As It Happens

All eyes are on the Amazon fires in Brazil, but Bolivia is burning too

All eyes are on Brazil, as the fires in the Amazon continue to burn. But Bolivia is on fire too — and one activist tells us it has left 1.5 million hectares in tatters, 500 animal species in trouble, and firefighters stretched for resources.

'Please pay attention to Bolivia,' activist tells Canada and the world

A firefighter works during a wildfire near Robore, Santa Cruz region, in eastern Bolivia on Thursday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

The world is focused on Brazil as the fires in the Amazon rainforest continue to burn — but neighbouring Bolivia is fighting fierce blazes of its own.

The fires are burning unabated across vast swaths of hilly tropical forest and savannah near Bolivia's border with Paraguay and Brazil. Citing officials, Reuters reported that at least one million hectares were impacted as of Sunday, with no signs of slowing down.

G7 leaders this week agreed to send $20 million US ($26.5 million Cdn) in emergency aid to help Brazil and other South American countries fight the Amazon wildfires. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered water bombers and an additional $15 million.

Bolivian President Evo Morales says he's open to international aid to fight the blazes. But Jhanisse Vaca-Daza, an activist with the Bolivian human rights organization Standing Rivers, says people on the ground still aren't getting the help they need. 

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

Describe for us just how bad the fires are in Bolivia right now.

At the moment it's been recorded on the news that we have [1.5 million] hectares that are completely affected by the fires.

Up until the moment that we started this campaign to let the international community know that we needed their help, we were at only 600,000. 

So we're talking about losing the amount of forest that we would normally lose in a year, but we've lost it in a space of eight days.

Children in Quitunuquina, eastern Bolivia, play football with surgical masks due to the forest fires in the area. (Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images)

Why do you think there hasn't been the same attention paid to the fires in Bolivia as the ones in Brazil?

I understand that the president of Brazil, at the moment, has had very anti-environmental policies as well as his speech being very aggressive against environmental activists, [with] whom I sympathize. And I know that he's being called the Trump of South America. So it makes clear sense that if you hear about fires in the Amazon, you would think of attacking his government and only holding him accountable.

But one thing that the international community has to understand is that you have to hold everyone accountable — not just the people that you dislike, because that's where you generate problems.

In Bolivia, our government has been very successful at painting Evo [Morales] as a president that is pro-environment. 

But if you look at the actual economic policies within the country, they have been very aggressive against the environment. 

Firefighters walk through a burnt field as they combat a fire in the surroundings of Robore in eastern Bolivia on Friday. (AFP/Getty Images)

We know that there are fires every year. So why are these ones different? Why do you hold the government so accountable now?

Because it was this year that it was legalized to use controlled fires, quote unquote, in these areas, when we know that we every year have emergencies because the dry season is so bad in August that any fire can get easily out of control.

You cannot pretend that when you authorize these fires and you don't have a way to respond to them should they get out of control, that everything is still going to be fine.

The G7 has just pledged to spend $20 million US to fight the fires in Amazon countries, including Bolivia. How far will that money go?

The first thing that the international community should do would be to ask the Bolivian government to declare a national disaster and open customs and open the border for international help to go in before they give them that money.

We have elections on the 20th of October. If we were to declare national disaster, most of the government's budget should go to a disaster. But right now, it's going to political campaigns.

They should also be more transparent as to where the aid is going. Because even at the moment, they say on the news that they brought so [much] help, but people on the ground are not seeing it.

A Bolivian air force helicopter collects water to fight a forest fire near Robore, a town in eastern Bolivia, on Aug. 19 in this still image taken from social media video. (Jerjes Suarez Ruiz/Reuters)

Evo Morales suspended his presidential campaign [Sunday] in light of the fires. Do you think that indicates that he recognizes this is now a bigger challenge than he's been willing to acknowledge in the past?

I think I speak for all of or most of Bolivians: we won't believe anything until we see it.

Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, has just announced he's offering to send water bombers along with $15 million in additional Canadian aid to help in Brazil and other South American countries. What is your response to that?

I would ask the government of Canada to please get in touch with environmental groups in Bolivia, to please ask the Bolivian government what are the official numbers of the hectares that have been lost and of the help that is needed, and to please pay attention to Bolivia.

I know we're a small country. We barely ever make it to the news. But the loss that is happening is not only a loss to Bolivia, but to the entire world.

There are many plants and animals that only exist in this part of the world. And if we lose them, it's going to affect the ecosystem and that's a chain reaction. Everything is interconnected. Our destiny overall depends on all of us.

And what about the long-term impact to people who live in the affected areas?

My team is also trying to get toys because they were telling me about children that have obviously seen these areas where they were born and raised that are now completely dead. 

So we're trying to get toys, as superficial as that sounds, so that we can distract them because they're taking shelter in their schools. Many of their houses have been burned.

Morally, this has been a big hit for Bolivians. We know that we barely make it to the news, but it's very desperate when you see so much loss around you, in your own home, in your own backyard, and you don't get any help.

So I'm hoping that now that finally there are spaces like this one, where an international community is finally paying attention to us, then we can see that we do matter — even if our own government doesn't listen to our voice.

We have to defend our resources because if we don't do it, then the alternative is no one.

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Jeanne Armstrong. With files from Reuters. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?