Ivette Sierra for Mongabay:
- Forest fires burned across more than 5 million hectares of Bolivia’s forests and savannas last year.
- Sources say policy changes that encouraged more burning and clearing for agriculture contributed to the 2019 surge in fire activity.
- Following a contentious election, Evo Morales resigned the presidency in November.
- Conservationists say the new interim government has reversed some of the Morales administration’s decisions – but cautions there’s more left to do.
Late last year, historic wildfires raged through Bolivia, holding the country hostage for two months between July and September and burning more than 5 million hectares (50,000 sq km or 19,300 sq mi). The Beni and Santa Cruz departments, which contain mostly Chaco dry forest and savannah, were hit particularly hard.
“It has been a very dark year for Bolivia,” says Miguel Ángel Crespo, director of Productividad Biosfera Medio Ambiente (PROBIOMA).
The fire season wasn’t the only crisis Bolivia experienced during this time. Alleged irregularities during the country’s national election and disputed results catalyzed massive protests that ultimately led to the resignation of president Evo Morales.
Crespo said government inaction surrounding the fires contributed to Morales’ ousting.
“Evo Morales and his government failed to declare this a national disaster,” he told Mongabay. It wasn’t until late August, after an estimated 1 million hectares had already been lost, that the Morales government ordered planes be used to tackle the fires.
In the end, 5.3 million hectares of forest were lost – 3.9 million in Santa Cruz and 1.2 million in Beni – according to a report by the Friends of Nature Foundation.
“At least 40 million trees were burned and thousands of animals were killed in the fires,” said Pablo Solón, director of the NGO Fundación Solón and former Bolivian ambassador to the UN. “Birds were found to have flown hundreds of kilometers to save themselves from the fires.”
Santa Cruz’s Chiquitanía region was heavily affected by the fires. Dominated by expansive tropical forests and savannas, the Chiquitanía comprises some 20 million hectares and connects the humid Amazon rainforest in the north and west to the dry Gran Chaco ecoregion that flows south into Paraguay and Argentina. Solón says the fires caused some of the region’s unique biodiversity to be lost, and questions whether a similar situation will be prevented when Bolivia’s agricultural burning season starts anew in 2020.
In 2019, the Morales government, in a bid to expand of the country’s agricultural and mining frontier, authorized an increase in land clearance, which is often done through burning. This, experts say, catalyzed the fire crisis.
“The changes to the regulations on land-use change in Santa Cruz and Beni that expanded the frontier for both agricultural and extractive mining sector practices has had disastrous consequences in Chiquitanía,” said Pablo Villegas, head of research at Bolivia’s Documentation and Information Center. “I said that it was going to be a catastrophe and it was.”
Protected areas were not immune to the fires. One the many affected was the Ñembi Guasu Area of Conservation and Ecological Importance, which had been officially protected only months before it was hit by fires.
“It has been disastrous, something described as biocide and ethnocide,” said Ruth Alipaz, indigenous leader of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples for the Defense of Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP). “Fundamental resources such as river waters have been contaminated and fish are dying.”
Bolivia is no stranger to deforestation; a report published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that Bolivia ranked fifth when it came to overall forest loss in 2018, losing some 1,550 sq km. Preliminary satellite data for 2019 suggests that number was significantly eclipsed during last year’s unprecedented fire season.
In March 2019, the Morales government signed an agreement with agroindustrial companies in Santa Cruz, which authorized the use of genetically modified soy. The agreement also expanded the agricultural frontier by 250,000 hectares. In July, Morales amended Supreme Decree 26075 to authorize land-use changes relating to farming and controlled burning in Santa Cruz and Beni.
“Evo Morales left a government with an impressive and barbaric environmental liability as never seen before,” said Crespo of PROBIOMA.
Pablo Solón urges the withdrawal of these policies and a suspension of deforestation for agricultural expansion: “The shipment of meat to China must be halted, along with soy production and activities that encourage deforestation.”
Following Morales’ departure, a transitional government was formed, with Jeanine Áñez, second vice-president of the Senate, serving as interim president.
Recent moves have given hope to those seeking change. In February, Minister of Hydrocarbons, Victor Hugo Zamora, ordered the stop of oil exploration and exploitation in Tariquía Flora and Fauna National Reserve. The Áñez government also put a hold on drilling in the San Telmo Norte and Astillero areas after local protests.
But some have doubts that Bolivia’s new government will follow through on its promises.
“The Minister of Public Works [Yerko Núñez] said that the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric dam was unviable, but there are ministers and civil servants pushing to continue Morales’ projects,” said Ruth Alipaz of CONTIOCAP.
Alipaz denounces the risks of extractive activities in indigenous territories. She says that indigenous communities have declared an emergency and requested an audience with the interim president.
“We make up 42 percent of the population and are the most affected by extractive policies,” Alipaz said.
Sources say extraction activities, such as mining, added to the strain on Bolivia’s natural spaces in 2019.
“The expansion of gold [mining] activities and the huge use of mercury has been overwhelming,” says Marco Gandarillas of CEDIB.
Mercury is commonly used to separate gold ore from the surrounding sediment. The World Health Organization considers mercury one of the top ten chemicals that poses a major public health concern, and studies have detected toxic blood levels in communities downstream of mining sites elsewhere in South America.
“One of the main causes of contamination in Bolivia is gold mining,” said Pablo Villegas, also of CEDIB. “So far, no mining registry has existed and the government has not applied the Minamata Convention, a global treaty that seeks to protect health and the environment from mercury emissions.”
According to Villegas, the government is granting authorizations to mining entities, which allows them to mine legally in indigenous territories and protected areas.
“The issue lies with the Mining Law, which gives authorization to companies that do not have a legally registered status,” Villegas said.
Gold mining is not the only extractive activity in Bolivia worrying conservationists. Lithium mining in and around Coipasa Lake and Uyuni Salt Flat have also been controversial. Lithium is a key component in batteries for vehicles, telephones, solar panels and other electronic devices, and the race to extract it from the earth has been called by some the “new gold rush.”
The Morales government issued a supreme decree in December 2018 that would allow exploitation of lithium deposits in the Uyuni Salt Flat. According to the agreement, mining would happen over 70 years, with just 3 percent of profits earmarked for the region around Uyuni.
Ultimately, strong protests in the city of Potosí led to the cancellation of the project after Morales left office in 2019.
“It would be interesting if the new government can reverse what Evo Morales has left,” Crespo said.
Banner image: Devastation in the Chiquitanía. Photo courtesy of Fundación Nativa.