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Fires leave trail of dead wildlife, scorched land in Bolivia’s protected areas

  • Forest fires in Bolivia have torn through several protected areas, including San Matías and Ñembi Guasu, with experts warning of a repeat of the widespread burning of recent years.
  • The main cause of the fire is slash-and-burn clearing by farmers ahead of crop planting, which local laws permit, even in forested areas.
  • The burning has spread beyond Bolivia’s borders and into Paraguay, where the fires raged for several days in the Pantanal wetlands before being doused by rains.

Forest fires in Bolivia are showing no sign of abating, with blazes sweeping through ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, Chaco scrubland, Chiquitanía savanna, and Pantanal wetland.

With almost 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) burned to date this year, experts are warning of a repeat of the devastation of recent years. In 2019, fires tore through nearly 6 million hectares (15 million acres), while in 2020 4 million hectares (10 million acres) burned.

The department of Santa Cruz, in eastern Bolivia, is the worst-hit region this year, with nearly 790,000 hectares (2 million acres) burned as of the end of August, according Yovenka Rosado, the department’s forest fire program coordinator. Fires in the region have spread into protected areas, including the San Matías Integrated Management Natural Area (IMNA), Ñembi Guasu Area of Conservation and Ecological Importance, and the recently created Bajo Paraguá San Ignacio de Velasco Municipal Protected Area.

Part of the Ñembi Guasu protected area following a forest fire. Image courtesy of Fundación NATIVA.

“In the last two weeks, hotspots have intensified and become large-scale fires,” said Miguel Vargas, executive director of the Center for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS), which monitors the fires by satellite. This year’s most impacted ecosystems, Vargas said, are in the Chaco and Chiquitanía regions.

Nature reserves under attack

The burning in the San Matías IMNA began in early August, with 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) reportedly destroyed in the space of just one week. The rapid spread of the fires was fanned by dry weather conditions.

An animal lies dead in a scorched area of Ñembi Guasu. Image courtesy of Fundación NATIVA.

The forests in the San Matías IMNA burned for weeks, before rains in the final week of August helped firefighters bring the burning under control.

Satellite images published in a recent report from the Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory suggest the total burned area in the San Matías protected area amounts to nearly 232,000 hectares (573,000 acres) as of Aug. 22. If areas outside this zone are taken into account, the figure rises to nearly 307,000 hectares (759,000 acres).

“We are, once again, confronted with mega fires. Under these climatic conditions, with prolonged drought, we are facing a new disaster,” said Oswaldo Maillard, Coordinator of the Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory, part of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest. “[Fires in] San Matías have been active for more than a month, Otuquis is ablaze again, and there is a mega fire in Ñembi Guasu.”

Satellite images show the areas devastated by fire in Ñembi Guasu. Image courtesy of the Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory.

The observatory also reported fires in other municipalities in southeastern Bolivia.

Fires have devastated the Ñembi Guasu protected area in the Chaco region, destroying 87,700 hectares (215,000 acres) of forest as of Aug. 22, according to the observatory’s report. That figure has since increased as the burning has continued.

“In Ñembi Guasu fires have broken out in different places. One began in July and another, the largest, began around August 14,” said Juan de Dios Garay, a biologist with the organization Naturaleza Tierra y Vida (NATIVA), after visiting the site of the burning. “We have seen rodents, reptiles, and mammals of all kinds lying dead in its wake.”

According to estimates, 87,700 hectares (215,000 acres) of forest have been lost in Ñembi Guasu to fires. Image courtesy of Fundación NATIVA.

Garay said it’s very difficult for any wildlife to survive the fires; those that do manage to escape face another challenge finding water amid the scorched landscape.

“Some areas have practically turned to sand, sometimes forming sand dunes,” he said.

Rosado, the Santa Cruz forest fire coordinator, said fires have affected another five protected areas in the department.

Beyond borders

Bolivia’s forest fires have also crossed the country’s border and spread into Paraguay. José Luis Cartes, executive director of the conservation NGO Guyra Paraguay, said the burning has reached the Paraguayan Pantanal Reserve and Los Tres Gigantes Biological Station. “In a single night, the blaze traveled 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] in these areas,” he said.

Satellite images show the areas devastated by fire in San Matías. Image courtesy of the Chiquitano Dry Forest Observatory.

The fires burned for four days before being doused by rain that fell on Aug. 26. Cartes said that during the 2019 fires, “everything burned very quickly,” with the blaze lasting until November that year. This time, he said, Guyra Paraguay is working with the NATIVA Foundation to protect the most extensive nature reserves in both countries.

Iván Arnold, director of NATIVA, said the fire that started in the north of Ñembi Guasu crossed the reserve to the south and spread into Paraguay. And although rains helped to contain the spread of the flames, the coming months could be the most critical. “We are still highly vulnerable. The problem are the people who light fires,” he said.

Vargas from CEJIS also highlighted the problem of chaqueo, the practice of slash and burn to clear the land for planting crops, which has become the main cause of forest fires in Bolivia.

Escaping the fires is almost impossible for reptiles. Image courtesy of Fundación NATIVA.

“There are still laws in force that allow the clearing of permanent forest production areas in order to prepare them for monoculture farming,” Vargas said.

He cited laws and decrees issued in the past 15 years that have permitted burning and land use change in forested areas. “It’s a recurring situation. We witness forest fires every year in July, August and September.”

Banner image of a forest fire in Ñembi Guasu, courtesy of Fundación NATIVA.

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Aug. 31, 2021.

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