I’ve asked three major news outlets to cover the fires in Bolivia. None of them have, so I’ll publish what I wrote here — thanks Medium!
Almost half a million hectares of the unique Chiquitano forest were burned to the ground in Bolivia in the last five days — more forest than is usually destroyed in the country in a whole year. Experts say that it will take at least two centuries to repair the ecological damage done by the fires. At least 500 unique plant species are at risk from the flames.
The Chiquitano dry forest, which lies between Bolivia and Brazil, was the largest healthy tropical dry forest alive — it is unclear whether it retains that status. It is home to Indigenous peoples as well as iconic wildlife like jaguars, giant armadillos, and tapirs. Some species in the Chiquitano are found nowhere else on Earth. Photographs and videos from the area show many animals burnt to death, particularly slow moving creatures like tortoises.
The burnt region also encompasses farmland and towns, with thousands of people evacuated and many more affected by the smoke. Children are being kept home from school in at least 54 educational units where the air pollution is over double legal limits. While the media has focussed on Brazil, Bolivians are asking the world to notice their unfolding tragedy — and to send help.
It is thought that fires set to clear the land for farming got out of control, but the perpetrators are not known. President Evo Morales has justified the fire setting, saying ‘if small families don’t set fires, what are they going to live on?’
The disaster comes just a month after Morales announced a new Supreme Decree (3973), aimed at increasing beef production for export. Activists are calling for the repeal of Supreme Decree 3973, with Pablo Solón, director of the La Paz-based Solón Foundation, saying that the decree violates Bolivia’s environmental laws. Government officials say that fire setting is a normal activity at this time of year and is not linked to the decree.
Morales has repeatedly said that international help is not needed, despite having sent just three helicopters to tackle the raging fires. He pointed to the fact that the fires are dying out in some areas — although they continue to rage in others and have now reached Bolivia’s largest city. Many say that the fires could have been contained far sooner with international help; videos show volunteers trying to beat back the fires with branches.
People are gathering in the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia, the state where the fires began, to demand action on the fires. Chanting ‘we want your help’, they complain that the smoke is so bad they are struggling to breathe. They plan a larger protest for 5 pm on the 22nd August, to demand that President Morales requests international aid to fight the fires.
Two weeks after the fires began, a supertanker is being hired to put out the damage. If the reactions to President Morales’ announcement onTwitter are representative, many Bolivians think this is too little, too late. The President has been criticised for remaining on the campaign trail ahead of the October elections, instead of focussing on the unfolding tragedy.
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 “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.”
President Morales came to power in Bolivia in 2006, on a platform of socialism, Indigenous rights and respect for Mother Earth. He passed the ‘Law of the Rights of Mother Earth’ in 2010, which places the intrinsic value of nature alongside that of humans. While his environmental rhetoric has been strong, his policies have widely contradicted his words, as he has approved widespread deforestation as well as roads and gas exploration in national parks.
Having put in place a two-term limit on presidents in his second term, Morales is currently contesting his fourth term in the upcoming October elections. His leading opposition, Carlos Mesa, criticised the failure to call for international help ‘irresponsible’ in a video he made while visiting the affected area.
While the fires in the Chiquitano have dominated the media within the country, hundreds more fires rage across Bolivia, assisted by the recent drought. It is unclear whether the response to these fires will affect the elections, but sentiments are running high in the country, where more than 70% of people prioritise environmental protection over economic growth.
Bolivians have set up a fundraiser to tackle the fires themselves. Please consider donating.