With global attention focused on the fires burning across the Brazilian Amazon, neighboring Bolivia is battling its own vast blazes, which have charred an area nearly as extensive as the nation of Lebanon.
At least 38,793 fires are burning across the country and a total of 3,700 square miles (950,000 hectares) have been burned so far this year, according to Cliver Rocha, director of the National Forests and Lands Authority in Bolivia.
The largest part of the fires is in the Chiquitanía region of southeastern Bolivia, a zone of dry forest, farmland and open prairies that has seen an expansion of farming and ranching in recent years. In addition to the environmental damage, there’s also a massive economic cost: an estimated US$1.1 billion worth of timber has been destroyed because of the fires this year alone.
Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, has previously rejected offers of international help to battle the fires, but now he announced that he would interrupt his re-election campaign for a week to help coordinate foreign aid efforts.
“Any cooperation is welcome, whether it comes from international organizations, celebrities or from the presidents who offered to help,” Morales said in Cochabamba, where he had been campaigning for a fourth term in office.
Morales said he had been called by global leaders, including the presidents of Paraguay, Chile, and Spain. Firefighters from Chile and Argentina as well as France, Spain, and Russia were deployed to help fight the flames, according to local media reports.
The government contracted the world’s largest firefighting tanker plane from the United States, and officials say it has helped control the expansion of the fires, but hot, dry and windy conditions have kept the blazes burning. Peru contributed to the effort by sending two helicopter tankers.
Last week, the pan-Amazon indigenous organization COICA accused Morales, and his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, of “gutting every environmental and social strategy to strengthen environmental governance of the Amazon”.
COICA declared the two governments as not welcome in the Amazon and held them personally accountable for the “cultural and environmental genocide” in the world’s largest wilderness.
The Bolivian Friends of Nature Foundation has complained that the government ignored fire precautions needed at a time when the area — unlike the Amazon further north — is suffering drought conditions.
Morales in July issued a decree allowing controlled burns and clearing of lands. While people are supposed to obtain prior permission, authorities say most of the fires have been started illegally. Morales also granted an amnesty for people caught burning fields illegally last year.