Bolivia’s system of protected areas currently covers around fifteen percent of the country. These national parks (parques nacionales), national reserves (reservas nacionales) and “natural areas” (areas naturales de manejo integrado) encompass the full range of different terrains and ecosystems in Bolivia, from the tropical forests of the Amazon lowlands to the frozen peaks and high-altitude Andean deserts. They include many of Bolivia’s most outstanding scenic attractions, but their principal aim is to protect native flora and fauna, and there are relatively few facilities for tourism. Though in some parks you can find basic accommodation, in general visiting these areas involves a wilderness expedition, which is usually possible only with the help of a tour operator.
The country’s national parks and reserves are administered by the Servicio Nacional de Areas Protegidas (SERNAP), which has a head office in La Paz (t022426272, w) though it offers little in the way of practical information. In cases where you need permission to visit a park or reserve, you can do so in the local or regional SERNAP offices. Details about permission and entrance fees for individual parks and reserves are given in the guide. Protected areas range in size from the vast 34,411-square-kilometre Parque Nacional Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco, the largest in South America, to the relatively small 164-square-kilometre Parque Nacional Toro Toro.
Many of Bolivia’s protected areas were established only relatively recently in response to pressure and incentives from international conservation groups. Some, including the Parque Nacional Madidi, were set up through debt-for-nature swaps, whereby international groups bought up large amounts of the country’s international debt at discounted rates, then cancelled the debts in return for Bolivia agreeing to establish protected areas and invest money in their conservation. Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado was expanded as part of a pioneer carbon-trading scheme, under which US energy corporations finance the protection of forest areas in Bolivia in return for being allowed to claim credits for the carbon dioxide the forests absorb from the atmosphere when meeting their own emissions targets.
Despite such schemes, many national parks and other protected areas are under intense pressure from landless peasants, mostly migrants from the highlands looking for new areas of forest to clear and cultivate. Small teams of park guards with almost no resources struggle to protect thousands of square kilometres of wilderness from incursions by hunters, logging and mining companies, cattle ranchers and peasant colonizers, who are often better organized, financed and equipped. In addition, though many Bolivians are aware of the enormous value of their remaining wilderness areas and support conservation measures, there is also widespread opposition to the national parks system. Peasant federations in particular view the protected areas as a form of imperialism whereby natural resources that are rightfully theirs are handed over to international conservation groups intent, they believe, on stealing Bolivia’s biodiversity and patenting any scientifically valuable species discovered.