- Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Bolivia’s largest parks, encompasses a variety of ecosystems and provides habitat for more than 1,100 vertebrate species.
- According to satellite data, fires burned across a region comprising an estimated 18% of the park’s total area between August and November 2022, and damaged around 200 km2 (77 mi2) of its forests.
- When adding in other forest loss in 2022, the data suggest Noel Kempff Mercado lost a total of 250 km2 (97 mi2) of its tree cover last year, marking a new deforestation record since measurements began at the turn of the century.
- The fires in Noel Kempff Mercado National Park coincide with fire activity outside of the park, where Intentional burning is commonplace as farmers clear land and reinvigorate soil ahead of planting.
On Aug. 28, 2022, NASA satellites picked up a small, isolated cluster of fire alerts in the southwestern corner of Bolivia’s Noel Kempff Mercado National Park. By Sept. 5, the blaze had ballooned northward, engulfing some 423 square kilometers (163 square miles) of the park’s land, according to the Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory, an organization that is part of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest.
NASA satellite data, visualized on Global Forest Watch (GFW), show the fire continued to spread deeper into the park in September before finally going out on Sept. 28, exactly a month after satellites first detected it. But this was only a brief reprieve: in October and November, additional fires broke out and spread along Noel Kempff Mercado’s western border before being extinguished by the onset of the rainy season in late November.
In all, fires burned across an area comprising some 3,000 km2 (nearly 1,200 mi2) of the national park — about 18% of its total area — between August and November, according to analysis via GFW. Most fire activity occurred on non-forested land, but GFW data show around 200 km2 (77 mi2) of the park’s forests were also damaged by the fires. When adding in other forest loss in 2022, the data suggest Noel Kempff Mercado lost a total of 250 km2 (97 mi2) of its tree cover last year, marking a new deforestation record since measurements began at the turn of the century.
Encompassing some 15,230 km2 (5,880 mi2), Noel Kempff Mercado National Park is one of the largest parks in Bolivia, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. It is located where the Chiquitania dry forests ecoregion meets the Amazon Basin, and boasts a rich mosaic of landscapes, including Cerrado savanna, wetlands and evergreen forests. More than 1,140 vertebrate species have been recorded in the park, and it provides habitat for an estimated 21% of South America’s bird species as well as at least 24 endangered species.
The Bolivian government, along with the government of Santa Cruz department and the mayor’s office of San Ignacio de Velasco banded together to fight the fires. However, officials said their ability to do so was hampered by the inaccessibility of the region.
“The only solution to reach the fires in Noel Kempff Mercado National Park is by air, although this also involves risks for the personnel, regardless of how skilled they are,” said Yovenka Rosado, director of the natural resources division of the Santa Cruz regional government. “The hotspots are on high plateaus and it is almost impossible to reach those places by land.”
2022 wasn’t the first year Noel Kempff Mercado was hit by fires. According to GFW data, the park lost 395 km2 (153 mi2) of its forest cover to fire between 2001 and 2021 — nearly 80% of it in 2020 and 2021 alone. The data also show that much of the fire activity in 2022 hit areas that had been affected by fire in years past, with 2022 fires essentially expanding burn scars into surrounding forest.
The fires in Noel Kempff Mercado coincide with fire activity outside of the park. Intentional burning is commonplace in the region starting in May or June until September, as farmers clear land and reinvigorate soil ahead of planting, and has been linked to fire outbreaks in other Bolivian protected areas.
“It is a very special area; it has its own conditions that [make firefighting] very complicated to achieve,” said Alberto Terrazas, director of Noel Kempff Mercado National Park.
This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Sept. 8, 2022.
Banner image: Firefighters battle flames in Bolivia’s Chiquitania region. Image courtesy of the Bolivian Ministry of Defense.
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