Building Roads, Protecting Forests: Community Resilience in the Bolivian Amazon

Sunrise in the Amazon Basin, Bolivia. (© Jonathan Hood)

Sunrise in the Amazon Basin, Bolivia. The region’s Madidi National Park is home of the indigenous Tacana people, who depend on the biologically diverse rainforest for their livelihoods. (© Jonathan Hood)

When it comes to protecting forests in the Amazon, roads don’t have the best reputation.

By enabling access to land, new roads attract human activities such as agriculture and hunting that can degrade critical forest ecosystems that provide innumerable benefits to people and the climate.

On the other hand, roads are a vital conduit for rural livelihoods and resilience.

How can we balance protection of these forests and the well-being of local communities?

In Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, which protects an area of almost 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres) of the Amazon rainforest, new plans to build a better road along the park’s eastern border will give local communities better access to markets for their products, but could also make it easier for people to move into the area and damage the forest.

community member points out conservation agreement area on map

Javier Deladillo, leader of the indigenous Tacana community of Macahua, shows CI’s Margarita Mora the area protected by his community in exchange for equipment and other CI support which help the community produce and sell sustainably produced handicrafts. (© Conservation International/photo by Andy Wilson)

To prevent this outcome, CI — with help from CI Chairman’s Council member John de Neufville — is working with local indigenous Tacana communities to protect tracts of forest along the park borders. In exchange, CI is providing them with technical expertise, equipment and access to electricity to help them harvest non-timber forest products, produce handicrafts and develop ecotourism businesses.

man climbs tree to collect wild açai berries in the Bolivian Amazon

Herlan Chuqui, a resident of Santa Rosa de Maravilla, a Tacana community bordering Madidi National Park, uses specially designed crampons to climb a tree and collect açai berries, which are crushed, turned into concentrate and sold to domestic buyers like restaurants. (© Conservation International/photo by Andy Wilson)

These deals, called conservation agreements, protect the forest and maintain the buffer zone between the road and the park while helping Tacana families. The current agreements have already helped secure 20,688 hectares (51,072 acres) — but that’s just the beginning. This project will also help the communities become more resilient to external pressures such as climate change, global markets and unregulated resource extraction.

Through these conservation agreements, CI staff have been helping to instill in local communities the key characteristics of resilient behavior, which Judith Rodin describes in her new book, “The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.”

No matter what sort of problems they’re facing, resilient communities will be better able to recover from negative events and adapt to their new reality. In the case of the Amazon rainforest, disruptions might include climate change, a growing population or deforestation facilitated by road construction.

John de Neufville and local community member in indigenous community bordering Bolivia's Madidi National Park

World record-holding snowboarder John de Neufville, a member of CI’s Chairman’s Council, inspects sustainably sourced açai berries with Orlando Chuqui, part of the Tacana indigenous community which protects the forest bordering Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. (© Conservation International/photo by Andy Wilson)

CI’s work to strengthen indigenous communities in Bolivia exemplifies five key elements of resilience-building discussed in Rodin’s book:

  1. Awareness: The communities understand the value of their natural assets, as well as the vulnerabilities of these resources to population growth, market stresses and climate change.
  2. Diversity: Through economic activities like the sale of juice made from wild açai berries, they are diversifying their sources of income as a buffer against external threats.
  3. Integration: Neighboring communities are working together through the Council of the Indigenous Tacana People.
  4. Self-regulation: The communities conduct patrols of the surrounding rainforest to identify threats to the integrity of the buffer zone. They also apply internal sanctions to community members who do not comply with the agreements, and they report and prosecute outsiders who carry out unauthorized activities in their territory.
  5. Adaptability: The communities are adjusting their plans based on their changing environment. For example, they are defining and enforcing specific conservation areas that will help reduce the impact of the new road.
Bolivian woman filters açai juice

Joyceli Chuqui filters açai juice concentrate produced from berries grown in the Bolivian rainforest. CI provides the community with equipment and other support in exchange for their agreement to protect tracts of the forest bordering Madidi National Park. (© Conservation International/photo by Andy Wilson)

By working to understand both the threats and opportunities presented by the planned road construction, the communities living along Madidi National Park will become more resilient, so they are better able to protect the forest and benefit from the services it provides to them.

Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, and her staff have been promoting resilience thinking through their work around the world and via the Global Resilience Partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Swedish International Development Agency. On Tuesday at our 18th Annual New York Dinner, CI honored Judith Rodin and The Rockefeller Foundation with its Conservation Hero Award for their environmental leadership. (Watch this clip from the dinner of Rodin explaining to Charlie Rose why building resilience is so important for vulnerable communities.)


As the pressures of a growing population and climate change continue to stress natural systems around the world, I hope many more institutions and communities will follow the lead of Rodin and her foundation in building resilience to the challenges we all face.

Andy Wilson is CI’s vice president for development.

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