It’s not just Brazil that’s ablaze. Bolivian fires threaten wildlife

. Aug 26, 2019
bolivia amazon fires

Up to 800,000 hectares of the unique Chiquitano forest were burned to the ground in Bolivia between August 18 and 23. That’s more forest area than is usually destroyed across the country in the space of two years. Experts say that it will take at least two centuries to repair the ecological damage caused by the fires, while at least 500 species are said to be at risk from the flames.

The Chiquitano dry forest in Bolivia was the largest healthy

tropical dry forest in the world. It’s now unclear whether it will retain that status. The forest is home to indigenous peoples as well as iconic wildlife such as jaguars, giant armadillos, and tapirs. Some species in the Chiquitano are found nowhere else on Earth. Distressing photographs and videos from the area show many animals have burned to death in the recent fires.</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Bolivia just lost half a million ha of the unique Chiquitano forest in 5 days. Media is focusing in Brazil, but we need press attention so that the government acts and asks for inter. help. Please report<a href="">@BBCWorld</a> <a href="">@guardIaneco</a> <a href="">@georgeMonbiot</a> <a href="">@dpcarrington</a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Alfredo Romero (@Alf_RomeroM) <a href="">August 21, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>The ravaged region also encompasses farmland and towns, with thousands of people being evacuated and many more affected by the smoke. Food and water are being sent to the region, while children are kept home from school in districts where the air pollution is double what is <a href="">considered extreme</a>. Many families are still without drinking water. While the media has focused on Brazil, Bolivians are asking the world to pay attention to their own unfolding tragedy – and to send help to fight the flames.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="Dry forests of the Chiquitanos before the fires. Alfredo Romero-Muñoz, Author provided" class="wp-image-22900" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Dry forests of the Chiquitanos before the fires. Alfredo Romero-Muñoz, Author provided</figcaption></figure> <p>It’s thought that the <a href="">fires were started deliberately to clear the land for farming</a>, but quickly got out of control. The perpetrators are unknown, but Bolivian President Evo Morales has justified people starting fires, saying: “If small families don’t set fires, what are they going to live on?”</p> <p>The disaster comes just a month after Mr. Morales announced a new “supreme decree” aimed at increasing beef production for export. Twenty-one civil society organizations are calling for the repeal of this decree, arguing that it has helped cause fires and violates Bolivia’s environmental laws. Government officials say that fires are normal at this time of year and the uptick isn&#8217;t linked to the decree.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="Fires burn across Santa Cruz state. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided" class="wp-image-22899" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Fires burn across Santa Cruz state. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided</figcaption></figure> <h2>&#8220;No need&#8221; for help from abroad</h2> <p>Mr. Morales has repeatedly said that <a href="">international help isn’t needed</a>, despite having sent just three helicopters to tackle the raging fires. He argued that the fires are dying out in some areas—though they continue to burn in others and have now reached Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Many say that the fires could have been contained far sooner with international help, as videos show volunteers trying to beat back the flames using branches.</p> <p>As the fires worsened, people gathered to protest in the state of Santa Cruz. Chanting “we want your help”, they complained that the smoke was so bad they were struggling to breathe. They want Mr. Morales to request international aid to fight the fires. While firefighters and volunteers struggle to tackle the blaze in 55℃ heat, Bolivians have set up a fundraiser to tackle the fires themselves.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="The extreme heat has made fighting the fires intolerable for those involved. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided" class="wp-image-22898" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>The extreme heat has made fighting the fires intolerable for those involved. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided</figcaption></figure> <p>A fortnight after the fires began, a supertanker aeroplane filled with water arrived, hired from the U.S. But if the reactions to the president’s announcement on Twitter are anything to go by, many Bolivians think this is too little, too late. Mr. Morales is fighting a general election and has faced criticism for staying on the campaign trail while the fires spread.</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Thread on the current fires in <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Bolivia</a>:<br><br>Fires have been used to expand agro-cattle area before, but our current catastrophe stems from the government authorizing further fires on FOREST lands in a new alliance with private sectors who wanted these lands.<a href=""></a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Jhanisse V. Daza (@JhanisseVDaza) <a href="">August 20, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>Some indigenous leaders are asking for a trial to determine responsibility for the fires and the response to them. Alex Villca, an indigenous leader and spokesperson, said:</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p><em>It is President Evo Morales who should be held accountable. What are these accountabilities going to be? A trial of responsibilities for this number of events that are occurring in the country, this number of violations of indigenous peoples and also the rights of mother nature.</em></p></blockquote> <p>President Morales came to power in Bolivia in 2006, on a platform of socialism, indigenous rights, and environmental protection. He passed the famous “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” in 2010, which placed the intrinsic value of nature alongside that of humans. His environmental rhetoric has been strong but his policies have been contradictory. Mr. Morales has approved widespread deforestation, as well as roads and gas exploitation in national parks.</p> <p>While the fires in the Chiquitano have dominated the media within the country, hundreds more rage across Bolivia, assisted by the recent drought. It’s unclear whether the response to these fires will affect the October election outcome, but sentiments are running high in the country, where more than 70 percent of people prioritize environmental protection over economic growth.</p> <p>Jair Bolsonaro and Brazil might be grabbing the headlines, but Bolivia too now hosts a desperately serious humanitarian and environmental situation.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <p style="text-align:right"><strong>Originally published on<br></strong><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></p> <img src="" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important" /> <p>

Claire F.R. Wordley

Research Associate, Conservation Evidence, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge

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