.g. soaps and washing powder).

One additional suggestion: We could allow moderate amounts of deforestation (e.g. 100.000 hectares/year), but tax it by about USD 1000/ha, which would yield annual revenues of USD 100 million, which would come in handy to help finance the production of all those tree seedlings that we will need for reforestation.

This strategy would actually make Bolivia a net carbon absorber very quickly, while at the same time generating lots of jobs and a sustainable flow of income for decades to come. Also, since palm oil production is a highly profitable enterprise, this could easily be done in public-private partnerships with relatively little public expenditure needed.

African palm oil nursery. Source:
African palm oil nursery. Source:

African palm oil is a species that generates relatively quick economic returns, but we could also experiment with other useful species (such as popular hardwood species, although it would take several decades before we could start reaping the returns from that investment), or we could even leave it to nature to pick the species and just allow natural forest regeneration. The latter option is clearly the easiest, and it is indeed already taking place on a massive scale in Bolivia. According to a recent study published by SERNAP, there are currently about 1.5 million hectares of previously deforested land which is now in the process of natural regeneration (2). Natural forest regeneration is excellent for sucking COout of the atmosphere, and excellent for biodiversity, but not as good for generating jobs and income as systematic reforestation with the most useful tree species.

Personally, if I had any money to invest, I would go for a palm oil nursery in Santa Cruz.


Dr. Lykke E. Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.



(1)    See page 276 of FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010:

(2) SERNAP – Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas (2013). Deforestación y regeneración de bosques en Bolivia y en sus áreas protegidas nacionales para los periodos 1990-2000 y 2000-2010. Ed. Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, Museo de Historia Natural Noel Kempff Mercado y Conservación Internacional – Bolivia. La Paz, Bolivia. 36 pp.




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