While much of the world’s attention has focused on the recent wildfires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, blazes have also destroyed wide swaths of land in the neighboring country of Bolivia.
Particularly hard hit is the area of Chiquitanía, which has seen nearly 40,000 fires that have razed 3,700 square miles of land in the country’s southeastern region. The area, comprised of a mixture of dense underbrush and dry, papery trees, links the Amazon to the Gran Chaco forest, known for its efforts to protect and conserve the habitat of the endangered jaguar.
Big cats within Chiquitanía have also been put at risk. As the Associated Press has reported, fires have devastated important habitats for jaguars and pumas near the town of San Ignacio de Velasco. Those cats that survived the flames will face a shortage of deer and other prey. Volunteers fighting the flames reported seeing pacas, wild pigs, armadillos, tapirs, and birds fleeing the burning forest.
Indigenous leader Fernando Vargas, speaking with The Guardian, called the fires, “the biggest ever catastrophe for biodiversity in Bolivia.” Up to 98% of the forests worked by indigenous Chiquitano communities have been lost to the flames. Likewise, in the Bení region, located in the northeast of the country, 600 hectares of forest has been destroyed. Such losses pose an existential risk to Bolivia’s indigenous communities, who rely on the sustainable extraction of timber and other forest resources as a means of survival.
Efforts to combat the fires have included over 3,500 police, soldiers, and volunteers working on the frontlines. The country’s president, Evo Morales, has also accepted help from the international community, including a fleet of tanker planes to fight the flames from above.
Those on the ground argue that these wildfires may not be so wild. Mayor of San Ignacio Moises Salcés points to slash-and-burn agriculture techniques. Known locally as chaqueo, the practice is favored by small farmers as an easy and inexpensive method of land clearing. Critics of the practice point to the law approved by Morales in July, which permits controlled burns as a means of clearing lands. Bolivia experienced a 422% increase in the number of fires between July and August, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.
Regardless of their origin, the fires pose a serious threat to Bolivia’s conservation efforts.
Written By Dane Gambrell