BOLIVIA – More than 120 major fires have been detected in Bolivia since August, more than a quarter of them in protected areas, including Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most of this year’s major blazes, 54%, were detected in savannas in the department of Beni. More than 38% burned in forests, both in the Amazon rainforest and the dry forests of Chiquitano, according to the nonprofit Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).
Much like Brazil, most of the fires in Bolivia are escaped agricultural blazes. Farmers routinely use fire to create or to clear croplands and pastures. Lack of proper management and exacerbating conditions such as high temperatures and winds create the perfect recipe for fires to escape into neighboring lands and ecosystems.
In Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, more than 8,500 hectares (21,000 acres) have burned this year, a sliver of the 1.5-million-hectare (3.8-million-acre) park. The park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 for its pristine forests, encompasses three biomes: Amazon rainforest, Chiquitano dry forest, and Cerrado savanna. Fires have been detected in the transition zone between the rainforest and savanna, moving mostly into the park’s drier savanna biome.
“It is a sample of the great damage that fires can cause to vegetation and species in the area should it spread further,” Eduardo Forno, executive director of Conservation International, Bolivia, told Mongabay in an email. “Savannas recover relatively quickly in one to two years, but forests will take more than 35 years, which is the problem in the AP Copaibo [Copaibo Municipal Protected Area] where it is mainly forest being impacted.”
In the Copaibo Municipal Protected Area, 99,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of forest have burned this year, an area about half as big as New York City. Copaibo lies in the transition zone between the Amazon and the Chiquitano. In the dry Chiquitano forests, many trees have a paper-like bark and underbrush is copious, so with high temperatures and winds, a small blaze there can burn out of control.
“The fire monitoring and fire scars identified in this region show us that Chiquitano and Amazon forest was affected, and probably affected local communities that use forest resources as livelihood. Today the fire in this protected area is still present,” said researchers Alina Ariñez, Carlos De Ugarte and Marcos Terán from the Bolivian Association for Investigation and Conservation of Ecosystems in the Andean-Amazon (ACEAA).
At the southern border of Copaibo, there is widespread agricultural deforestation that employs controlled burns, and the area lacks management, the ACEAA team told Mongabay in an Oct. 9 email.
At least 15 major fires have been detected in Indigenous territories, including the the Isoso Indigenous Territory in Santa Cruz, the Cabineño and Cayubaba territories in Beni, and the Mosetén territory in La Paz.
Fires this year have also affected Iténez National Park, Keneth Lee Reserve and Pampas del Río Yacuma Integrated Management Natural Area, among others.
In the department of Santa Cruz, this year, nearly two-thirds of the 552,142 hectares (1.36 million acres) of forests and pastures that burned before Sept. 15 were public lands and agricultural properties, the Bolivian news outlet Los Tiempos reports.
Gonzalo Colque, director of Fundación Tierra, a Bolivian NGO, questioned the state’s protection and management of public lands, where human settlements and fires are illegal. According to Los Tiempos, Colque noted that public lands are disputed and occupied by people burning first and asking for government permission later.
Last year, Bolivia experienced some of its worst fires in recent history. The military, firefighters and volunteers fought the blazes for months. Ultimately, more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) were destroyed.
This year, there have been more fires detected, but they have burned less area compared to last year. Due to a forward shift in the dry season, more active fires have occurred in September and October compared to last year, Forna said, when there were more active fires from January through September.
Nevertheless, this year’s fires have been severe enough for Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez Chávez, to declare a state of emergency on Sept. 16, giving the government power to fight fires with minimal bureaucratic obstacles.
“Today, something very important and significant is happening: we are presenting two decrees. One to reinforce the fight against fire, and another to repeal the decree that allowed controlled burning,” Áñez said in her declaration.
She also repealed Supreme Decree 26075, enacted by former president Evo Morales in 2019. Morales faced criticism for issuing the decree, which is said to have incentivized slash-and-burn agriculture by expanding the land available for agribusiness and permitting forest clearing and controlled burning in private and community held lands. This decree, coupled with new meat export opportunities to China, may have driven the fires in 2019.
“Last year, fires primarily occurred in new areas,” Forno said. “This indicates that the most likely reason for the 2019 fires was poor policy rather than a low capacity for management … This year, fires primarily originated in titled private properties, indicating that there is a low capacity of fire management in the slash and burn process.”
Though the fires in Bolivia this year are not as widespread as last year’s blazes, a shifted dry season and more fires occurring later in the year mean Bolivia is not yet in the clear.
“In relation to big fires of 2019, probably the impact of fires of this year would be minor,” the ACEAA researchers said, “but we have some weeks (maybe more) when more fires might occur and it is difficult to predict the final impact for this year.”
How MAAP counts fires
MAAP monitors fires in the Amazon in near real-time, using the Real-time Amazon Fire Monitoring App to pinpoint areas with elevated aerosol emissions, caused by large amounts of biomass burning. A “major fire” is defined as one with an aerosol index of >1 (appearing cyan-green to red on the app). Once an alert is detected, MAAP analyzes high-resolution satellite imagery to confirm the fire. MAAP also compares satellite imagery from year to year to determine if the fire broke out following a recent deforestation event.