Fires have been ravaging the Bolivian lowlands for over a month. Nearly ten million acres have already burned, an area larger than Connecticut and New Jersey combined. Almost half the destruction lies in protected areas known for high biodiversity. It is a tragedy.
The Chiquitanía, a dry forest ecosystem between Amazonia and Gran Chaco in the province of Santa Cruz, is at the center of the crisis. The fires threaten the survival of the region’s wildlife and indigenous people. The Ñembi Guasu Reserve, home to indigenous Ayoreo groups in voluntary isolation, is the most affected area. In the autonomous Guaraní community of Charagua Iyambae, thousands of acres of forest have been destroyed. Residents are pleading for help to stop the fires.
The destruction is incommensurable.
Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first ever indigenous president, promised to defend Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Instead his government has promoted the interests of agribusiness. His government has enabled aggressive land grabs that have led to deforestation and indigenous dispossession, as President Jair Bolsonaro has done in Brazil. No wonder the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin accused them both of environmental genocide.
Bolivia’s fires are the bitter fruit of policies designed to benefit agribusiness. Mr. Morales has promoted the expansion of cattle ranching and biofuels in Santa Cruz since 2010. In April this year, Mr. Morales signed an agreement to increase beef exports to China, which have — like Brazil’s — been growing in value and volume. Then in July, a decree legalized slash-and-burn fires to turn forests into pasture. Bolivians called Mr. Morales a “murderer of nature.”
The practice of burning to clear land, known as “chaqueo,” is common in Bolivia. But this time they grew out of control, fueled by higher temperatures and atmospheric drought, both caused by global warming. Firefighters extinguish fires only to see people start new ones. Even worse, Chiquitanía’s dry season extends until December, which means fires could rage for months.
The map of Bolivia’s fires overlaps with that of cattle and coca production. It is destruction, not development — for Bolivians, for the planet, and for business too. The irreparable loss of fauna and flora is beyond horrendous; indigenous territories have been decimated. The loss of biodiversity in Chiquitanía is also a loss for millions of people across Latin America whose lives depend on its water system.
Mr. Morales, who is running for a controversial fourth term, dismissed environmentalists’ concerns and marches in five cities as the “electoral nuisance of small groups.” One of his cabinet ministers, Juan Ramón Quintana, ruled out the declaration of a national disaster, claiming the fires were not uniform and did not affect enough people. Chiquitanos say the president intentionally let forests burn to ashes because the region holds little electoral value for him.
The first and most urgent step to control the fires is to declare a national disaster. Bolivia’s law establishes that the government should do so when events cause damage that the state is economically or technically unable to remedy. The government can then seek direct international assistance.
The fires raging across forests in Chiquitanía (and Amazonia) are intrinsic to a political economy of extraction that prevails in countries led by governments of both the right and the left across Latin America. Bolivia needs to address the root causes of the fires. Those responsible for setting the fires must be held accountable. It is not just the destruction of Chiquitanía that is at stake. It is our planet, too.
Mr. Morales should reverse the policies that set off the fires, and move away from a destructive economy based on extractive industries. The government’s claim that there are not “enough deaths” is a brutal dismissal of indigenous lives by an indigenous president. It also goes against the principles on the rights of nature which Bolivia inscribed in its Constitution a decade ago.
Indigenous worldviews make no distinction between ecocide and genocide, because all beings are related — human, animal, plant, river. The indigenous Ayoreo people live in symbiosis with their ecosystem. They have nowhere else to go. Nor do the rest of us, for that matter. In a time of climate crisis, ecocide destroys vital relationships between humans and nature.
Bolivia’s government can learn much from indigenous initiatives. The Guaranís have led an admirable struggle for self-determination, and they already turned 68 percent of their autonomous territories into conservation areas. The most recent reserve, Ñembi Guasu, was created last May in an effort to protect indigenous ways of life and biodiversity for current and future generations. Now it is burning.
But President Morales can avoid further loss of life. He must declare a national disaster.
Manuela Lavinas Picq is a Loewenstein Fellow and visiting associate professor in political science at Amherst College.