Two million hectares of Bolivia burns following Morales’ suspect expansion of agriculture frontier

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019

Local NGOs and Amnesty International call for suspension of Supreme Decree 3973 allowing “controlled burns” and investigation into perpetrators responsible for forest fires crisis

Bolivia’s liberalisation of agricultural expansion into forest lands – itself deemed illegal by analysts – has resulted in fires burning over two million hectares (ha) since mid-August, particularly in the country’s South-eastern Chiquitanía.

The fires, which have killed at least two fire fighters, have prompted 21 Bolivian NGOs to describe them as “one of the worst natural disasters” in Bolivian history and call for the Decree’s suspension.

Supreme Decree 3973 – a controversial July 2019 policy greenlighting millions of hectares of additional agricultural expansion into previously protected areas – authorises the use of “controlled burns” of state or private forests by those developing agricultural lands in El Beni and Santa Cruz departments – mostly cattle ranching and soy farms. Prior to Decree 3973 such burns were restricted to private lands in Santa Cruz alone.

In late August Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos reported that the NGO Tierra Foundation had found that 70% of the fires were in “fiscal properties owned by agricultural companies” in areas recently opened up by the decree.

The local conservation group FAN has identified 700,000 ha of fires in forests within protected reserves in the country, according to Reuters.

Amnesty International has also intervened, issuing a 9 September Open Letter to Evo Morales arguing that “the State of Bolivia should suspend the application of Decree No. 3973 until it can confirm with certainty that its implementation has not contributed to the causes of the fires”.

Amnesty also calls for legal justice, suggesting that “the State has an obligation to investigate the causes of the fires and, if it corresponds, to identify and punish those responsible with full respect of national legislation and international human rights law”.

For their part, the NGOs squarely lay the blame at the feet of the Forest and Land Authority (ABT), which “as a specialized technical instance, had to reject the proposals for clearing near the Chiquitano Dry Forest and propose alternative methods to controlled burning.”

In August, ABT’s director suggested most fires had not been authorised, alleging that less than 3% of the fires were approved.

Bolivia’s National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA) has also been highlighted as having responsibility, with the Secretary General of the Government of Santa Cruz, Roly Aguilera, reporting that fires had started in forest lands granted by INRA in ways that constituted an “illegal endowment”.

While the fires have reduced in scale and ferocity in recent days, it remains to be seen if Decree 3973 will be suspended or if a credible investigation will be undertaken.

Image on homepage of Evo Morales. Credit: Creative Commons.