In 2019 and 2020, Bolivia was severely affected by forest fires in many regions, including the Chiquitania, Amazon, Chaco, Wetlands and other forest ecosystems. About 6.5 million hectares were destroyed in 2019, and almost 5 million hectares were burned down in 2020. Forest fires also threaten biodiversity and vulnerable protected and conservation areas, local Indigenous populations and their livelihoods. In both years, fires destroyed more than 2.5 million hectares of forest in protected areas. Santa Cruz was the most impacted province in both years, with 63% of total territory affected by the fires, impacting 26 municipalities, protected areas and wildlife reserves, and 15 of 16 watershed areas. In addition, more than 5,000 families suffered from respiratory diseases and conjunctivitis. The Nembi Guazu conservation area and Indigenous territory, with 36% of its total territory burnt, and the Otuquis National Park were also severely impacted Biologists estimate that 4,000 plant species and 1,600 animal species were directly affected by the fires, including the deaths of more than 3 million wild animals.
Forest fires are an increasing threat in Bolivia for sensitive biodiverse protected areas and the Indigenous peoples and wildlife who rely on them, mainly due to deforestation and climate change. Localized fires have climatic variability effects as they affect micro-climates while extensive forest fires affect climatic events at larger scales, especially in vulnerable ecosystems. Scientists have determined a vicious cycle connecting forest fires and climate change in the Amazon as warmer temperatures make fires more likely, and burning forests release greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution that makes global warming worse. Thus, reducing the number and severity of forest fires will also help slow climate change.
Although forest fires are an annual occurrence, Bolivia still lacks institutional capacity to address this issue, including specialized equipment and trained staff, for both aerial and on-the-ground firefighting, and in-house capacity for forest fire management and effective responses, early warning and monitoring systems, as well as more specialised and equipped fire-fighting brigades.
In 2019 and 2020, the Bolivian government was not able to respond to the national emergency caused by forest fires and millions of hectares were destroyed, including more than two million hectares in protected areas. In 2019, Bolivia had to hire aircraft for aerial firefighting and request fire-fighting advice and support. In 2020, Bolivia issued a call to the international community for assistance, after declaring a state of disaster. In both years, Canada provided support through specialized aircraft for aerial firefighting, including a three-expert mission from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre in 2019. Other European and neighbouring countries also provided support in terms of firefighters. Yet, these initiatives were reactive and only initiated when fires had already escalated to a dangerous level.