Bolivia has lost 1.7 million hectares to fire, government says

In this picture taken on Aug 29, 2019,  Bolivian President Evo Morales helps firefighters try to control a fire near Charagua, Bolivia, in the border with Paraguay, south of the Amazon basin.
In this picture taken on Aug 29, 2019, Bolivian President Evo Morales helps firefighters try to control a fire near Charagua, Bolivia, in the border with Paraguay, south of the Amazon basin.PHOTO: AFP

LA PAZ (AFP) - Wildfires raging in Bolivia's forests and grasslands since May have destroyed 1.7 million hectares, officials said on Wednesday (Sept 4), amid an US$11 million (S$15.2 million) effort by the government to contain them.

Environmentalists blame laws enacted under leftist President Evo Morales, who has encouraged the burning of forest and pasture land to expand agricultural production, while the government attributes the blazes to dry weather and winds.

"Of the fires that have occurred, 41 per cent are in protected areas and 30 per cent are in forests," Cinthia Asin, environmental minister for the eastern region of Santa Cruz told reporters, updating the amount of land burned to 1.7 million hectares.

Santa Cruz is the hardest hit of Bolivia's departments since the fires began in May and intensified in late August.

Much to environmentalists' chagrin, Bolivia's government recently authorised farmers to burn 20ha instead of the usual 5ha - which is believed to have contributed to thousands of wildfires.

Asin said that over the first days of September, 751 new fires blazed, mostly in forested areas, leading Santa Cruz officials to believe that humans had started the conflagrations to clear farmland.

Separately, the Bolivian government reported that it was continuing its land and air efforts to extinguish the fires.

 

Foreign Minister Diego Pary said that the executive branch had spent US$11 million fighting the fires and had an additional US$2 million at its disposal from international cooperation.

A SuperTanker Boeing 747 capable of carrying 75,000 litres, helicopters and some 4,000 firefighters, police and military personnel were all working to extinguish the flames.

Morales announced earlier on Wednesday that he was expecting the arrival of three 16,000-litre capacity helicopters as well as a Russian plane with a 50,000-litre capacity.