Wildfires in Bolivia have destroyed nearly five million acres (two million hectares) of forest and grassland as of August, including in some of the most environmentally sensitive regions of the South American nation, according to officials.
The hardest-hit region has been the Chiquitanía, semi-dry forest lands in the country’s central plains that lies between the Amazon and the Gran Chaco lowland.
The BBC reports that scientists at the College of Biologists in La Paz say it will take 300 years for the local ecosystem and its innumerable native species to regenerate.
Cinthia Asin, the minister of environment for the eastern region of Santa Cruz, has urged President Evo Morales to declare a national disaster to step up firefighting efforts and better channel international aid, as reported by by AFP. But according to an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies document, because the government has “requested assistance” and has made fighting the fires a “current priority,” “an emergency declaration was not issued.”
“Over 2 million hectares have burned in the department of Santa Cruz, we are going almost a month (with the problem) and the country is not yet declared a national disaster,” Asin said.
Asin added that the blazes have destroyed nearly 2.25 million acres or 900,000 hectares of protected areas, especially in the Otuquis and San Matias areas of eastern Bolivia which are among the Andean nation’s richest in diverse flora and fauna. The number is backed in a recent report by conservationist group Friends of Nature Foundation – Bolivia (FAN-BO).
The government has also come under international pressure to declare extraordinary measures to halt the raging fires, which began in May and intensified in August as the Amazon rainforest in neighboring Brazil also burned.
In July, President Morales issued a decree authorizing an increase in controlled burns in the region. While farmers had previously been allowed to burn up to 12 acres (five hectares), they were allowed under the new authorization to burn up to 50 acres (20 hectares). Since then, the fires have allegedly increased, Mongabay reports. The government, however, has blamed high winds and arid conditions.
Like in Brazil, the intentional burning of forest land in Bolivia is meant to expand the frontier demarcated for the production of cattle and agricultural products, benefitting transnational agribusiness and livestock monopolies as well as some indigenous small farmers from the western highlands. Among the government’s goals behind the July decree was to expand production and infrastructure to increase beef exports to China.
Frankly I have the impression that *certain sectors of society* have noticed it's open season on the forest & are burning it as fast as they can. The ranchers, in particular, are VERY happy to let the migrants from the altiplano take the flak. #BoliviaFires #soschiquitania pic.twitter.com/G7eYR816kk
— Dr. Edwin Pynegar (@EdwinPynegar) September 10, 2019
At the time, Morales said:
“We have the duty and mission to boost Bolivia’s economic growth, not only based on non-renewable natural resources but also based on agriculture.”
Pablo Solón, a former Bolivian ambassador to the U.N. under the Morales administration, has squarely placed the blame for the fires on the government, explaining:
“What is happening is not an accident. Five years ago, the vice president challenged agribusinesses to expand the agricultural frontier by one million hectares per year … Now it has reached that figure, not of productive agricultural land but of land devastated by the flames.”
Some officials are blaming shady forces for deliberately keeping the fires burning. Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta said:
“We are certain that the fire is being deliberately provoked: on the one hand by saboteurs, and on the other hand, by farmers and landowners who are starting fire and fail to control them … this is a macabre game, we put out the fire and there are people behind us who are starting it again, so we will not be able to control the fire.”
“I want to tell you that I have decided to declare an ‘ecological pause’, which means that in areas affected by the fires, land sales are prohibited; on top of that, we’re planning how to prepare for the post-fire era, because we are going to overcome this.”
Over the past weekend, high temperatures and raging winds continued to stoke the historic fires.
On Monday, Amnesty International sent an open letter to President Morales calling on him to rescind the July decree.
We call on Bolivian government to suspend the decree authorizing “controlled burns” to extend agricultural frontier, until it's certain that it hasn't contributed to forest fires causing an environmental crisis in Chiquitanía, a region close to the Amazon. https://t.co/E8RccHsuMv
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) September 9, 2019
María José Veramendi Villa, South America researcher for Amnesty International, said:
“Brazil is not the only country suffering from the terrible forest fires in the Amazon … Instead of making contradictory and baseless public declarations, Bolivian authorities must scientifically and independently investigate the origin of this serious crisis.”
The fire has proven to be a strong challenge to the legitimacy of Morales, whose political party Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS in Spanish) originally had a strongly pro-ecological or “ecosocialist” orientation before softening its stance over the years toward the country’s large agro-industrial sector, including farmers in Santa Cruz.
Morales, who is currently running for a fourth consecutive term, faces a new vote on October 20.
Long-time opponents of Morales’ left-wing government, including a number of Western-backed NGOs and oppositionists, have seized on the fires to push to have him removed from power in the coming election, the Grayzone reports.
Faced with the anger of local opponents and communities for his perceived blame in pushing the development—and subsequent burning—of the forests, he has redoubled his efforts to combat the blaze. Last month, the president hit the brakes on his election campaign to personally fight the fires.
— Alex (@_Alex_Shea_) September 1, 2019
Morales also agreed to hire the famous firefighting U.S. supertanker plane to drop water on the fires and has also accepted help from Russia, who has sent its own large plane to put out the fires from the sky. Morales previously rented a Boeing 747 capable of carrying up to 150,000 liters of water in late August in an attempt to battle the fires.
In ??Bolivia, President Evo Morales has rented a ✈Boing 747-400 plane that can carry up to 150,000 liters of water to fight Amazon fires. 500,000 hectares have already been destroyed ?https://t.co/F5mPBCGreo pic.twitter.com/qJN6EiGam5
— InfoAmazonia (@InfoAmazonia) August 22, 2019
Throughout the week, Morales has issued a series of tweets stressing how the fires are painful for the Bolivian nation, thanking international aid and the armed forces for their efforts in helping to put out the blazes.
Gracias al apoyo internacional, el esfuerzo y la unidad de nuestro pueblo, contamos con las tres aeronaves anti-incendio más grandes del mundo que refuerzan una flota combinada que trabaja sin descanso para apagar los focos de calor en la Chiquitania. #UnidadEnLaAdversidad pic.twitter.com/x6nuWeF3t8
— Evo Morales Ayma (@evoespueblo) September 11, 2019