Chiquitano dry forest

As the world’s media finally begins to cover the shocking fires that have been devastating the Amazon Rainforest, which produces 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen and is home to at least 10 per cent of global biodiversity, another forest of vital global importance has also been burning because of human activity, but has received little attention from Western media outlets.

The Chiquitania dry forest covers over 230,000 square kilometres across Bolivia and Brazil. It is a unique eco-region, home to over 15,000 currently identified plant species (there are just under 3000 in the UK, to put that number into context). The Brazilian side of the dry forest has been largely destroyed for agriculture, making the remaining parts of the forest in Bolivia even more important.

However, in the last week more than 600,000 hectares of the Chiquitania forest have burned. This is more forest than is usually lost in the country in a whole year. Authorities in the Department of Santa Cruz, where the majority of the fires have been taking place, have reported that so far in August there have been 7,024 reported sources of fire bringing the total for the year up to 16,885. In comparison, the historical average number of fires annually is 4,688.

The fires were started by local farmers attempting to clear land for farming, a practice known as chaqueo, which then got out of control, exacerbated by a drought in the region. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, earlier this week justified the attempts to clear land for farming earlier this week, saying:

It is important to control the chaque (clearances), but I also want you to know: small families if they don’t chaque, what are they going to live on?

The governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, declared a state of emergency at the beginning of this week, and told Los Tiempos that ‘one hundred percent of the fires were caused by people doing chaques and burning garbage’. He continued:

That happens on the field, you can’t play with fire, you can’t risk human lives

The Bolivian government has dispatched hundreds of soldiers and numerous aircraft, including a 747 supertanker, in an attempt to control the fires, but they have been struggling as strong winds continue to fan the flames and spread the fire.

The Bolivian Defense Minister, Javier Zavaleta, said that there are pockets of fire covering more than 4,000 hectares that cannot be controlled because “that work cannot be done with helicopters or planes, or from land, because they are inaccessible places.”

There have as yet been no reported fatalities, but thousands of people have been evacuated from the affected region.

Bolivia needs international assistance to deal with the fires, but the government has been slow to reach out for international help, and the lack of coverage in Western media outlets has meant the fires have gone largely unnoticed elsewhere in the world.

Bolivians have sat up a fundraiser to help them tackle the fire themselves. You can donate here.

Image credit: Sam Beebe, Creative Commons