“We really can’t believe it, it feels like déjà vu because we are living it all over again,” says Daniela Justiniano, co-founder of Bolivian volunteer group Alas Chiquitanas. She is speaking about the fact that Bolivia is burning up again this year, after the wildfire disaster of 2019 that sparked international attention, but little change.
Last year, more than 6.4 million hectares were affected by fires in Bolivia. Between January and October of this year, at least 2.8 million hectares have been burnt. As one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and home to 6% of the Amazon – “the lungs of the world” – it is shocking to see Bolivia once again in a state of emergency with even fewer people paying attention and last year’s lessons not being learned.
Mikael Mariaca, from the country’s highland city of La Paz, was one of those who dropped everything to help as a volunteer firefighter last year in the Chiquitania region in eastern Bolivia. He said that when he arrived in the smoke-choked town of Concepción, he and fellow volunteers were instantly weighed down by the enormity of the region – which was hit particularly hard by the fires – as well as the impressive magnitude of the blazes. Many among them were forced to learn on the job as they were called into action immediately, with one fire raging no more than 500 meters from their camp.
Philip Kittelson Caba, also from La Paz, was another who volunteered to help last year. He used his drone in the localization and navigation of fires to protect the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park – one of the largest and most intact parks in the Amazon basin with an evolutionary history dating back over a billion years. The park is home to an estimated 4,000 species of flora as well as over 600 bird species and viable populations of many globally endangered or threatened vertebrate species.
“We experienced several high-risk moments of being asphyxiated by the smoke as well as being surrounded and burnt by the fires. It was also difficult to find water for the extinguisher backpacks, among many other details,” says Kittelson Caba. This was an experience shared by Mariaca, who points out that all the men and women in his group would carry these extinguisher backpacks, weighing 25 kgs, through the night for up to 8 hours.
“There was so much passion there, we were truly ready to give our lives for something,” says Mariaca, who recalls the intensity of that first day in Concepción. “It was crazy because we had to go and confront the fire and it surrounded us. We had to escape cutting our way through with machetes and climbing a tree.”
Yet, Kittelson Caba, Justiniano, and Mariaca all say that volunteer firefighters received little support from the government last year. This year, Justiniano says that despite the tireless persistence of a small handful of individuals within the now replaced transitory government of Jeanine Áñez, it has been the same story.
“The topic of the environment is not a priority, they only remember when the fires begin when people start to apply social pressure and it appears in the news but besides that, there is no real analysis, planning, and action – it’s all reactive,” says Justiniano. “In my opinion, it’s a serious problem because you have people who are literally giving their lives and the government doesn’t even give them the basic equipment and tools so that they can help.”
This is but one example of the lack of agile coordination, logic, leadership, and responsibility Justiniano says exists among many Bolivian authorities, something she says reflects why the same thing is happening this year, and why Bolivian citizens feel like they are “talking to a wall.” She points out that authorities should have been planning for this year’s fires since last December when dialogues were held with a range of different actors. Rather, she says there was no commission formed by the environmental ministry, and authorities waited until the fires started up again this year to do anything, despite knowing full well that the same thing could happen again.
What’s more, Justiniano points out that not one person has been charged or held responsible for what happened last year. This is all the more sinister because – when combined with the increasing effects of climate change – government laws favoring the expansion of the agricultural frontier, as well as political alliances with the agro-business elite, were at the root of last year’s disaster and its continuing occurrence.
“The government wanted it to burn and they had no intention of helping. They said they were helping and everything was OK when things were burning. It was a double discourse,” says Justiniano.
She cites false information from the central government and other authorities that certain fires had been put out. However, she says that when Alas Chiquitanas cross-checked this information with locals and firefighters at the scene, the fires were shown to still be out of control, as verified by videos and audios accompanied by the date.
Mariaca concurs, recalling the government minimizing the situation: “In the end, we realized that they were all partners, they all profited from this disaster. And the main culprit was irresponsible agribusiness.”
Save for a few, the media also comes in for criticism from both Justiniano and Mariaca, who cite a lack of investigative journalism in favor of trying to be the flavor of the month.
“In general, it’s not breaking news so when there aren’t any fires and people aren’t making noise about it, they don’t take it into account,” says Justiniano. “In regards to the authorities, we see a lot of impressive public displays in which they just appear for the photo moment but they don’t look at the issue any deeper. It’s just for them to say ‘I was there’ or ‘I helped,’ but when it’s time to go to the root of the problem, they don’t.”
Because of this, Justiniano says one way to break the pattern and mitigate the environmental costs we will suffer in the future is to hold authorities accountable as much as possible. Also, pushing for profound policies and laws that truly protect nature, while prohibiting and sanctioning irresponsible and aggressive agricultural practices. She says culture, education, and personal choices in regards to our environmental footprint are all ways that we can see the situation for what it truly is and be more careful with our future.
While making a donation helps, both Justiniano and Mariaca stress that it doesn’t really change anything if we don’t change our habits too.
“We are committing suicide letting this happen,” says Mariaca. “It’s something that is now grabbing our attention and it has to create a change – not just sending money or even being a volunteer firefighter because these are things that also boost our ego – it has to be something that really changes our way of thinking.”
Justiniano also points out the important role of tourism in this shift, as Alas Chiquitanas are working on such projects in the Chiquitania region to encourage people to feel a stronger connection to nature.
“We are not going to take care of something that we don’t love, so the only way to love something is to know it,” says Justiniano, for whom San Javier in the Chiquitania has been her second home since she was a child. “When someone truly knows the place, they love it and they will take care of it.”
Interestingly, this was one of the first points Mariaca stressed to me in our interview – that the first time he went to the Chiquitania as a volunteer firefighter, he had only been planning to stay for a few days. However, for him and many others, it became a true commitment and responsibility as they formed a link with the place that made them feel like it was theirs to care for.
One year on from his experience, Mariaca asks how many more fires of this magnitude there will be until all of the Chiqutania is lost, pointing out that the same terrifying scenario goes for the Amazon. He says he feels anger at the fact he and his fellow volunteers were treated like chips in a game as the government publicly minimized the situation last year, only for the same situation to repeat itself this year.
“The SuperTanker and Russian plane did nothing, the rains put the fires out,” he says when recalling how the government took the credit last year. “The size of the blazes were so big that we were only there to contain them and try to save specific protected areas and other zones, it was incredibly frustrating and difficult work.”
At the same time, he says the political side of the situation also makes him laugh, recalling a national Bolivian reforestation plan that was so outdated and destructive that it can’t help but reflect his feelings of how ineffective and uncommitted those in power are in terms of protecting Bolivia’s environment.
“We can see that the authorities are stupid, or they act stupid due to business interests. They do nothing, rather, it’s in their interests that it burns,” he says. “We know it and the whole world ultimately knows it, so it’s not surprising.”
You can support volunteer firefighters risking their lives in Bolivia by making a donation to Alas Chiquitanas. Justiniano says that sometimes these volunteers don’t even have enough money to change destroyed boots, gloves, and clothes, with a complete firefighter uniform costing around $1,500 US.
Alas Chiquitanas international contact number: +591 7081 1914.