As many as 8,500 forest fires have been detected in the region of Santa Cruz, were the Chiquitania is located, and two other Amazonic Bolivian regions that limit with Brazil, where Amazon forest has been burning with even more intensity than Bolivia's woodlands.
By Carlos Orias B
After losing some 700,000 hectares (around 1.4 million acres) of forest in less than a month, Bolivian population felt some relief on Friday as the Super tanker plane, a fire fighting B747-400 rented by Bolivian Government this week, released its first load of 75,000 litres of water over an out of control forest fire located in a rural region called Chiquitania, some 300 km East of the country’s economic capital, Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
Widespread forest fires began in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands early this month after almost four months of drought and are considered the worst in decades. Smoke from fires is polluting the air in places as far from Chiquitania as Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, located 1000 km to the West, at 3600 m over the sea level.
As many as 8,500 forest fires have been detected in the region of Santa Cruz, were the Chiquitania is located, and two other Amazonic Bolivian regions that limit with Brazil, where Amazon forest has been burning with even more intensity than Bolivia’s woodlands.
Along with the 700,000 hectares of forest lost, around 1.200 persons were affected by fire and the loss of property and cattle is nearing the 5 million US Dollars. There have been no fatalities among peasants but some areas had to be evacuated this week as fires moved rapidly towards ranches due to strong winds.
The mostly manmade legal and illegal fires were started by peasants that burn the remains of trees after cutting the forest with the intention to “clean” their land for agriculture.
Bolivia is approaching the October 20th general election, in which President Evo Morales is running for another term and has a strong chance of winning in the first electoral round.
Morales’ decision to run for 2020-2025, after 13 years of Government, was protested by opposition rivals such as former president and now candidate Carlos Mesa, who is second in the national vote intention for the nearing election.
The natural disaster in the Santa Cruz’ Chiquitania jumped this week into the electoral campaign as the extension of the damage was exposed by media and Morales’ Government reacted quickly by bringing the Super tanker to fight the fires that threaten as many as five of Bolivia 21 national parks and reserves.
A recent decision by Morales administration under which Agency for Forest and Land Control permitted the growth of land dedicated to agricultural activities has been denounced by media and political opposition as one of the reasons for the 8.500 fires and the enormous loss of forest this month in Santa Cruz.
The fact that the region’s capital city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra is one of the opposition strongholds in the country can help understand the fast arrival of the big fire fighting plane. On Friday, President Morales announced that Bolivia will buy a smaller fire fighting plane, as fires are cyclic and characteristic in the country’s lowlands.
Bolivia’s historical lack of well equipped forest fire fighting units and this winter’s fire emergency have become an unexpected issue in the otherwise boring campaign for October’s election.
(Author is Bolivia based editor and photographer. Views expressed are personal.)