Caravan of Unity 2020: A Personal Perspective Previous 'Command Center' sought for Native homeless amid pandemic Next
As a new round of forest fires gained momentum in the tropical Bolivian forests of Chiquitanía, the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature placed the blame for last year’s 5 million-hectare “ecocide” on the Bolivian government and the agribusiness industry. And now, as the government gears up for another election season, it has declared a state of emergency in the Chiquitanía.
The Chiquitanía forest fire of 2019 was a tragedy without precedent. This unique endemic forest located between the Amazon and the Bolivian Chaco that limits the country’s borders with Paraguay and Brazil burned for 90 days without the government being able to control it.
The International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, in the reading of the judgment in the case of Chiquitania and Amazonia against the Plurinational State of Bolivia, determined on Aug, 20, 2020, that the fires of last year were an “ecocide caused by the policy of the State and agribusiness,” blames the government of former President Evo Morales, current president in transition Jeanine Añez, and the departmental governments of Santa Cruz and Beni for these events. The package of norms, laws and decrees that gave rise to the fires in Bolivia – the so-called “incendiary package” — should repealed so that these events are not repeated, according to the tribunal’s judgment.
The fire destroyed more than five million hectares (12 million acres) of forest throughout Bolivia, according to estimates by the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN, by its Spanish acronym), and in the department of Santa Cruz alone, approximately four million. Indigenous territories and ecological reserves were burned in eight of Bolivia’s nine departments —an area about the size of Switzerland or Costa Rica.
In Bolivia the reactions were diverse and intermingled with political actions in a year of extreme polarization, mainly due to the general elections that the Organization of American States later called fraudulent by the OAS, a position that was itself criticized as biased.
“The devastation of the Chiquitanía in the decline of Evo Morales” was the title of an article I wrote last year. There I wove ideas around the tragedy that the fires implied for the Chiquitanía, the Amazon and indigenous peoples living in those territories. It also explored how this fact had directly influenced the process of overthrowing the Morales government. A month before this happened, we embarked on an unknown journey to Chiquitanía, that immense and beautiful forest that at the time had been burning for three months.
We arrived in San José de Chiquitos, precisely when an indigenous mobilization was approaching that community. A long column of people, to the sound of native music, approached and carried a sign that read: “Tenth Indigenous March in Defense of the Chiquitano Forest.” That mobilization traveled more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from San Ignacio de Velasco to the city of Santa Cruz, demanding from the MAS government the declaration of environmental disaster and the repeal of laws that allowed burning and new settlements in its territory.
Doña Jeaneth Ardaya, an indigenous Chiquitana, came walking with her 4-year-old daughter in her arms from the Mercedes Soliz community, near the border with Brazil. She told us that she was marching because her community was one of the most affected by the fires, that they had been fighting the fire for more than a month and that 98 percent of the Marfil reserve had been devastated by the fires.
Later, she pointed out that the fire came from two fronts: one on the Brazilian side and another that had spread from the Noel Kempff Mercado reserve, on the Bolivian side.
At this point, criticism of the government of Evo Morales was generalized, his detractors accused him of causing the fires through a series of laws and decrees that they had promoted. Even so, his political party, the Movement for Socialism, continued to lead in the polls and at the time of his overthrow had an approximate support of 40% in the intention of votes.
In one of the sections of our trip to Chiquitanía we met Alcides Vadillo, director of Fundación Tierra, who, together with his team monitor the fires. He told us that during more than two-thirds of 2019, the rains were absent in this territory, the heat levels were around 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) on average and the humidity had been reduced by 50% in relation to the previous year. Climate change had done its job well to increase the magnitude of those fires.
But what are the decrees and laws by which Morales is accused of causing the fires in the Chiquitanía, and what is the participation of his political detractors, the agro-industrial businessmen?
From the second term of the Evo Morales government, 2009 to 2014, the “Patriotic Agenda” was promoted, a development plan made up of thirteen pillars, which had the purpose of increasing the level of economic growth in the country. Based on the conclusions of this agenda, campesino sectors and agribusiness entrepreneurs set out to expand the agricultural frontier by one million hectares per year, arguing, untruthfully, that it was to guarantee food sovereignty with transgenic corn and soy that was intended mainly to feed the livestock industry, for export to international markets, and for the production of the much publicized “biofuels”. As a result of the “Patriotic Agenda”, Law 337 was approved in 2013, which establishes the “forgiveness” of fines for illegal clearing. As a result, clearings soared by more than 50% compared to 2012.
In 2015, again the National Government, agro-industrial entrepreneurs and campesinos interested in the production of monocultures promoted a summit called “Sembrando Bolivia”, and one of the results of this meeting was the approval of Law 741, which allows individual clearings of five to 20 hectares without any procedure, with the terrible consequence of increasing the number of hectares already allowed by Law 337 by 250 thousand.
In July 2019, the Morales government approved Decree 3973, by which clearing and burning of permanent forest production lands was legalized — that is, of forests that remained protected by some laws. This decree would be rejected by the indigenous organizations of eastern Bolivia, which again denounced the Morales government for ecocide and for consenting to the destruction of their “Casa Grande.”
In all this process of drafting laws and decrees that, in some way, were a trigger for thed forest fires in Chiquitania, one of the actors always present were the agro-industrial businessmen of Santa Cruz, who, crouching in the Civic Pro Committee Santa Cruz, were one of the main actors in the overthrow of the Morales government.
Ayoreos: The indigenous people most affected by the Chiquitanía fires
In one of its points, the International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature ruling refers to highly vulnerable indigenous peoples: “The Court has learned that forest fires have affected 36 indigenous territories in an area of 1,226,714 hectares. Among the affected indigenous peoples are: Chiquitano, Ayoreo, Guaraní, Guarayo, Cayubaba, Baures, Sirionó and Aaraona. Additionally significant is the impact on Ñembi Guasu, declared as a protected area by the Autonomous Indigenous Government of Charagua Iyambae, and which is part of the territorial circuits of seasonal grazing of the Ayoreo people in a situation of voluntary isolation. The fires have reached 426,028 hectares, that is, 36 percent of its surface.”
The ethnic roots of the Ayoreo people that currently inhabit a part of the Chiquitano territory, are in the uncontacted peoples that roam Ñembi Guasu, a conservation area that is within Charagua Iyambae, the first territory to consolidate its indigenous autonomy in plurinational Bolivia, and to which the fire also arrived.
Alcides Vadillo tells us that “within the Chiquitano territory there are seven Ayorean communities seriously affected by the fire, not because their crops have been burned, which are few, but because within the burned forest they found their food, and the bark of the trees that served as raw material to make handicrafts that were sold in the cities. The water they consumed is contaminated by the fish that died from the toxic ash that fell on the rivers and dams.”
As a result of the impact on their territory, some people belonging to the Ayoreo people undertook migrations to the city of Santa Cruz. In bus terminals and in shopping centers they can be seen begging or selling the few handicrafts they still have. These migrations are in addition to those already existing in the outskirts of the city of Santa Cruz, where indigenous people are mistreated and discriminated against because of a stigma against their nomadic roots.
The transitional presidency and agribusiness actors in the State
When Jeanine Añez’ presidency was announced for the first time by the press, hours after assuming the presidency of Bolivia on a temporary basis, one of the most famous photographs of her exhibited was one where she held a sign that read: “Declaration of the disaster zone, now!” — referring to what was happening in Chiquitania and the Amazon.
A month after assuming the Bolivian government, in December 2019, the Tribunal on the Rights of Nature suggested that the Bolivian State repeal the “package of decrees that led to the burning of Chiquitania and Pantanal.” Despite this, the State did not make any changes in legal terms; on the contrary, the transitional president invited Oscar Ortiz and Branko Marinkovic to her Ministerial team, the first as Minister of Economy and Public Finance and the second as Minister of Planning development. Both characters are linked to agribusiness, being promoters of the production of transgenic soybeans and corn.
Along the same lines, the Ministry of Rural Development and Lands presented a plan to reactivate the agricultural sector, arguing that “there will soon be a shortage of food,” creating a fund for such purposes; however, most of the budget will be injected into the small business group of Santa Cruz dedicated to agribusiness. Without time to assimilate this news, Manuel Morales, an environmental activist and member of the National Council for Democracy (CONADE), denounced that the government intends to introduce a variety of transgenic eucalyptus with a view to “reforesting Chiquitanía.” Meanwhile the Solón Foundation warns that the fires in September increased by 65% compared to last year; however, the figures indicate that the fires in the Chiquitanía forests were significantly reduced because the forest mass that burned last year no longer exists.
The Minister of the Environment and Water, María Elva Pinkert, indicates that, in this same period, last year, nearly 2.5 million hectares had already burned.
The Forest Information and Monitoring System (SIMB) dependent on the Ministry of the Environment and Water accounted for an approximate of 500 thousand hectares burned until the second half of September of this year.
Although there are still no serious studies on the damage caused to Chiquitania, some superficial reports dare to launch some figures that are terrifying: millions of animals incinerated, indigenous peoples-peasants even more impoverished and with their watersheds contaminated by ash, and, more than six hundred varieties of burned trees, which, in the best of cases, and if the hand of man and “development” do not intervene, would take between 200 and 500 years to regenerate naturally.
Evo Morales is currently asylum in the Republic of Argentina after, in November of last year, the police and the Armed Forces suggested his resignation after a massive protest that originally carried the flag of Chiquitanía.
On September 16, Añez, while promoting a state of emergency due to the fires, promulgated Supreme Decree 4333, which repeals Supreme Decree 3973 of July 9, 2019, which expanded the authorization of clearings in the Beni department. According to the researcher at the Bolivian Documentation and Information Center (CEDIB), Jorge Campanini, what Añez did was “to repeat the objective of the repealed decree, to include Beni in the scheme again and to extend the predatory model of Santa Cruz agribusiness, allowing the intensive clearing, transforming and radically affecting the structure and functions of the soil in this department.”
“Evo, Jeanine, the same ecocides” and “Abrogation of the incendiary package”, stood out among the slogans with which the activists wallpaper the entrance of the Ministry of Planning of Santa Cruz with their slogans, demanding the annulment of a dozen regulations that they authorize and condone clearing and burning to expand the agricultural frontier, according to the newspaper Pagina Siete.
“The government changed one incendiary decree for another,” CEDIB reported.
Alan Zambrana Lineo is a documentary maker and freelance photographer who has covered the struggles against extractivism and the dispossession and recovery of indigenous territories in the Bolivian highlands, valleys and Amazon. He has produced the audiovisual memoirs of indigenous and peasant mobilizations in Bolivia since 2011. Self-taught journalist and member of the Chaski Clandestina, an autonomous action and communication collective.
This story was reported and produced with the generous support of the One Foundation.