In Bolivia, farmers are setting forest fires and the government is encouraging them

In Bolivia, farmers are setting forest fires and the government is encouraging them
In Bolivia, farmers are setting forest fires and the government is encouraging them
  • The government’s role in Bolivian fires cannot be understated. Laws have been tweaked to prioritize agricultural production at the expense of the environment.
  • Global attention on man-made fire activity centers on Brazil but it’s also happening in other places.
  • Countries are making public claims to preserve rainforests but a lot more needs to be done.

BOLIVIA. In the picture, Bolivian firefighter Cesar Calani kneels in front of a burnt carcass in the Chiquitano forest. He knows that the fire he just helped put out will be raging again soon.

“As a volunteer firefighter, this is the worst thing that I saw in the 11 days that we fought the destructive fire in the Bolivian Chiquitania… ”

The Chiquitano area, 89,000 square kilometres east of the Andes, has been badly hit. This year’s fire season is one of the worst on record.

Most of the global attention has gone to the fires in Brazil but countries like Bolivia with broad swaths of rainforest, have also suffered. The situation has been made worse by a president that encourages burning of forest land to make way for more production.

Firefighters put out fires, only for local farmers to light them right back. The cycle is tiresome.

“Many of the fires hitting the region during this year’s dry season have been provoked by (farmers)” said Renain Paz, a coordinator of the Search and Rescue Brigade at the nearby city of Oruro. “It makes no sense at all.”

Economic growth at all costs

It does make sense to farmers, who always want more land for expand their crops or herds. President Evo Morales, as part of an economic push that has made Bolivia Latin America’s fastest-growing economy, has actively encouraged expanding agriculture.

The easies type of land to find is, at the moment, covered by forests. So Morales and his government have not only made it possible but encouraged farmers to burn.

A 2015 law allows peasants to extend croplands into forested areas. In a decree earlier this year, Morales reinforced that law and allowed controlled fires in the Santa Cruz and Beni departments, both of which are now burning out of control.

“There are some sectors where both firefighters and the police themselves have realized that it is the (farmers) who restart the fires,” said Mirna Echave, president of the Bolivian chapter of international NGO Firefighters Without Borders. “It is really worrying and many times, this happens because of the expansion of the agricultural frontier.”

“People still do not know how to handle it and they want to light fires, to be able to live or sow, but they do not control this and the fires get out of hand.”

“The loss does not only affect a person, a region or a country. We are talking international impact due to the effects this has on the planet,” Echave said

“These norms promoted by the national government have been an important trigger for the beginning of the fires. Additionally, the state institutions do not have sufficient personnel or financial resources for controlled burns, which generates a lack of control of the origin of the fires,” said Roberto Vides-Almonacid, executive director of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest.

“The burns in 2019 started in July. This situation, in addition to the fact that it is a year of extreme drought and high temperatures, has generated favorable conditions for the disaster caused by the fires.”

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) agrees that legal burning has caused much destruction of forests and has played a key role in the current fire emergency.

“The latter policies were accompanied by measures of the state land agency allocating land to new settlements in the Chiquitania,” said the NGO in a statement. “Much of the deforestation (and tree cover loss) is located in the department of Santa Cruz, and the pressures on forests were displaced to the Chiquitania.”

The economic push is working. Bolivia’s economy is expected to grow by 5.5 percent this year and rising exports of soy, which account for 1.2 million hectares out of a total 3.5 million hectares of crop land, have much to do with this growth.

Unfortunately, the cost of burning could be too high for both Bolivians and the region. So far, four firefighters have died.

In September, Morales signed an international covenant in Leticia, Colombia, in which seven of the countries accountable for the protection of the Amazon committed to coordinate efforts for the protection of the rainforest, praised by many as the lung of the world.

“From the governments we have the obligation to make a deep reflection and to recover the experience of the indigenous movement, to live in harmony with Mother Earth,” he said during the meeting held in the Colombian Amazon. “I remain convinced that Mother Earth can survive better without man, but man cannot exist without Mother Earth.”

– Sergio Held (