The Bolivian lowlands have been burning for over a month. Over 4 million hectares of biodiverse forests has already burned to ash — an area larger than Switzerland. Uncontrolled, the fires continue to spread across protected areas and Indigenous territories, provoking an incommensurable loss of life.
The tragedy is increasingly referred to as an ecocide.
The most affected area is Chiquitania, an endemic dry forest ecosystem between the Amazon and Gran Chaco in the province of Santa Cruz. At least 2.5 million hectares have burned, with the fires now crossing the border into Paraguay.
This area is also home to Indigenous Ayoreo peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Ñembi Guasu reserve. They are the only known group living in voluntary isolation in the subcontinent outside Amazonia and nobody knows if they have survived the catastrophic fires.
These are not wildfires; they are criminal fires that have been started to turn forest into pasture. Firefighters are struggling to extinguish the fires, only to see people start new ones.
Deforestation and “controlled burning” intensified because of government policies encouraging meat exports. President Evo Morales is betting on agribusiness to stir economic growth, at the cost of unprecedented destruction of life.
Chiquitanía’s dry season extends until December, which means fires could go on for months.
If Bolivia’s government does not stop the fires, it will have not only ecocide but genocide on its hands. President Evo Morales must urgently declare a national disaster so that international support can help stop the fires and revoke Decree 3973 to implement land-use policies that protect forests and life.
Evo Refuses to Declare a National Disaster
You could feel the desperation in a TV interview with indigenous representative Mr. Emigio Poiché, who implored President Morales to let international help into Chiquitania. Crying of impotence, he accused Morales government of destroying “our large home” and letting Chiquitanía burn to ashes because the region won’t vote for him.
Local authorities declared that fires remain critical. They estimate that over 60% of the province will soon be affected if fires are not controlled immediately. The governor of Santa Cruz urged the government to declare a national disaster so that the province could receive international support to control the fires.
Bolivia’s fires destroyed in less than two months a forest area equivalent to what Colombia deforests in ten years. It is a tragedy without precedent.
So why hasn’t Bolivia declared a national disaster?
Bolivia’s law 602 establishes that the state will declare a national disaster when the magnitude and impact of events cause damage that the state is economically or technically unable to remedy — in which case external assistance is required.
Declaring a national disaster permits international assistance to come directly to the region to intervene. But since there is no declaration, any international support must pass through the central government, which distributes support to the regions — or not.
President Morales, who is running for a controversial fourth term in office, dismissed environmentalists concerns and marches as “small groups that bother electorally.” Minister Juan Ramon Quintana discarded a national disaster claiming fires were not uniform and did not affect enough people.
The government sent a supertanker to fight the fire; President Morales dropped by with cameras to “give a hand” to firefighters. But people in Chiquitanía complain that funds remain insignificant, that firefighters and volunteers are underequipped, and that Morales visit was just a media show.
Ñembi Guasu: An Indigenous Reserve on Fire
Ñembi Guasu, which means large refuge, is the most recent protected area in Bolivia. It is where the uncontacted Ayoreo people live. It is also the area most affected by the recent fires.
Ñembi Guasu was created in 2019 by and for Indigenous peoples. The Guarani Indigenous Autonomy of Charagua Iyambae created and co-manage this reserve — 1.2 million hectares of extremely biodiverse forest. It is a sanctuary for many, including the jaguar and the Ayoreo nation.
The Guarani have led an admirable struggle for self-determination, turning 68% of their autonomous territories into protected areas — over five million hectares.
The Ñembi Guasu Protected Area is a conscious effort to protect both Guarani lifeways and their brothers in voluntary isolation. But now it is burning.
In an open letter, the autonomous government of Charagua Iyambae reports over 250 thousand hectares of reserve land destroyed. Their letter calls for help, saying they are unable to stop the fires which have disrupted the hydrological cycle, destroyed precious fauna and left the Ayoreo peoples in dire conditions.
Fire for Cattle
Bolivians accuse President Morales of being a “murderer of nature” because of the law he passed to permit slash and burn to open land for cattle ranching.
Contrary to recent fires in the Arctic, Bolivian fires are not natural. They are deliberate fires to clear forests for pasture. The practice of burning to clear land, known as chaqueo in Bolivia, is common. But this time there were more and bigger fires; and they grew out of control like never before.
Part of the problem is higher temperatures and atmospheric drought, both caused by global warming. The other part of the problem is Decree 3973 passed in July. Reminiscent of Bolsonaro’s cattle expansion in the Brazilian Amazon, this decree legalized deforestation and fires to turn forest into pasture for cattle export.
Like Brazil, Bolivia beef exports are growing in value and in volume, to China, the EU, and Iran. In fact, earlier this year, Morales signed an agreement to increase beef exports to China. Bolivia is encouraging the destruction of biodiverse ecosystems that nurture the lives of millions of peoples locally to export beef to the other side of the planet. That is called “development.”
Bolivia’s fires overlap with agribusiness expansion. It is destruction, not development — for Bolivians, for the planet, and for business too. The world keeps talking about the destruction of biodiversity — the irreparable loss of fauna and flora — and it is beyond horrendous to see so many trees and animals burning to death, but Indigenous territories too are devastated. This region is home to many people and these forests regulate water systems that make the life of many more people possible.
Evo Morales played green for a long-time, but his government is deeply colonial, promoting aggressive agribusiness and brutal dispossession of indigenous lives and worldviews. Like Bolsonaro in Brazil. That is why the Network of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) declared both Presidents Morales and Bolsonaro persona non grata, accusing them of environmental genocide.
Ecocide as Genocide
The fires raging across forests in Chiquitanía (and Amazonia) are political crimes. They are intrinsic to a political economy of extraction that prevails in governments from the political right to the left across Latin America.
Presidents Bolsonaro and Morales may both face charges for ecocide. But these are inevitably embedded in genocide. The government’s claims that there are not “enough deaths” is a horrendous dehumanization of indigenous lives. It is also against the rights of nature, guaranteed in the 2009 Constitution, and the notion that humans are part of nature.
What’s the difference between ecocide and genocide? Is it possible to distinguish beyond the extermination of a human group and the ecosystem it lives on? Indigenous Ayoreo peoples live in symbiosis with their ecosystem. They have nowhere else to go. Nor do the rest of us, for that matter.
Indigenous worldviews make no distinction between ecocide and genocide because all beings are related- human, animal, plant, or rivers. To burn forests that are home to dozens of endemic species is not only to destroy basic resources but to kill members of Indigenous communities, even if they are not human. For the Ayoreo, these man-made forest fires are literally genocide because they destroy their cultures, economies, language and land. In times of climate crisis, ecocides have genocidal effects because they destroy vital relationships especially between humans and nature.
Is it possible, or moral, to distinguish beyond the extermination of a human group or an ecosystem if we agree that humans are part of nature’s fabric? These questions are all the more urgent for Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation who live in symbiosis with their ecosystem.
The Morales government must urgently declare a national disaster and roll-back the extractive land-policies if he does not want to be responsible for the crime of genocide. And we must all worry. Our “large home” is on fire.