Bolivia declares a national emergency overwhelmed by forest fires

Bhavi Mandalia, Pledge Times:

A cloud of smoke from several fires is observed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.JUAN CARLOS TORREJÓN / EFE

More than half a million hectares of forest are burning in Santa Cruz, a region in eastern Bolivia, at the gates of the Amazon, which faces two consecutive years of drought and high temperatures. The interim president, Jeanine Áñez, declared this Wednesday a “national emergency”, which will allow her to receive international aid to put out the fires. Thus, she distances herself from her predecessor, Evo Morales, who last year faced a similar situation, but refused to decree the emergency, despite the request of the inhabitants of the area. Morales argued that the country could solve the problem alone. The fires this year are far more contained than those of then, which were particularly serious, but they have something else in common with them: their proximity to the elections and, therefore, the political game to which they give rise.

“We have been asked if we are going to resort to international aid … we say that we are going to resort to absolutely everything that helps us stop the fires, to avoid the misfortune that we experienced last year,” Áñez assured. The president also promised to act vigorously against those responsible for the burning, if they can be identified.

Analysts and historians consider that the fall of Morales began with the reaction of public opinion to the fires that a year ago destroyed five million hectares and that were especially painful for the population of Santa Cruz, because they compromised the dry forest of a An area called Chiquitanía, whose wood is very valuable and is used in regional crafts and architecture. As a result of this disaster, the opposition organized large protest demonstrations against Morales when the elections were a few weeks away, which would be questioned for alleged fraud and would end up being annulled in the midst of a serious political crisis.

Today the Chiquitano forest is again at risk. Áñez has declared that putting down the fires is his priority over the electoral campaign in which he is participating, although so far not among the favorite candidates. At the same time, Áñez has repealed a Morales decree that authorized the felling of the forest to enable agricultural and livestock activities, and the use of controlled burning or “chaqueo” to carry out such task. It is assumed that this decree increased the fires that farmers traditionally set during the sowing season, in the last days of southern winter, to facilitate clearing of the land. The Bolivian Cabinet has announced that it will initiate a liability trial for this matter against former President Morales, who has already been accused in about a dozen judicial processes for various crimes.

Environmentalists consider that Áñez’s gesture is insufficient and has a purely electoral character, since the decree that he has annulled is only a small component of the set of norms that promote the expansion of crops and pastures in Santa Cruz and other parts of the country, and what activists call “incendiary laws”.

The causes of the unusual magnitude and recurrence of forest fires in Santa Cruz are intensively debated. For the political leaders of this region, the fires originate from the arrival in Chiquitanía of indigenous communities from the area of ​​the country called here “highlands”, who do not know how to take care of the forest. For environmental organizations, they are due to the purpose of local ranchers and agro-industrialists to extend their crops and forage fields at the expense of forest areas. The 2020-2030 Livestock Development Plan establishes a growth of the livestock area from 13 to 20 million hectares. The previous Government agreed with the companies dedicated to intensive agriculture to expand the cultivated area from 2.5 million to 10 million hectares. These projects, if completed, would require heavy deforestation, since the compromised territory is mainly forested. Environmentalists consider them “predators.” When he was president, Morales, who was the first peasant to govern the country, agreed with ranchers and agro-industrialists in the objective of radically increasing the exploitation of the land. Instead, it clashed with these same elites because of the immigration of Aymara and Quechua indigenous people to Santa Cruz.

Until now, the interim government of Áñez, which changed many orientations of the previous government, had not amended any of the “incendiary regulations” that it inherited. Instead, it facilitated and expanded the importation of genetically modified seeds into the country, a measure that is also seen as conducive to deforestation. The president was born in Beni, which is a livestock area. Her party is the Social Democratic Movement, a native of eastern Bolivia and, therefore, closely related to the national industrial agriculture.

Published by Bolivian Thoughts

Senior managerial experience on sustainable development projects.

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