Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.
These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.
On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.
Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.
But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.
On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.
The ongoing fire crisis in the Eastern Bolivia department of Santa Cruz has burned 187,800 hectares of the Ñembi Guasu Area of Conservation and Ecological Importance, scorching forests and leaving behind burnt out wildlife carcasses. The destruction in one-sixth of the Ñembi Guasu comes just four months after the Guaraní Charagua Iyambae autonomous government designated the park as protected on April 29, 2019.
According to reporting from El Deber, the Fires started in Roboré municipality, which has received much of the local attention during the ongoing Chiquitano dry forest fire crisis. But Charagua is the worst-affected municipality in the country, with 239,073 hectares burned according to recently released satellite analysis from the Fundación de Amigos de la Naturaleza.
El Deber reports the fire rages uncontrolled:
Today, it is the largest fire in the country; the only one that no one has taken care of up til now. Since August 9, when a chaqueo [slash and burn fire] got out of control 15 kilometers from Roboré, the flames have devoured land, reaching over 100 km away… and spilling over as far as Paraguay, towards Otoquis [Park] and still no one has done anything to put it out.
Hoy es el incendio más grande del país; el único que nadie ha atendido hasta ahora. Desde el 9 de agosto, cuando un chaqueo se descontroló a 15 kilómetros de Roboré, las llamas han devorado más de 100 kilómetros en línea recta, 187.800 hectáreas hasta ayer, ya se ha desbordado hasta Paraguay y hacia el Otuquis y aún nadie hace nada por apagarlo.
Pablo Ortiz, “Nadie atiende el incendio de Ñembi Guasu: el área protegida más joven,” El Deber, August 27, 2019.
The current fire in Ñembi Guasu stands as a potent metaphor of the risks that agricultural deforestation poses to both indigenous autonomy and conservation. Unless they have the resources to defend the territory, manage disasters, and shape policy, so-called Protected Areas will remain unprotected.
With the world’s eyes turned towards the fires in the Amazon rainforest, and primarily on Brazil, there is good reason to survey the larger problem of deliberate deforestation across South America. Right now Bolivia is several weeks into the most devastating season of fires in at least a decade. As of August 22, the Bolivian government reported that 744,000 hectares of the country were affected by the blazes, and by Saturday, August 24, the regional government of Santa Cruz raised that estimate to over one million hectares.
A key driver of the fires in both countries is the deliberate clearing of forest land for agricultural production, which has been prioritized by left-wing government of Evo Morales as well as the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. Last week, both presidents reacted flippantly to the growing international attention surrounding the fires. (On August 19, Morales called the fires “natural phenomena” that “will continue” in years to come and seemed preoccupied with avoiding blame: “This is not the first time that there have been fires, they have always been around. Now they want to blame Evo Morales for the fires.” ) After the fires became a key discussion point at the G7 meeting, and following growing protests demanding international aid in eastern Bolivia, however, both men have attempted to show their governments are proactively responding to the emergency. Nonetheless, government policy in Brazil and Bolivia is fueling and authorizing the underlying drive to convert more of primary forests into croplands and grazing fields for cattle. This fact has been widely recognized for the government of Bolsonaro, who defied environmental regulators on his own private property before taking office, and who has dismantled environmental protections as president.
Unfortunately, the same policy priorities are at work in Bolivia under President Evo Morales. While from a different social class, as the leader of the Chapare coca grower’s union, Morales shares a similar orientation towards the forests of their respective countries. Both men see the Amazon rainforest (and in Bolivia’s case, the Chiquitano dry forest as well) as underpopulated areas of land that ought to be incorporated into the national economy through production for the market. (Contrary to some wild-eyed Twitter claims, however, the current fires in Bolivia are in the service of cattle and lowland export crops like soy, not coca.)
In 2013, the Morales government laid out its territorial vision as part of its 2025 Patriotic Agenda, a thirteen-point series of goals whose target date is the bicentennial of Bolivian independence. The plan, describing “how we want our beloved Bolivia to be” in Morales’ words, proposes an ambitious reterritorialization of Bolivia that will affect large portions of the country’s land surface, with millions of hectares altered by new agricultural, hydrocarbon, and infrastructural initiatives. It offers quantitative targets for the use of Bolivia’s land, water, and natural resources. In writing the plan, Bolivian government planners worked on a wide canvas: the full area of Bolivia’s national territory, which consists of nearly 110 million hectares and land and domestic waters.
The most dramatic shift proposed in the Patriotic Agenda is the so-called “expansion of the agrarian frontier”: increasing the total land under cultivation from 3.3 million hectares (in 2013) to as many as 13 million hectares by 2025. This staggering figure has been put forward by the president, vice president, and ministers, but their reach exceeds their grasp. The technical data used by the government’s planning staff, according to Fundación Tierra researcher Enrique Castañón Ballivián, corresponds to a still-startling 6-million-hectare cultivated area. Nearly half of the projected expansion would come in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, where soy (and soy oil)-exporting agribusiness dominates the economy. Costañón argues that this expansion would inevitably clash with indigenous collective titles, as well as forested areas.
While this agricultural land goal seemed unrealistically ambitious at the time, it has set the direction for Bolivia’s forest and land management agencies and for new decrees like the one that set off the current fires in the Chiquitanía.