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The 'elbow of the Andes' region in southeastern Bolivia
The "elbow of the Andes" region in southeastern Bolivia, situated in a biogeographic
transition zone between the Andean region and the Brasileño Paranense


Bolivia is recognized as one of 17 megadiversity countries, each of which contains one-tenth of the total number of species on Earth. In a land area of 1,083,300 km² — about the size of the states of California and Texas combined — Bolivia has an estimated 18,000 species of plants. With a per capita income of $4,500 annually, Bolivia is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America and consequently has few resources to educate its people and to research and conserve its biological heritage. Increasing knowledge of Bolivia’s biodiversity is vital at a time when the country is experiencing rapid economic growth and when changes in land use pose a significant threat to large areas of relatively undisturbed forest and savanna. Human migration, cattle ranching, and industrial agriculture have accelerated the rates of deforestation; and highway construction, petroleum exploration, gas pipelines, and hydroelectric projects are opening previously remote areas to colonization. Many of the new agriculture, construction, and energy developments are planned for the most biologically diverse regions and will affect most of the National System of Protected Areas created by the Bolivian government in the last two decades. Moreover, most of the protected areas lack an effective information base for conservation and natural resource management.

The Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) has been working in Bolivia for more than 30 years and has significantly advanced understanding of Bolivia’s biodiversity and, thereby, conservation in the country. Our goal has always been twofold: to gain greater knowledge of Bolivia’s plant diversity and distribution and to help build the country’s capacity to understand, manage, and conserve its biological resources. During the last several years we have concentrated our work in three areas that we consider exceptionally rich, poorly known, and seriously threatened: the Madidi region in northwestern Bolivia, the Yungas montane forest in central Bolivia, and the Tucumano-Boliviano montane forests in southern Bolivia.

Athyrium latinervatum, Madidi National Park
Athyrium latinervatum,
Madidi National Park
Hydrocotyle apolobambensis, Ulla Ulla National Reserve
Hydrocotyle apolobambensis,
Ulla Ulla National Reserve

The Madidi Region in Northwestern Bolivia

This vast region along Bolivia’s border with Peru is home to an unsurpassed biological richness — the result of evolution and adaptation over a 30- to 40-million-year-period when the Andes gradually uplifted to shape an enormously varied landscape, with an estimated 12,000 plant species. The larger Madidi region encompasses about 110,000 km² (the size of Virginia) and includes three national parks, Madidi, Apolobamba, and Pilón Lajas, which together comprise a wilderness area of about 28,000 km² (the size of Maryland). Madidi National Park alone is considered the most biodiverse national park on the planet. Before MBG began to work in Madidi, many of the region’s ecosystems were completely unexplored, and several new vegetation types discovered by MBG in Madidi were either completely unknown or unknown to exist in Bolivia.

The greatest threats to this exceptional biodiversity stem from the construction of new roads, which open the region to increased colonization; the expansion of agriculture; cattle raising; and exploitation of the forest for firewood. As efforts to suppress coca-growing continue in other parts of Bolivia, people in Madidi have taken up the crop, which rapidly depletes the soil and thus encourages cutting and burning of additional forest areas.

Bolivia’s Montane Forests contain the highest diversity for plants in Bolivia and may account for 60 percent of the country’s estimated 18,000 plant species but cover only eight percent of the land surface. MBG and its partners in Bolivia are focusing on two major montane forest types that previously were poorly known.

The Yungas Montane Forest in Central Bolivia, which includes two regions:

  • the Chapare, located in the heart of the Bolivian biological mountain corridor between Madidi National Park to the northwest and Amboró National Park to the southwest. The exceptional species-richness of the Chapare, one of the country’s most biologically diverse regions, may be attributed in part to its extremely high precipitation — only slightly less than that of the Colombian Chocó, the highest in the New World.
  • the Serranía Siberia, a small, narrow mountain range strategically located at the southernmost cusp of the true montane forest of the Tropical Andes — the point where numerous montane plants and animals also reach their southernmost distribution
  • The Tucumano-Boliviano Montane Forests in Southern Bolivia
    Recently cited as the most endangered forest type in Bolivia, the Tucumano-Boliviano forests occur in fragmented island patches in an area extending more than 950 km from central to southernmost Bolivia at elevations of 1200 to 2800 m. Unrestricted logging, grazing, and land clearing for crops are unabated in this region.

    Tucumano-Boliviano forest, Tarija department, southern Bolivia
    Tucumano-Boliviano forest,
    Tarija department, southern Bolivia
    Weinmannia yungasensis, Nor Yungas province, east of La Paz
    Weinmannia yungasensis,
    Nor Yungas province, western Bolivia

    MBG’s program in Bolivia has four major goals:

  • To increase understanding of poorly known regions of Bolivia by conducting floristic inventories and ecological studies using one-hectare forest plots and transects, and to disseminate the results of these studies in printed and Web-based publications
  • To resolve central questions in ecology and biodiversity studies: How do local species richness and differences in species composition from site to site determine total diversity, and what is the relative importance of the different factors — a site’s climate, temperature, rainfall, topography, or substrate; the geographical distance between sites; or a region’s evolutionary history — that determine a site’s richness? Answering these questions will enable us to estimate quite precisely the relative biodiversity of different sites and hence focus conservation efforts on the areas richest in biodiversity and on those that contain rare and unique plant species.
  • To help Bolivians gain the expertise and skills to assume responsibility for understanding and managing their country’s biological resources by training people at various stages of their professional development — from Bolivian undergraduate and graduate students to young professionals, and from park guards to residents of communities in and adjacent to protected areas
  • To collaborate with local communities to develop and implement programs devoted to conservation and sustainable development of ecosystems and their constituent plants, including environmental management plans for protected areas
  • For more information, contact
    Steven Churchill
    Peter Jørgensen

    Learn more about the Missouri Botanical Garden's program in South America

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    Director, CCSD, Missouri Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166 Phone: (314) 577-0871 © 2014