It’s Not Just Brazil’s Forests That Are Burning, Bolivia Is on Fire Too

While the burning Amazon rainforest in Brazil has dominated international news coverage, over a million hectares of Bolivia’s unique Chiquitano dry forest has also been destroyed in recent weeks. Like in Brazil, protesters blame the government for the disaster and say it isn’t doing enough to put the fires out. For weeks they have been demanding president Evo Morales asks for international aid and repeals environmentally damaging laws, as in the meantime volunteers have tried to battle the blaze themselves. 

So far, three times more forest has been destroyed in the South American country in a matter of weeks than was destroyed in the whole of 2017. Having charred much of the unique Chiquitano forest, the fires now threaten globally unique species in three national parks. Experts say it will take over 200 years for the Chiquitano to recover – not accounting for the effects of climate change. 

The burned areas are especially rich in wildlife, with many species unique to the area. Bolivian jaguar scientist Alfredo Romero-Muñoz calculated that the area burned in the Chiquitano so far would be home to 300-500 jaguars. He broke down in tears when he told me.

While the international media has spent pages lambasting the policies of fascist president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, there has been scant international coverage of the fires in Bolivia, and next to nothing on the policies that led to this situation. 

Why did the fires start?

The fires are thought to have been set deliberately to clear land for agriculture. The recent severe drought suffered in the area meant the vegetation was especially dry, and there was limited water to fight the flames.

These devastating fires come just a month after a Supreme Decree allowed farmers in Bolivia to burn forest lands for the first time. Morales has justified people starting fires, saying: “If small families don’t set fires, what are they going to live on?”

Yet these fires come as the Bolivian government pushes for increased agricultural exports, primarily the sale of beef to China and Russia. At the start of July, Bolivia announced that it would be selling about ten times more beef to China

Pablo Solón, the former Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, condemned the forest clearance policies and said the decree enabling burning was in violation of the country’s constitution. 

Bolivian environmental policies

President Evo Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and leader of the Movement for Socialism party (MAS). Since he came to power in 2006, he introduced the notion of ‘vivir bien’ (‘living well in nature’), to the country’s constitution. He also passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which places the intrinsic value of nature alongside that of humans. However, these high level policies have not had much impact on the ground.

Bolivian newspaper Página Siete points to at least four laws – plus numerous decrees and modifications – that have increased deforestation, all passed by the current president. Earlier this year, I joined a team of Bolivian scientists to analyse Morales’ environmental policies over the past 13 years. With few exceptions, we found policies every bit as extractivist and damaging as those of the capitalists Morales claims to hate. Protected areas in Bolivia have been opened to oil and gas drilling, bisected with roads, have had their rivers dammed and their trees felled.

Protests against these policies, such as an indigenous protest against a road in the TIPNIS national park, were met with sometimes lethal violence. Similarly, NGOs have been silenced, also at times with violence. The expansion of ranching for beef export, and the repression of dissenting voices, has led to a situation ripe for ecological disaster. 

What has the government’s response been?

For weeks, Morales repeatedly said that the fires were coming under control and that international help was not needed. In a Twitter thread, Bolivian activist Jhanisse Vaca-Daza has been documenting the situation. 

Her day by day updates chronicle the painfully slow response to the fires, which were being fought as early as 5 August. By 13 August, local authorities in the affected districts were begging the central government for support and helicopters. On 19 August, Morales said he wouldn’t seek international help. Just three helicopters were fighting the enormous blaze. 

Video: helicopters must travel huge distances to drop a relatively small amount of water. The third helicopter was only added to the team on 19 August. (Carlos Orías)

On the 23 August a supertanker plane, hired from the USA, arrived in Bolivia. Activists told me it was volunteer citizens who did the paperwork to order the plane, and who pushed the president to sign it. When the plane arrived, Morales was hailed by some outside the country as a hero. There have been rumours that the plane was not allowed to take off until Bolivia’s Vice-President arrived for a photoshoot.

Until 25 August three planes offered by Argentina remained grounded, as the Bolivian government did not authorise them to fly. On 25 August, the government finally said that the fire was now a risk to human life, and said it would now accept international help.

Morales had been criticised for staying on the campaign trail ahead of the country’s October elections. On Sunday, he announced that he would step off the campaign trail for a week – after more than twenty days of fires.

Video: Volunteers with bottled water join firefighters gathering to fight the fire outside San Lorenzo. A woman urges young people to come and help them fight the fires, which she says are impossible to put out, they just keep coming. She says the air is heavily polluted. The camerawoman asks for international help now. (Ana K. Gamón)

Bolivian citizens respond: Aid, protest, grief, and anger

Bolivian society has mobilised to tackle the fires at every level, often well ahead of the government. Volunteer firefighters have been putting out the flames with whatever they have to hand, in blistering heat and with scarce resources. Volunteers have been passing out due to lack of breathing equipment, with people’s polyester clothes melting to their bodies. 

Video: a volunteer struggles to breathe in thick smoke. (Ana K. Gamón)

Volunteers have also been bringing food and water to affected communities, and fundraising for equipment to fight the fire. Activist Vaca-Daza, who was in New York when the fires broke out, raised money to buy firefighting equipment from the US and carried it to Bolivia.

In the midst of chaos, firefighters and civilians have been caring for animals which survived the inferno, setting up centres for them to be rehabilitated. They are suggesting putting food in the forest for wild animals. However, many animals were so badly burned that they had to be euthanized. In a harrowing account, one farmer describes shooting his cows and horses, and those of his friends, to stop their suffering. 

But even as the flames rage, people have organised. The coordinating group of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, COICA, signed a letter saying they hold both Bolsonaro and Morales responsible for the ‘environmental and cultural genocide’ caused by the fires. They have declared both the Brazilian and Bolivian governments as ‘personas non gratas’ in the Amazon.

People have been taking to the streets for days across the country to demand international aid, and the removal of laws that allow forest burning, especially the recent supreme decree. Twenty-one civil society groups have demanded a repeal of the decree which allowed forest burning. 

It remains to be seen what happens next. Will international aid be offered and accepted in time to save Bolivia’s national parks and Indigenous territories? Will the decrees and laws allowing burning and deforestation be removed? And how will this affect the elections in October?

Dr Claire Wordley is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. She specialises in tropical ecology and wildlife conservation, and earlier this year she published a study on Bolivian environmental policies over the last 13 years. She is also an environmental campaigner and activist.

Published 26th August 2019

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