Peru declares state of emergency over deadly forest fires

Peru declares state of emergency over deadly forest fires

24 November 2016

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Peru — Peru has declared a state of emergency in seven districts in the north of the country where forest fires have killed two, injured four and burnt nearly 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of land, including five protected natural areas.

Wildfires have spread to 11 regions across the country, according to Peru’s civil defence institute, in what scientists say may be the worst drought in more than a decade.

Peru’s environment minister, Elsa Galarza, said a special brigade of firefighters had been deployed to the worst-affected areas in the north. The 31 firefighters are normally stationed in the Inca citadel Machu Picchu, the country’s top tourist attraction.

Endangered animal species such as the spectacled bear – which inspired the Paddington Bear children’s stories – and the white-winged guan are under threat from the blazes. Other rare species such as jaguars, howler monkeys and the collared anteater, are seeing their habitat destroyed inside the protected areas, which include the Amotape mountain range and Cutervo national park.

Peru’s prime minister, Fernando Zavala, travelled to the affected areas and said the state of emergency would allow the government to “continue mobilising people, resources and diverse equipment in order to confront these fires”.

“The ferocity and speed of the fires took us by surprise,” said Joel Córdoba, chief at the Paigabamba protected forest in Cajamarca, one of the worst-affected regions.

Córdoba, who has been working with park guards, volunteers and local firefighters to control the blazes since they began last week, said they were gradually bringing the flames under control.

“The people have a bad habit of burning to clear land for cultivation at this time of year they rely on the rains to put them out, but the rains didn’t come,” he told the Guardian by telephone.

In nearby Querecoto, Aurora García Samame, a 63-year-old farmer, said the district had lost hundreds of head of cattle in the fire which took hold on Sunday.

“The sky turned black, we lost our crops to the flames and the fire spread to the forest in the mountains. It’s impossible to stop,” she said.

Ernesto Ráez, a former adviser with the environment ministry, said the government was given due warning of the possibility of forest fires in mid-August. He said he and 23 other scientists sent an open letter to authorities in Brazil, Bolivia and Peru warning of the grave risk due to drought conditions over the last year.

“Peru completely dismissed our letter,” he said, adding a reply was received from the environment ministry but there was no response from the agriculture ministry which is responsible for dealing with forest fires.

Ráez, a tropical ecologist working with environmental NGO Pro-Naturaleza, added Peru needed a rapid response contingency plan for forest fires due to the “increasing frequency and intensity of severe droughts which might be related to climate change”.

Speaking on national radio on Wednesday, Peru’s agriculture minister, José Manuel Hernández accepted the country was ill-prepared to deal with this type of emergency.

“We’ve been prepared for floods but we’re not prepared for fires like this,” he said.

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