That year, at least 2.7 million acres of land were destroyed by fires caused by climate change and demand for arable land
By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, October 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation). Indigenous leader Tomas Candia hopes the light rains that began this week over parts of the Bolivian Amazon rainforest will spread and help put out dozens of forest fires in the nature-rich South American nation.
The fires that devastated arid savannah meadows, forests and agricultural areas mainly in eastern Bolivia prompted the government to declare the state of disaster earlier this month.
So far this year, 1.1 million hectares have been burned according to the government.
However, the Bolivian non-profit Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN) estimates that the area burned is twice as large, largely due to the use of fire to clear farmland exacerbated by high temperatures and drought.
Candia, head of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB Organica), said local communities had been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and forest fires.
“We need help restoring our territory, which will take at least 10 years,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The forests are our home and our market. The situation is vital to us as the fires have burned our medicinal plants, fruits, food crops and our biodiversity, ”he said.
In 2019, the worst forest fires in the country’s history destroyed more than 6 million hectares in the Bolivian Amazon.
The recurring forest fires, triggered by increasing deforestation and worsening drought as the planet warms, have indicated a lack of fire prevention and control measures and insufficient investment in fire-fighting, according to environmentalists.
As a new government takes power, led by Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) President-elect Luis Arce, forest experts and indigenous leaders urge officials to invest in sustainable agriculture and forestry and better equip the fire brigade.
The vast majority of fires in Bolivia are the result of human activities involving uncontrolled burning to prepare previously deforested land for large-scale agriculture.
“Farmers want to sell and sell and commercialize the land. We want to keep it. That’s the difference, ”said Candia.
Since the 1990s, successive governments – including the 13-year government of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales – have encouraged the expansion of soy and livestock farming.
Officials said such policies are vital to Bolivia’s food production and sovereignty, and have fueled robust economic growth and helped lift millions out of poverty.
Marcos Teran, director of the Bolivian Association for Research and Conservation of Andean Amazonian Ecosystems (ACEAA), said the country’s laws make it easier for the agricultural frontier to advance.
“Deforestation increases every year and land is cleared for large-scale agriculture. That’s a big problem, ”said Teran, biologist and tropical ecologist.
Permission to burn land has been suspended due to the pandemic, he noted. “But we are still seeing waves of large forest fires, including in protected areas,” he added.
Bolivian law allows smallholders to apply for permits to burn land in a controlled manner, which has been going on for centuries, but those without a permit are rarely prosecuted.
“The next government must focus on improving its ability to control the fires as soon as they start and pursue the burning land without permission,” Teran said.
“Forest fires are a recurring problem every year and we as a country have not yet been able to address them.”
According to Vincent Vos, a Dutch biologist and researcher living in Bolivia, one way to limit forest fires is to focus on sustainable agriculture, which in turn can help curb deforestation.
Over the years, government policies, including fuel subsidies, have favored the agricultural business, which is mostly run by foreigners, while local smallholders receive little help, he said.
“Although half of Bolivian territory is covered by forest, there are hardly any laws promoting sustainable forest use and even fewer government programs,” said Vos.
The state should help farmers grow Brazil nuts, acai berries and cocoa as environmentally friendly alternative crops, he added.
According to scientists, climate change is also fueling forest fires in Bolivia and other parts of South America.
Rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, and prolonged periods of drought related to global warming are making forests drier and hotter, they warn.
“In addition to government measures that encourage the expansion of the agricultural frontier, climate factors such as longer dry months, which increase the risk of fire, must be taken into account,” Teran said.
“This is a perfect recipe for fires to recur.”
Increasing deforestation in Brazil, meanwhile, is affecting water cycles and rainfall patterns across the Amazon, leading to drier weather and drier forests, according to environmentalists.
Bolivia’s neighbors – Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil – are also struggling to contain significant forest fires this year.
Paraguay declared a national emergency earlier this month when fires burned large parts of the Chaco dry forest, which was home to sprawling cattle ranches, jaguars and indigenous tribes.
EQUIP FIRE FIGHTERS
Forest experts are calling on Bolivia’s new government to step up investment in fire safety by equipping and training local firefighters to fight the flames and limit destruction.
Most are volunteers, and it can take days for equipment and trained firefighters to reach blazing forests.
FAN calls for the adoption of a national forest fire fighting policy that focuses on fire management and prevention, better coordination between local and central government and the involvement of the hardest hit rural communities.
“Strengthening local capacity is key to an initial response and preventing major fires,” said Veronica Ibarnegaray, FAN project manager.
The group works with municipalities to train local fire brigades and strengthen early warning systems with which they can measure wind speed, humidity and temperature, monitor fires and use slash and burn controls in a timely manner.
Indigenous peoples urgently need training in fire fighting and the use of drones to better manage fires, said Candia of CIDOB.
“We focus on preserving the forest and dealing with COVID. But I’m afraid the fires will happen every year, ”he warned.
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(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please thank the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the non-profit arm of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world who are struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http : //news.trust .org)
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