More than 7,000 members of the Armed Forces, police, and firefighters continue to work tirelessly to fight wildfires in the Bolivian Amazon that have already wiped out nearly 5 million acres, according to official figures from the Evo Morales government.
About 18 aircraft and more than 200 vehicles take part in the operation to control the fires that have destroyed forests since August in Chiquitanía, a region of Santa Cruz department on the border with Brazil and Paraguay. The fire has damaged five forest reserves, home to more than 550 animal species and more than 50 native plants, the Bolivian government said.
In early September, Bolivian firefighting efforts received support from France, with the arrival of 38 specialized firefighters and drone operators trained for fire reconnaissance and localization missions, as well as 2 tons of donations, including water pumps and personal protection equipment. The French assistance is in addition to the regional support coming from Peru, with two helicopters that can carry 790 gallons of water, and from Argentina, which sent 85 members of the White Helmet Commission (a humanitarian civil organization under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) along with 200 service members and 40 vehicles.
Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States also contributed with the delivery of 2,000 units of equipment for firefighters, valued at $3 million. On September 9, a Russian bomber aircraft (with capacity to unload 13,200 gallons of water) joined the extinguishing efforts of the Supertanker — the largest firefighting plane in the world — and the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter, which have water transport capacities of 39,600 and 3,100 gallons, respectively (both aircraft were hired through U.S. companies.)
“We are grateful for all the international solidarity that continues to grow,” Morales said in a press release.
In early September, Morales met with experts of international organizations such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations, and the European Union, in addition to the U.S. and U.K. Embassies, to devise a fire prevention, action, and recovery plan. The Bolivian president also took part in a summit in Leticia, Colombia, on September 6, where seven of the Amazon countries agreed on protection measures for the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world.
Deforestation, illegal mining, illicit crops, and cattle farming in prohibited areas are the most serious threats to the Amazon. Sixty percent of the Amazon jungle is in Brazil, while the rest extends through Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.
Environmental organizations and advocates of indigenous rights have accused the Morales government of being responsible for the fires, after modifying a decree which regulates production on forest lands. The decree, passed in July, authorizes controlled fires for agricultural purposes in the Santa Cruz and Beni departments, which have been affected by the fires.
On September 9, Amnesty International asked the Bolivian government to suspend the decree and demanded punishment for those responsible. “Bolivian authorities must conduct a scientific and independent investigation to find out the origin of this serious crisis,” said María José Veramendi Villa, South America researcher for the nongovernmental organization.