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A million hectares ablaze as forest fires sweep through Bolivia

  • Forest fires have led the departments of Santa Cruz and Chuquisaca to declare a state of disaster.
  • The Chiquitania and Chaco ecosystems have been the most affected by the fires, while Indigenous peoples are threatened by a prolonged drought.
  • Experts say only rain can mitigate the burning, but there’s little to no precipitation forecast soon amid the drought.

Forest fires in Bolivia have burned 1.4 million hectares (3.4 million acres) across the country this year, according to the government. And as in 2019, the Chiquitania and Chaco ecosystems are the hardest-hit areas.

There were 57 active wildfires as of Oct. 8, according to María Elva Pinckert, the country’s environment minister at the time. (A new government has been sworn in following an election on Oct. 18). Forty-three of the fires were in Santa Cruz department, 11 in Chuquisaca, and three in El Beni. Pinckert also said the Forest and Land Inspection and Social Control Authority (ABT) had initiated 452 administrative cases against individuals accused of causing fires. Of these, 20 are criminal complaints. “There are currently five people arrested and two sentenced,” Pinckert said. “Never before in Bolivia’s history have people been sentenced for fires.”

An estimated 1.4 million hectares (3.4 million acres) have been burned in Bolivia during this year’s fire season. Image courtesy of Fundación Noel Kempff Mercado.

In August, the ABT suspended issuing permits for controlled fires in Santa Cruz and El Beni. On Oct. 5, it extended the suspension to the entire country. Violations are punishable with jail time.

The crisis has forced two departmental governments to declare a disaster: Santa Cruz did so on Oct. 2, and Chuquisaca followed the next day. The autonomous Indigenous territory of Charagua is evaluating whether to do the same.

In Santa Cruz alone, it’s estimated that more than 830,000 hectares (2.1 million acres) have been lost to forest fires. In Chuquisaca, fires have destroyed approximately 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) and are nearing the Iñao and Aguaragüe national parks.

In the department of Santa Cruz alone, more than 830,000 hectares (2.1 million acres) have been lost. Image courtesy of Fundación Noel Kempff Mercado.

“We believe that many more acres have burned,” says Oswaldo Maillard, coordinator for the Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory, part of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest (FCBC by its Spanish acronym). “Our greatest fear is for the protected natural areas, because parts of them are inaccessible.”

Indigenous and campesino communities are also suffering due to the advancing fires. “People are desperate. It’s been several days of fighting the fires,” says Yenny Noguera, from the National Coordinating Council of Indigenous Peoples for the Defense of Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP by its Spanish acronym).

Wildfires advance on protected areas

According to the ABT, in Santa Cruz the greatest number of hotspots have been detected in the municipalities of San Matías, San Ignacio, Concepción, Urubichá, San Rafael, Ascensión de Guarayos, Cabezas, Vallegrande, and San José.

The governor of Santa Cruz, Rubén Costas, said the fires have reached 19 municipalities and severely affected five of them. After declaring a state of disaster, he said, “This decision has been made to protect people’s lives and safety, our natural resources and heritage, biodiversity, health, and food and economic security of Santa Cruz.”

Protected areas like those of San Matías, Copaibo and Noel Kempff Mercado have been affected by forest fires. Image courtesy of Fundación Noel Kempff Mercado.

Maillard says he’s worried about the San Matías Integrated Management Natural Area (ANMI). The municipality, also called San Matías, is among the places most impacted by the fires in Santa Cruz. “According to the observatory, in [the protected area of] San Matías there are fire scars of 116,000 hectares [287,000 acres] and in Copaibo more than 40,000 hectares [99,000 acres], from data as of October 1,” Maillard says.

According to the ABT’s latest report, during the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, 4,205 hotspots were detected in the municipality of San Matías, or 15% of all hotspots observed across Bolivia.

But the San Matías protected area is not the only one suffering from the fires. Maillard, citing data from the Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory, says Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Copaibo Municipal Reserve and Ríos Blanco y Negro Wildlife Reserve are also being affected by blazes. “It rained in Copaibo, which provided relief, but the fires restarted,” he says. “In Ríos Blanco y Negro, a fire started and spread in an area that is far from any access or population center.”

For now, there is no forecast for rain in the coming days, Maillard says, as a severe drought continues. “In a study running from 1980 to 2019, we observed that statistically there was an increasing drought trend each year,” he says. “Most of the department of Santa Cruz will experience drought with this intensity in the future. It’s not just this year.”

In Chuquisaca, forest fires have affected at least five municipalities. “The communities are the first to be affected, due to the impacts on the water, their animals, and themselves,” says Noguera from CONTIOCAP. “Inside Aguaragüe National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area, the fire is advancing in leaps and bounds. It has expanded from one end to the other.”

Noguera says the fires are spreading to the border with Tarija department. “Firebreaks have been created to stop the fire. Many volunteers are fighting the fire,” she says.

An ongoing drought

“On top of the pandemic and weakened economy in our communities, now we have drought, which is worsening the fires and exacerbating the situation,” says Ademar Flores, a member of the land and natural resources management commission of the Guaraní Charagua Iyambae autonomous government. “Families haven’t harvested anything this year,” he adds.

Severe drought has impacted Bolivia this year. Image courtesy of Fundación Nativa.

The families farm corn, beans and yuccas, and raise livestock, Flores says. “Now they don’t know what to do. Everything is too dry,” he says. He confirms the autonomous Indigenous territory of Charagua will also declare a state of disaster.

Flores, who is also a legislator in the Charagua government, says the greatest number of fires have occurred in the Chiquitania, the vast tropical savanna ecosystem, but that the prolonged drought in the dry Chaco forest means that Guaraní communities remain at risk.

“Declaring an emergency allows us to mitigate the effects of the fires,” Flores says. “Nevertheless, the lack of water is suffocating our communities. The time we’ve been without water grows, resources are scarce, and needs increase. There are families who have lost everything.”

He says at least 5,000 Guaraní families have been impacted in Charagua by the fires and the drought. “Almost 2,000 have been harmed by the drought. They can’t plant, and the livestock begin to die from the lack of food and water,” Flores says. “The only thing that could save us is rain.”

Firefighting brigades and the army have joined efforts to put out the fires. Image courtesy of the Ministry of the Environment and Water.

Rubén Darío Arias Ortiz, a CONTIOCAP member and director of the Management Committee for Tucabaca Wildlife Protected Areas, says he fears the situation will worsen. “Here in my municipality [Tucabaca], the average temperature is 38 degrees Celsius [100 degrees Fahrenheit], but recently we hit above 42 degrees [108 degrees Fahrenheit].”

Arias says he fears that this year’s fires will surpass those of 2019. “Since the Chaco is not a forest, but rather small bushes, the government minimizes the losses, saying that they’re just grasslands. But it’s a terrible position, about areas that constantly don’t have water.”

Arias links the lack of policies to tackle environmental problems on the national elections on Oct. 18. In a report published in August, Mongabay Latam analyzed the governance plans of the candidates leading the polls and confirmed that the environment does not figure significantly among their proposals. “None of the candidates has a proposal for managing the environment,” Arias says. “They should reconsider their plans.”

 
Banner image of forest fires in Bolivia, courtesy of Fundación Noel Kempff Mercado.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Oct. 8, 2020.