Bolivia: Ecological disaster as Amazon blazes rage

President Evo Morales faces criticism for not acting quickly enough to contain wildfires scorching the Amazon.

    The fire has burned conservation areas, blinding and killing animals [David Mercado/Reuters]
    The fire has burned conservation areas, blinding and killing animals [David Mercado/Reuters]

    Fires have destroyed 1.2 million hectares of forest and grasslands in Bolivia this year, the government said, though environmentalists claim the true figure is much higher. 

    The government released the figure on Wednesday but The Friends of Nature Foundation, an NGO, said the true extent of forest destruction this year is 1.8 million hectares. 

    The dispute comes after Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, suspended his controversial re-election campaign for a week on Monday to direct the government's response to a growing environmental disaster in the Bolivian portion of the Amazon rainforest, where wildfires have been raging since May.

    Morales is running for a fourth term after asking the constitutional court to overturn a referendum on presidential term limits.

    In the last week, he has faced mounting fury both over his failure to act and over policies his critics say favour greater deforestation.

    Ecologists have attacked a law promoted by Morales that offers incentives to burn forest areas to transform them into pastureland. 

    A group of 80 environmental and professional institutions are demanding that Morales recall the 2016 law, and there have been several protests in the administrative capital, La Paz.

    "What has been done, has been done too late. So much land has been destroyed. How will this affect the world?" Libertad Vaca, a protester, said.

    "Legislation that allows farmers to burn land needs to be repealed. Those who approved the legislation need to be punished," Vaca told Al Jazeera.

    The government blames dry weather and strong winds for the voracious fires.

    Morales' administration has plans to plant 4.5 million hectares by 2030 to comply with commitments given to the United Nations, but environmental activist Marielle Cautin has said over the last three years "not even 50,000 hectares" have been planted.

    Unlike Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who is also battling wildfires and the damage they have caused to his reputation, Morales has accepted international support after initially saying Bolivia was equipped to handle itself.

    The United States has provided a SuperTanker aircraft to drop water over the fire. Peru, Chile, Spain and a number of international bodies have also contributed.

    Domestically, villages have been evacuated and Bolivia's military has been called in to support a response team of nearly 2,000 firefighters. 

    Bolivia's total forest area has been steadily shrinking in recent years from 47.3 million hectares in 2005 to 43.8 million hectares in 2017, according to a study published by Bolivian environmental and human rights organisation the Solon Foundation.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies