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‘Only the rains will stop it’: Bolivia forest fires hit protected areas

  • In the first 10 months of 2021, forest fires in Bolivia razed nearly 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) in the department of Santa Cruz alone, exceeding the figure for the whole of 2020.
  • In Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s biggest department, 58% of the burned land was in protected areas, stoked in part by temperatures reaching as high as 43°C (109.4°F).
  • Across Bolivia as a whole, forest fires had affected 3.4 million hectares (8.4 million acres).
  • Officials say an increase in the number of firefighters and an early-warning system should help contain the burning, but add that “only the rains are able to stop it.”

Forest fires in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department razed an area twice the size of Jamaica in the first 10 months of 2021, officials said, with more than half of the affected land falling inside protected areas.

“The affected areas in Santa Cruz total 2,463,731 hectares [6,088,011 acres] so far,” Adita Montaño, the departmental director of natural resources, said at an Oct. 23 presentation. “Of this total, 58% is within protected natural areas.”

She added that 63% of the department is still at risk of forest fires.

Forest fire in the San Matías Integrated Management Natural Area. Image by Claudia Belaunde/FCBC.

“It has been a critical year,” said Oswaldo Maillard from the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest (FCBC), an organization that monitors forest fires and deforestation in Santa Cruz. “Last year, 2.2 million hectares [5.4 million acres] burned by December; that figure has already been surpassed this year [as of October].”

The annual forest fires in Bolivia have intensified in recent years. In 2019, nearly 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of land was burned across Bolivia, and in 2020 it was 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres).

As of mid-October 2021, fires had affected more than 3.4 million hectares (8.4 million acres) nationwide, according to a report from the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN), with the departments of Santa Cruz and Beni accounting for 94% of the burned areas.

An alert for the Ríos Blanco y Negro Wildlife Reserve

A Global Forest Watch (GFW) alert on Oct. 9 reported a recent fire in the Ríos Blanco y Negro Wildlife Reserve. It indicated a worrying fact: the fire had been burning for almost a month by then.

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This map shows the area affected by fire, in yellow, in the Ríos Blanco y Negro Wildlife Reserve between Sept. 27 and Oct. 27, 2021. Image courtesy of GFW.

The GFW data indicate that the fire started in the first two weeks of September, with satellite imagery showing a large area affected by the burning.

“There were 34,700 hectares [85,745 acres] of protected forest that burned,” Maillard said. “The first hotspots started on September 13, and the rain extinguished them after a month.”

He added the Ríos Blanco y Negro Wildlife Reserve ranks fifth among the protected areas most affected by the fires in Santa Cruz. He said the most concerning aspect of the fires is that the burned area is all forest, unlike other areas also affected by this year’s fires, which include shrubland.

“The Ríos Blanco y Negro ecosystem is a transition forest between the Chiquitanía and the Amazon,” Maillard said.

Licy Tejada, a community forestry expert and adviser to the Guarayo Indigenous people, said a large-scale fire was identified in the same sector of the reserve in 2019, and again in 2020. On those occasions, according to Tejada, 60,000 hectares (148,300 acres) were burned.

The Guarayo native community lands surround the Ríos Blanco y Negro Wildlife Reserve.

“Since 2019 we have seen these fires appear as if they were circles, like rings that are growing,” Tejada said. She added the images of this year’s fires show the burning occurring in a sector less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the site of previous fires. “Apparently, they are clearing the land in that area,” she said about the likely causes of the fires, which many other experts have also linked to encroachment and land occupation.

Of the total area affected by forest fires in Santa Cruz, 58% is inside protected areas. Image by Claudia Belaunde/FCBC.

Tejada said the start of the rains was the only hope of putting out the fires. “It was a remote area, in the center of the reserve. It is unlikely that the firefighters would have been able to arrive because of the logistics, and the municipal government does not have the infrastructure or staff to deal with this type of fire,” she said.

Jorge Adriazola, the Santa Cruz departmental fire coordinator, said separately that the forest fires this year were burning in areas with “very difficult access,” meaning “only the rains are able to stop it.”

Protected areas devastated by fire

The Ríos Blanco y Negro Wildlife Reserve isn’t the only protected area affected by this year’s fires. According to Maillard, more than 800,000 hectares (1.98 million acres) inside the San Matías Integrated Management Natural Area, or 27% of the protected area, were affected by fire. “The fires in San Matías lasted between two and three months,” he added.

The San Matías Integrated Management Natural Area is the protected area with the largest extent of burned area this year. Image by Claudia Belaunde/FCBC.

Fires have also swept through other areas, including 220,000 hectares (543,000 acres) of the Ñembi Guasu Conservation and Ecologically Important Area, 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres) of the Otuquis National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area, and 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of the Bajo Paraguá Municipal Protected Area.

Adriazola, the Santa Cruz fire chief, said the fires that affected the Otuquis protected area in early 2021 “advanced very quickly,” and those in the San Matías protected area were also devastating. “The type of vegetation and the high temperature in these two places facilitated the spread of the fire,” he said, adding that temperatures had reached 43° Celsius (109.4° Fahrenheit), with humidity levels of just 10%.

Adriazola said forest fires had also increased in neighboring Cochabamba department.

Forest fires have already burned more than 2 million hectares (5 million acres) in Santa Cruz department alone. Image by Claudia Belaunde/FCBC.

He said Santa Cruz had deployed more firefighters in 2021 than in previous years, and was beginning to use an early-warning system that “helped control the fires.”

The early-warning mechanism allows planners to simulate a fire’s behavior, taking into account its advance, weather conditions, topography, fuel type (type of vegetation being burned), and other factors.

“This enables us to define a strategy to face the fire,” Adriazola said. “The system is only just beginning to be used in [Santa Cruz]. For now, it has been tested on small fires.”

Banner image of the devastation left by forest fires in Santa Cruz department, Bolivia, by Claudia Belaunde/FCBC

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Oct. 28, 2021.

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