Nearly 600,000 hectares of land burned in the Bolivian department of Santa Cruz (east) and 64% of its protected areas were razed by fires, mostly of criminal origin, authorities said.
Monday evening August 23, there were 20 active fires and seven protected areas affected. In just two days 200,000 hectares were burnt down, the government reported. Most of the fires are concentrated in the forests of Chiquitania, a region between the Amazon to the north, the Chaco plains to the south and the Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland – to the southeast. With an area similar to that of Belgium, the San Matias nature reserve is one of the most damaged. This part of the country had already experienced serious fires in 2019.
Volunteer firefighters and scarce forest rangers desperately try to contain the spread of the flames by digging trenches. The government deployed around 1,800 troops and dispatched two helicopters.
Fires due to the practice of burning
Deputy Minister of Civil Defense Juan Carlos Calvimontes – who oversees firefighting in the region – said a law prevents the executive from asking for help from neighboring countries if local governments do not are not declared in a situation of “Disaster”.
Such a cry for help is only possible when the government depletes the entire budget for firefighting, which authorities say has yet to happen. This law “Should be changed”, he said.
Authorities agree that most of the fires were caused deliberately. In Bolivia, as in other South American countries, it is traditional to burn land to turn forests into agricultural areas.
The practice is legal in Bolivia for an area limited to 20 hectares, with an authorization between May and July, once the rainy season is over. In the event of arson, a fine of one dollar per hectare burned is imposed. In the event of a large-scale fire, the penalty can be up to three years in prison.