Global Forest Watch reported that in 2020, Bolivia became the country with the third largest loss of virgin forests, surpassing the losses recorded by Indonesia. Brazil still maintained its record of having the worst virgin forest losses, three times more than the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country with the second largest area of virgin forest lost to deforestation.
In as early as 2009, Bolivia’s then Ministry of Environment had expressed concerns that based on their estimates, Bolivia was losing virgin forests at a rapid rate they feared that all their rainforests will be gone by the year 2100. The loss rates have in fact accelerated under former Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was elected into office in 2006 but eventually ousted in 2019.
During Morales’ regime, laws were enacted to expand agricultural production, which included permitting burning parts of the protected Amazon forests. Under the new laws, the practice of burning forests was legal from May to June, Each farmer was allowed to burn 20 hectares, even in reserved areas in the Santa Cruz department. Yet the limit was often intentionally disregarded since fines imposed on violators were negligible.
Forest Burning in Bolivia Amidst the Worsening Effects of Climate Change
As the forest burning activities for purposes of agricultural expansion became rampant in Bolivia, forest fires managed to spark on their own. Fueled by the presence of large amounts of combustible forest materials, and the increasingly hotter and drier conditions, the stage is always set for wildfire occurrences that originate mostly in the cleared forest areas.
Local authorities reported that in Santa Cruz alone, wildfires that started from land-clearing activities had burned 2.6 million hectares of land in the first ten months of the year. Bolivian environmentalist and biologist Juan Carlos Catari said it would take decades to recover from the forest fires, as there are areas that have lost more than half of their flora and fauna.
Environmentalists are saying that it has become a viscous cycle of deliberate forest burning and wildfires caused by global warming temperatures. The Friends of Nature Foundation, a non-government organization in Bolivia, estimated that in 2019 wildfires destroyed more than 6.4 million hectares of Bolivia’s forests and grassland. In 2020, wildfires scorched about 2.3 million hectares.
In San Matias park, a supposedly protected area of 30,000 square kilometers of once lush forest, has become a wasteland of carbonated and twisted tree stumps. San Matias is home to cattle ranchers, farmers and quartz miners who burn the areas annually in preparation for the next planting season. Today, the dirt roads leading to San Matias are cracked and dry, massively lined with thousands of half-burnt trees.