Bolivia: catastrophic wildfires devastate forest in echo of Brazil's Amazon crisis
As fires continue to rage in Brazil, nearly a million hectares (6,200 sq miles) of farmland and unique dry forest have been destroyed by weeks of blazes across the border in Bolivia, where the flames have now reached the country’s Amazon region.
Initial estimates indicate 600 hectares of rainforest have been destroyed in the north-eastern region of Bení, where the fires now threaten indigenous populations.
“This is the biggest ever catastrophe for biodiversity in Bolivia,” said Fernando Vargas, an indigenous leader in the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous territory and national park, known as Tipnis by its Spanish acronym.
“But this is not a natural disaster but a manmade one,” he told the Guardian.
Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, had previously rejected offers of international help to battle the fires, but on Sunday he announced that he would interrupt his re-election campaign for a week to help coordinate foreign aid efforts.
“Any cooperation is welcome, whether it comes from international organisations, celebrities or from the presidents who offered to help,” Morales said in Cochabamba, where he had been campaigning for a fourth term in office.
The leading opposition candidate, Carlos Mesa, also suspended his election campaign in response to the national crisis.
Morales said he had been called by global leaders, including the presidents of Paraguay, Chile and Spain, as the G7 group of the world’s richest nations announced an aid package to fight Amazon fires.
Firefighters from Chile and Argentina as well as France, Spain and Russia were deployed to help fight the flames, according to local media reports.
However protesters and the political opposition say Morales’ government needs to declare a state of emergency in the zone in order to allow foreign help in.
More than 2,700 fires had been registered by Bolivia’s early warning fire detection agency on Monday, in a swath of flames across the country, from the Amazon north-east to the south-eastern Chaco biome.
“It’s not a coincidence that less than a month ago the president declared a law which permitted slash and burn farming practices,” said Adriana Rico, a Bolivian biologist.
Known in Bolivia as chaqueo, slash-and-burn is often practiced by migrant small farmers as a cheap and easy way to clear land, she added. Blazes haves destroyed part of the Chiquitano forest, the Amazon and Bolivia’s Pantanal region which it shares with Brazil and Paraguay.
“It’s very sad for we indigenous peoples, we’ve lost our means of survival,” said Adolfo Chávez, the former president of the Bolivian indigenous confederation CIDOB. He said Morales had turned his back on indigenous peoples by allowing the destruction of their habitat for the advance of agribusiness.
Last week, the pan-Amazon indigenous organisation COICA accused Morales, and his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, of “gutting every environmental and social strategy to strengthen environmental governance of the Amazon”.
It declared the two governments as not welcome in the Amazon and held them personally accountable for the “cultural and environmental genocide” in the world’s largest wilderness.
“This month’s devastating fires are the all-too-predictable consequence of the Morales government’s decree authorising new land claims on cleared land”, said Carwil Bjork-James, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University.