The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, is on the horizon. The event taking place this June, twenty years after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, can serve as a reminder for lawmakers in Washington, DC of the impact of their work beyond the beltway and throughout the increasingly globalized planet. As noted in the ‘7 Critical Issues at Rio+20’, sustainable development efforts are linked to climate change. I recently passed through the Tacana indigenous community of San Miguel, in the Bolivian Amazon, where, over the last four years, I have studied and witnessed the impacts of sustainable development efforts and global climate change.

Setting the StageParks Watch, accessed 2012.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Abel Iturralde Province of Bolivia was known for its timber extraction. Between 1979 and 1987, 16 timber companies owned almost 2.9 million hectares of land, over two-thirds of the province. Timber extraction slowed when it became illegal in 1989 (although five businesses continued until at least 1991) and after a 1990 biodiversity assessment by Conservation International declared much of the province and surrounding region a biodiversity ‘hotspot’. This spurred an international movement and by 1995 the 1.9 million hectare Madidi National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area was created. Beyond the local conservation, one immediate result of the park was the loss of a valuable source of income for local communities previously engaged in resource extraction, resulting in the emigration of timber workers to other parts of the country. The promotion of tourism in the national park increased local employment opportunities. One of the first tourism success stories was the 1998 opening of the Chalalan ecotourism lodge, owned and operated by the San José de Uchupiamonas community with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank and Conservation International.

Intelligent Sustainable Development
Inspired by San José’s success, in 2002 the Tacana indigenous community of San Miguel set out to create its own ecotourism lodge. After receiving financial and technical support from organizations including Conservation International, CARE Bolivia, and the UN Development Programme, the San Miguel del Bala Eco-lodge opened its doors in 2005. Located at the gateway to Madidi National Park, and with cabins inside the park, San Miguel del Bala guides tourists in and around the national park to explore the flora and fauna. Aside from a slight drop in 2008 due to the economic downturn, each year the lodge’s attendance and revenues have increased, resulting in increased local employment opportunities and a growing community investment fund, which has supported educational access and medical care in the community. San Miguel’s vested economic interest in Madidi National Park has resulted in their increased protection of the park amidst a variety of threats. Reporting illegal activities and supporting the understaffed park on patrols led to the community being named ‘Honorary Park Rangers’ by Madidi. This win-win for the environment and the economy is a testament to the power of intelligent investments in sustainable development.

Record Rainfall and Flooding
While these sustainable development investments have benefited the community and conservation, in February 2011 the Beni River, which runs alongside the community of San Miguel and through Madidi National Park, experienced severe flooding related to the effects of La Niña. In a community of approximately 30 palm tree-thatched roof houses, at least 11 were completely destroyed due to flooding (video footage of the flood in the town of Rurrenabaque, located 7 kilometers downriver from San Miguel). Located higher above the level of the river, the San Miguel del Bala eco-lodge was spared and business continues; meanwhile, the community is still recovering and rebuilding one year later. In this record setting rainfall in Bolivia, at least 45 people died and over 10,000 families were left homeless, and the government declared a “National Emergency.”

Drawing of Traditional Tacana House

in San Miguel

Hissink, Karen, and Albert Hahn. 2000. Los Tacana. Frankfurt: Instituto Frobenius de la Universidad Wolfgang Goethe.

Flooding Downriver in Rurrenabaque


Photo Source: San Miguel del Bala


With global climate change comes the increased risk of extreme weather. Carbon emissions, no matter their country of origin, have the potential to affect all parts of the world through such events, and potentially impede sustainable development efforts. As Rio+20 arrives, it is essential to recognize the inextricable relationship between addressing global climate change and the promotion of sustainable development throughout the planet. As witnessed in Bolivia, successful sustainable development efforts may encounter severe setbacks without serious efforts to address global climate change.

Additional footage of Bolivia flooding:
Coverage of Rurrenabaque (town closest to San Miguel): YouTube
International Coverage on Bolivia: BBC, NTD Television