Bolivia is burning
Landlocked Bolivia, a country nestled between regional hotspots Argentina, Chile and Peru, has skyrocketed to the forefront of the global geopolitical struggle. Bolivia’s 2019 election was fraught with allegations of fraud leveled against now-former President Evo Morales. Morales now faces accusations of crimes against humanity due to allegations that he organized food and fuel blockades in major cities engaging in protests calling for his ousting during the election crisis. The Bolivian interim government, headed by Jeanine Áñez, the right-wing former second vice president of the Bolivian Senate who ascended to power constitutionally through Bolivia’s line of presidential succession, has faced considerable backlash domestically and abroad following accusations that she is an acting coup president by leading figures of the Bolivian far-left due to the nature of Morales’s resignation.
Bolivians will choose a new president on Oct. 18, ending the reign of Áñez. However, as political tensions continue to boil over, deadly forest fires have swept across the nation, with 62 active fires as of Oct. 7, according to the Autoridad de Bosques y Tierras, and more than 2.3 million hectares of land burned since January. The lungs of the world are burning in Bolivia, and no one is paying attention: In 2019, Bolivia’s forest fires contributed so astronomically to carbon dioxide emissions that the tiny developing nation of 11 million rivaled the tons per capita emitted from the United States, which is roughly 14.5 megatons per million people.
The expansion and soft legalization of slash-and-burn agriculture, the primary source of Bolivia’s raging forest fires, occurred under Morales’s rule as he cozied up with Bolivia’s wealthy and powerful agribusiness elites. In 2013, the Morales government implemented a legal pardon for unlawful slash-and-burn land clearances between 1996-2011. Additionally, in 2019, the Morales government established laughable fines of less than $3 per illegally slash-and-burned hectare. Morales’s unscrupulous abandonment of protecting Bolivia’s wildlife was only exacerbated by a beef trade deal initiated with China which required the extensification of Bolivian beef production. Consequently, in July 2019, Morales enacted a supreme expansion of the amount of legal slash-and-burn land clearance. This encouraged the use of fire despite serious ecological concerns for Bolivia’s forests, resulting in disastrous, uncontrollable fires being ignited in August as a result of the deregulated and unprosecuted slash-and-burn.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in October 2019 to protest the Morales’s government’s gross negligence in fighting the rapidly expanding fires, which persisted until they were finally extinguished by heavy rainfall. I talked with a biologist and conservationist on the ground in Bolivia, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity because of the volatile political situation in the country. On Morales’s handling of the forest fires, he said, “When Evo appeared in front of the UN to applaud himself for his efforts at combating climate change I was horrified. I had worked with the very volunteer firefighters who had died fighting the flames his policies had encouraged to be lit.”
With Áñez’s ascension amid Bolivia’s ecological crisis, hopes were high that the new administration would tackle the issues that Morales’s regime had neglected for years. Unfortunately, Áñez initially ignored petitions to repeal the supreme decree enacted by Morales expanding the prevalence of slash-and-burn, instead, bizarrely focused on the expansion of GMOs throughout the country. When Áñez finally repealed the decree, likely to raise her abysmal polling numbers, she discreetly replaced it with a nearly identical edict designed to appease agribusiness lobbyists.
On Áñez’s actions, the conservationist I spoke to said, “essentially Jeanine’s policies have been a major disappointment and have in practice, despite the rhetoric, largely been a continuation of those of Morales. The first signs of an end to impunity for arsonists are encouraging, but there's a long way to go. While there are glimmers of hope, the fate of Bolivia’s forests will depend on the soon-to-be-elected government.”
As the fires in Bolivia rage on and continue to pollute and destroy one of the world’s most unique ecological landscapes, the world waits in anticipation to see if Bolivia will survive another election. Amid the anticipated political turmoil, environmental policies will undeniably be placed on the back-burner, but will still remain a pivotal policy point that will not only affect the future of Bolivia but the future of the world.
Kareem Rifai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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