HomeScienceEnvironmentUnchecked deforestation destroying evidence of lost Amazon civilisation | Bolivia

Unchecked deforestation destroying evidence of lost Amazon civilisation | Bolivia

In the afternoon on the way to Grünland, a Mennonite colony in the Bolivian department of Beni, the only sound is a chainsaw in the distance.

Strips of deforested land stretch into the distance on either side. Underfoot, the ground is littered with shards of ceramics and bone: remnants of the pre-Columbian peoples who once supported this part of the Bolivian Amazon, known as the Llanos de Mojos.

Archaeologists are only just beginning to understand the scale and complexity of these societies, but all the while the agricultural frontier continues to encroach and destroy sites before they can be studied. The environmental damage of deforestation is well known, but the Llanos de Mojos shows another side of the impact: the loss of human history.

Grünland was founded in 2005 by Mennonites, members of the close-knit Anabaptist Christian group who arrived in South America in the early 20th century in search of isolation and land to farm.

In a field, a Mennonite man named Guillermo lay resting in the shadow of his tractor. He cheerfully acknowledged that he had found ceramics and bones while working the land.

Umberto Lombardo, an Italian earth scientist and one of the few academics studying the archeology of Beni, probed cautiously with questions about the land’s topography when it was first deforested.

Archaeologist Umberto Lombardo in a deforested field in Grünland.
Archaeologist Umberto Lombardo in a deforested field in Grünland. Photo: Thomas Graham

The Llanos de Mojos is an almost completely flat region, so all higher elevations are a sure sign of human activity. Lombardo walked around, stopping here and there to pick up bits of dirt from what was once a huge man-made mound, now partially flattened by the farmers.

“The surface of the site has been completely destroyed, changed, because the earth has moved, the pottery has broken,” Lombardo said. “That part of the archaeological record has been lost.”

The Anabaptists are just one facet of Bolivia’s thriving agricultural industry, and what happens in Grünland happens all over Beni.

The Bolivian government has big plans for the sector. Today, the country has about 4 million hectares of farmland and 10 million head of livestock. In 2025, the government wants 13 million hectares and 18 million head of cattle.

On the current trajectory, the cabinet will substantially fall short of those targets. Nevertheless, it has boosted the industry’s growth by allowing more deforestation and reducing fines for illegal deforestation.

Global Forest Watch will be installed in 2021 Bolivia third in the world for loss of old-growth forest, behind Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ranked by population, Bolivia ranks first by a distance.

Most of this deforestation takes place in two departments: Santa Cruz and Beni. But it is in Beni that a unique archaeological heritage is in danger.

“Archaeology is everywhere in Beni,” Lombardo said. “They say if you put up a roof, you have a museum.”

The Amazon Basin was once considered pristine wilderness, but a growing body of research has found traces of a vast network of earthworks that predate Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Amazon. America and implies the existence of large, complex societies.

In Bolivia, archaeologist Heiko Prümers and his team began flying over the Llanos de Mojos by helicopter in 2019 and mapping the land below them with a laser. They then digitally removed the vegetation, revealing the topography of the ground below.

Farmers often find bones and pottery in their fields cleared from the forest. Photo: Thomas Graham

In a paper published in Naturethey described settlements built around it monumental mounds of about 20 meters high. Smaller settlements surrounded the larger ones, connected by miles of roads. Canals and reservoirs show how people shaped the land for agriculture.

It is no coincidence that archeology and agribusiness converge in Beni: the pre-Columbian earthworks that made agriculture possible continue to function today.

“The landscape we have today is the result of pre-Columbian intervention,” Lombardo said. “The legacy remains – and farmers are making the most of it.”

For most of the people who live here and work the land – whether indigenous communities, settlers, Anabaptists, or the agribusiness community – the archaeological remains are so commonplace that they are hardly noticed, let alone preserved stayed.

Roads cut through monumental mounds. Farmers flatten them. People build huts on it. In one case near the Mennonite colony, the state road company removed dirt from a hillside to plug potholes.

“For most people here, these hills have no special value,” Lombardo said. “They know there are bones and pottery in the earth, but they see them as part of the natural landscape.”

Even if they knew the value of the sites, there are no incentives for people to report them to the state – nor experts that could easily be sent to study them. There are only a handful of archaeologists who study the Llanos de Mojos, and none live in Bolivia.

“The gap between the wealth of archeology and the human capital available to study it — it’s an abyss,” Lombardo said.

Bernardo, a local indigenous man, leads archaeologist Umberto Lombardo into the forest.
Bernardo, a local indigenous man, leads archaeologist Umberto Lombardo into the forest. Photo: Thomas Graham

In an ideal world, he says, the government would educate locals about the importance of the mounds, pay to preserve them and set up an archaeological faculty in Beni.

For now, Lombardo has a pragmatic view: archaeologists should save what they can. “It is utopian to think that you can protect all the archeology here: then nobody would do anything.”

On his way back from Grünland, Lombardo encountered a local native man he knew, Bernardo, who was trying to kick start his motorcycle. They got talking. Bernardo mentioned another hill, in the woods not far from the road.

Lombardo followed him inside, swept at vines with a machete, and lifted his feet high to avoid tripping over roots. A path appeared—a pre-Columbian causeway, Lombardo said, over his shoulder—and rose gradually to an overgrown knoll perhaps twenty feet high.

There was a gaping hole in the middle. Bernardo said it was dug by locals looking for gold. The mosquitoes started to gather.

“There are so many things to study,” Lombardo said in a moment of melancholy on the rim of the crater. “If these sites are destroyed, we may never have the answers.”

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