Bolivia is burning, but Nobody Cares

Teresa Flores Bedregal
Casilla 499
La Paz, Bolivia
[email protected]

Teresa Flores Bedregal, is a Bolivian forest and environmental activist, and obtained her Master's degree in Environmental Policy at Indiana University.

It is now the burning season  of the tropical regions, and this year Bolivia is setting the Latin American record.  Since July, the fires have raged, and many areas rich in biodiversity areas are being destroyed. These fires are caused by agribusiness, cattle ranching, farmers and the colonizers. This happens every year.  However, the exceptionally dry conditions caused by the El Niño were optimal this year.  And burn they did, out of control everywhere. The fires have reached three major villages, the Center of the Indigenous Peoples in the Isiboro National Park, and important parts of other National Parks such as San Matias in the Pantanal known for its rich wildlife. The fires are also burning near important oil-wells in the Chapare. This was the only case where the Army has intervened to stop the fires. In addition, another oil-well of Madrejones is also burning by unknown causes in Santa Cruz.

As a result, the economic losses are great, particularly for many peasants and poor villagers.  But the loss of biodiversity is far greater. Unfortunately, because Bolivia's biodiversity is probably the least studied on the continent, it is difficult to know the full extent of the damage. What is known is that the range and number of the fires into the forests and savanahs have never been greater.  

But the most striking thing about this year's fires is that nobody cares.  Because Bolivia is entangled with economic and political problems, the country is doing nothing to prevent the fires.  The government has not even warned the population about the dangers of setting fires in the extremely dry conditions.  Moreover, the Bolivian government  has declared that "nobody is responsible for the fires" , and the governmental officials said that  "they are inevitable" since with the current technologies the "chaqueos" (burning the land for crops and pastures) are the only way to make suitable the land for production.

The government has forgotten that in 1997, the previous government approved a set of rules for setting the fires under strict control and permission of the authorities.  If the current government had enforced the those rules,  this catastrophe could have been prevented.  In addition, there are many available and known technologies for using the land without burning it.  These technologies are more efficient in terms of soil fertility and conservation, without the loss of biomass release of vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

According to non official information produced by the Project Bolfor, based on the satelllite images of NOAA/ NESDIS the affected areas are about 4,5 million  of hectares in Santa Cruz, 2,3 million in Beni,  and 1,3 million in the other departmets, but the fires are still going on.

These fires not only have consumed vast areas of  the tropical savannas and timber rich forests, but also have greatly damaged wildlife. In some areas, poachers are extremely happy since the game never has been so easy to catch. When animals escape the fires to the lakes and rivers for refuge, the poachers ambush them for massive slaughters.  In addition, many of the smaller, slower animals have burned in the fires.

A partial assessment of Bolfor shows that in the state of Santa Cruz through September 1st, 50 millions tons of biomass have burned.  The atmospheric carbon emissions reached approximately 24.5 millions tons.

Despite all of the destruction, the Directorate for Biodiversity Conservation, and the Forestry Superintendency  have not said a word. Asked by the press the Viceminister of the Environment said that controling the fires is a responsibility of the local governments, but not of the Ministry.

If the country remains unaware of what is losing, and does not value the natural capital, very little will remain for conservation in the future. That is why, that the only hope lies on international environmental and conservation organizations, and development cooperation agencies. Bolivia needs to be made aware that this situation cannot continue, and should never be repeated.

Excerpts of La Prensa, Monday 6 September, 1999

Politicians Impede the control over timber trafficking

The Forestry Supertintendent Erwin Aguilera recognized that precious wood trafficking in Bolivia is still going on. He denounced that very strong political interests put obstacles to the control of timber traffiking in forests and roads.

Aguilar said that the control activities are intense in each post of control, and that this has allowed to sue timber companies and people who illegally have been logging.

However, he also admitted that the Forestry Superintendency is victim of pressures from certain political sectors, that he did not want to identify, and from indigenous organizations that live in forests conceded by the state.

Aguilar denounced also that indigenous peoples are involved in illegal commercial operations of timber

Erick Tittize, of the Forestry Superintendency has confirmed that the indigenous and illegal companies have contracts to exploit precious woods in the forests.

Somebody denounced to "La Prensa" that at night 38 trucks are allowed by the control posts by paying bribes of BS.$ 2500, each one in La Paz.

The office of the Forestry Soperintendency in La Paz informed that timber traffickers use hidden roads to reach the saw mills in the city of El Alto.

Aguilar said that he does not defend the forestry personnel, but that he is convinced that in the control posts the personnel is qualified but he did not discard that there may be some cases of corruption. However, he also said that he can put his hand under the fire for the forestry Intendets because they develop a professional and honest job in the enforcement of the law.

Teresa Flores Bedregal
Casilla 499
La Paz, Bolivia
[email protected]