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Fires still being set in blazing Bolivia (commentary)

  • Firefighters in Bolivia are tackling conflagrations that have burned an area larger than Costa Rica. Several national parks and Indigenous territories have been affected.
  • Many Indigenous and civil society groups are calling for an end to laws that allow burning.
  • I spoke to ecologists and biologists about what is being lost, and what the chances of recovery are for affected areas. Some did not want to be named, as the political situation is tense right now in the run up to Bolivia’s October elections.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Despite over six weeks of firefighting, the infernos destroying Bolivia’s forests continue to spread. 5.3 million hectares (about 13.1 million acres) — an area larger than the whole of Costa Rica — have been destroyed, and about 40 percent of that area was forest. A perfect storm of factors — from an unusually dry year, probably linked to climate change, to a new law allowing burning of forest lands — have combined to make this one of the worst years this century for forest fires in the megadiverse nation.

But are these fires out of the ordinary?

Fires are set every year in Bolivia, usually to clear land for agriculture. But Assistant Professor Carwil Bjork-James of Vanderbilt University says that the fires this year are especially severe: “We are seeing a dramatic year in terms of the numbers of fires blazing in Bolivia, and the acreage consumed by them. If the fires continue at their current pace, it will be the second worst year of the twenty-first century.”

Photo from Limoncito, Roboré, 14th September 2019. Courtesy of Claire Wordley.

The number of fires set this year in the worst-affected Santa Cruz district of Bolivia — which had the dubious distinction of being the number one deforestation hotspot in the Amazon even before the current fires — is well above that of previous years. Over 83,000 fires were set in Santa Cruz in August, more than double the number set in 2016, another bad year for fires. There were also differences in where the fires were set, with more than twice as many fires set in remote areas compared to 2016.

Credit: SDSN Bolivia.

Why are fires being set?

Many are pointing the finger at Supreme Decree 3973, announced in July, which legalized burning forest areas. Less than a month after the decree was issued, out-of-control fires were reported. This decree, along with Law 741, which allows up to 20 hectares of land to be burned at a time, have been denounced by major Indigenous organizations, the Catholic Church of Bolivia, Amnesty International, and at least 21 civil society groups.

These laws appear to be aimed at fulfilling government pledges to triple agricultural area and export beef to China. Bolivia’s agricultural industry has defended the legalization of burning, asking President Evo Morales not to “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Morales has “paused” the laws until the current fires are under control — but on-the-ground reports suggest that there are no attempts at enforcement.

While many Bolivians are fighting the fires, some are still setting them. An ecologist working with firefighters told me that “people who for whatever reason want to burn the forest are now taking advantage of the situation to do so, knowing that the authorities either can’t or won’t implement sanctions. Many of them may also be hoping that there will be a “perdonazo” (a general pardon) at some point in the future, which will allow them to keep hold of land that has illegally been cleared. Based on what has happened in the past, that’s a fairly safe bet.”

North of Concepción fires are still being deliberately set, mostly on medium to large ranches. After deforestation with heavy machinery, dry branches are up, ready to be burned. These fires easily spread to the forest. Photo courtesy of Claire Wordley.

Is international aid helping?

Firefighters, many of them volunteers with inadequate equipment and little central organization, have been tackling the blazes for nearly two months. At least seven firefighters have died trying to save the forests.

After initially resisting international aid, Bolivia requested EU assistance at the end of August. EU countries have sent staff and equipment. However, while there have been local successes, the fires continue to rage in many places. One issue is the remoteness of many of the areas currently on fire. Planes and helicopters can fly over to dump water, but without humans on the ground to put out the ashes, the fires can easily reignite if temperatures and winds remain high. It is hard to get people to these areas, and there are not enough trained firefighters.

Firefighter in Bolivia. Photo Credit: Ipa Ibañez.

The ecologists I spoke to expected the fires to end only when heavy rains come, in October or November, but wanted more national mobilization and international aid to limit the damage in the meantime.

What has burned?

The fires have burned around 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) within protected areas, spanning ecoregions including the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal wetland, the Chiquitano and Chaco dry forests, and the Cerrado. Some of the worst affected protected areas are San Matías and Otuquis, with 24 and 32 percent of each park burned, respectively, and Bolivia’s newest protected area, Ñembi Guasu, where 34 percent of the park was destroyed.

‘AQ’ stands for Area Quemada, or Burned Area — orange is burned area until August, red represents burned areas until various dates in September. Green represents forests, grey represents non-forests. Map Credit: Friends of Nature Foundation.

Otuquis National Park lies within the Bolivian Pantanal, considered one of the best preserved parts of the tropical wetland. Otuquis is flooded for six months a year, and is home to large predators such as pumas (Puma concolor), yellow anacondas (Eunectes notaeus), and maned wolves (Chrysocyon brachyurus), indicating a healthy ecosystem with lots of prey. It also supports highly threatened species such as hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) and giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis).

San Matías National Park protects water sources of the Pantanal, areas of the Pantanal itself, and the Chiquitano dry forest, unique to Bolivia. The Chiquitano dry forest has been extremely badly affected by the fires, especially worrying as it is both the healthiest tract of dry forest left on Earth and one of the most diverse. The Chiquitano is rich in jaguars (Panthera onca), tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), and giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus).

Hyacinth macaw in the Bolivian Pantanal. Photo Credit: Alfredo Romero-Muñoz.

Ñembi Guasu, inaugurated in May 2019, contains some of the best core habitat for jaguars in the Chaco dry forest, with hunting and deforestation much lower than in the same habitat in neighboring countries.

Biologists have estimated that 4,000 plant species and 1,600 animal species are affected by the fires. Estimates vary hugely, but between 2 million and 18 million wild animals have been killed, including about 500 rare jaguars.

An anteater in Otuquis National Park. Photo Credit: Franklin Martinez.

Indigenous peoples

Assistant Professor Bjork-James, who has worked on social movements and Indigenous rights in Bolivia since 2008, told me that “the fires are the leading edge of the process of converting forested lands into soy plantations, cattle ranches, and small-scale agricultural settlements. In many areas, these new uses run counter to the resource model used by existing Indigenous inhabitants.”

He points to some of the worst affected Indigenous territories — 34 percent of Ñembi Guasu, which hosts the only Indigenous group living in voluntary isolation in Bolivia, has burned, along with 56 percent of Santa Teresita, another Indigenous territory. “As a result, Indigenous people affiliated with CIDOB [Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia], OICH [Chiquitana Indigenous Organization], COICA [Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin], and other Indigenous organizations began a march this week.”

The march is traveling 470 kilometers (292 miles) to the capital of the Santa Cruz district. The marchers demand that the government declare a National Disaster and annul the laws which allow burning. “If we are not heard, we will continue the march to La Paz. We are the people affected by the burning of our big house. We are in mourning for our big house,” said The First Great Chief of the Chiquitan Nation, Beatriz Tapanaché.

While some Indigenous leaders have pulled out of the march to stay with affected communities or because they disagree with the objectives of the protest, the main organizations have made their message clear. In an open letter, COICA states: “The Indigenous Peoples hold the governments of Jair Bolsonaro and Evo Morales responsible for the physical, environmental and cultural disappearance and genocide that is currently taking place in the Amazon.”

They added that governments like those of Brazil and Bolivia “demonstrate their lack of interest, negligence, racism and structural discrimination against the life and integrity of Indigenous Peoples, and only seek to favor the interests of large economic groups that seek to turn the Amazon into lots for mega agricultural projects, mining, dams and energy projects.” They declared both presidents “personas non gratas” in August.

Can the forests recover?

Dr. Velez-Liendo told me, “Fires, either natural or human-caused, have been recognized as a key control on the savanna-Chiquitano forest boundary dynamics. The majority of human-made fires for clearing land (like in this case), however, are a serious concern. It is not just the savanna burning, but the forest, which has only a few species adapted to fire.”

Chiquitano dry forest. Photo Credit: Alfredo Romero-Muñoz.

It likely that the burned areas will be quickly colonized by ranchers and soy farmers, according to Dr. Velez-Liendo. “The forests should not be disturbed any further for [their] recovery, but that’s very unlikely to happen. To recover to what it was before the fires, that’s pretty difficult. It is not just drop seeds from an airplane and wait for a few years. The soil is burnt, the water is contaminated. It needs a reconstruction from the very bottom, microorganisms, bacteria, the soil needs to be reconstructed. In my opinion, we lost the Chiquitano forest pretty much for good.” Some researchers think the Chiquitano could be recovered in about 200 years, if conditions are favorable, while others agree with Velez-Liendo that the loss is forever.

Researchers say the Chiquitano dry forest is particularly delicate because it “makes its own water” — the forest captures environmental water and uses that to water itself, as well as to feed small rivers and the Pantanal. One scientist said that to try to recover some of the forest, water would have to be extracted from rivers and aquifers, which he fears would not happen as it would cost millions of dollars.

Burned forest in Otuquis. Photo Credit: Franlin Martinez.

In other affected ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest, there is virtually no natural fire. Studies suggest that in the past Indigenous people often set small fires which burned the undergrowth but did not kill the trees. While the pollen record can tell us how the forest regenerated after smaller, less intense fires, it cannot tell us how forests recovered after severe burns.

What can be done?

Everyone I spoke to wanted more international aid to help put out the fires. In the longer term, they emphasized the need to rethink the economic focus on agricultural and extractive industries.

Biologist Alfredo Romero-Muñoz says that this enormous ecological disaster should trigger policy changes: “The government should repeal the laws that promote deforestation and forest burning for agricultural expansion. Overall, Bolivia needs to rethink its agricultural strategy, as the future of its immeasurable biodiversity is at stake. The forests provide water and resilience to climate change, to which Bolivia is one of the most vulnerable countries.”

Caiman in the Bolivian Pantanal. Photo Credit: Alfredo Romero-Muñoz.

Dr. Velez-Liendo wants to see a tougher line from the global community: “There should be consideration of sanctions to those countries who are contaminating and setting fires like Bolivia and Brazil. An economic sanction to their soy-cattle products should be in place.”

Both researchers were clear that international appetites for Bolivia’s beef, soy, and biofuels must be curbed, along with national policy measures to protect Bolivia’s stunning wildlife and staggering landscapes. These may both be difficult goals to achieve. As the political landscape grows ugly ahead of October’s elections, Bolivia’s nature needs its champions fighting for it now more than ever.

Helicopters battle the fires. Photo Credit: Adolfo Lino.


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• Romero-Muñoz, A., Fernández-Llamazares, Á., Moraes, M., Larrea-Alcázar, D. M., & Wordley, C. F. (2019). A pivotal year for Bolivian conservation policy. Nature ecology & evolution, 1. doi:10.1038/s41559-019-0893-3

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Dr. Claire Wordley is a researcher with the Conservation Evidence group at the University of Cambridge. Her background includes working on the responses of tropical bats to forest fragmentation and agricultural activity. This led to an interest in researching how to make conservation change happen, and she now works at Conservation Evidence working with NGOs and government agencies to see how they can best use and produce scientific evidence.

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