While global attention has been focused on fires burning across the Brazilian Amazon, neighbouring Bolivia is battling its own vast blazes, which have charred an area nearly as extensive as the nation of Lebanon.
At least 20,000 fires were burning across the country as of the Tuesday, and a total of 950,000 hectares had been burned so far this year — most of that in weeks — according to Cliver Rocha, director of the national Forests and Lands Authority.
While some of the fires were burning in Bolivia’s share of the Amazon, the largest blazes were in the Chiquitania region of southeastern Bolivia, a zone of dry forest, farmland and open prairies that has seen an expansion of farming and ranching in recent years.
The College of Biologists in the capital, La Paz, has estimated that the fires have destroyed $1.1 billion US worth of timber.
Yanine Rubi Montero said the fires burned away the lemon trees her family depended on near the rural town of Robore. They were left without water as well because the blazed destroyed a plastic pipe that ran to a well. One neighbour fled with just the clothes on her back, Montero said.
“The smoke is making us sick, and the lack of water is really affecting us,” she said.
President criticized for response
President Evo Morales, who has been under criticism for an allegedly slow response to the fires, was in the region on Tuesday overseeing firefighting efforts involving more than 3,500 people, including soldiers, police and volunteers.
The government last week contracted the world’s largest firefighting tanker plane from the United States, and officials say it has helped control expansion of the fires, but hot, dry and windy conditions have kept the blazes burning. Peru on Tuesday contributed to the effort by sending two helicopter tankers.
The Bolivian Friends of Nature Foundation has complained that the government ignored fire precautions needed at a time when the area — unlike the Amazon further north — is suffering drought conditions.
Morales in July issued a decree allowing controlled burns and clearing of lands. While people are supposed to obtain prior permission, authorities say most of the fires have been started illegally.
Morales also granted an amnesty for people caught burning fields illegally last year.
Despite a campaign by environmentalists to have the measures overturned, Environment Minister Carlos Ortuno said, “We don’t believe that is necessary.”
“The rules are not a direct cause [of the fires]. These practices come from many years back and what we want is that there are controlled burns, but lamentably 90 per cent are illegal.”
Opponents have seized upon the government response as an issue in Morales’ campaign for re-election in October.
The opposition Committee for the Defence of Democracy announced it would seek charges against Morales and other authorities, accusing them of being slow to attack the problem.
But Franklin Pareja, a professor of political science at the Higher University of San Andres in La Paz, said that while many are angered, “the population that is protesting is a universe that has now decided on its vote.” He said it shouldn’t be catastrophic for Morales, who leads in the polls, unless the problem drags on.