Wildfires Are Burning Bolivia's Forests At Nearly Same Scale As Brazil Firefighters, troops and volunteers have been working for the past two months to put out some of the worst blazes in the country's recent history.

Bolivia Is Fighting Major Forest Fires Nearly As Large As In Brazil

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Fires in Brazil's Amazon rainforest this summer captured the world's attention, while neighboring Bolivia is also on fire. And reporter John Otis has been investigating.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Using machetes, six volunteer firefighters cut a path through the vines and underbrush of the Chiquitano forest in Bolivia's eastern lowlands. They're approaching the leading edge of a fire that's been burning for hours.

They attempt to smother the flames with shovelfuls of dirt and water they carry on their backs in tanks normally used to fumigate crops. But the smoke is getting thicker, the heat stronger. Jose Zapata (ph), the leader and the only trained firefighter among the group, realizes his men are overmatched.

JOSE ZAPATA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: We're now in for a treat because the wind picked up and started to move the flames around, and the flames actually started to surround us a bit. And so Jose gave the order to pull out as fast as we can.

ZAPATA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Bolivian firefighters have been working nonstop for the past two months. Aircraft are dumping tons of water on the fires. Bolivian officials estimate that nearly 6 million acres of forest and savannah have been torched.

Eduardo Forno, who heads the Bolivian chapter of Conservation International, says that figure is nearly equal to the area burned in Brazil, a country eight times larger.

EDUARDO FORNO: The area impacted by fires in both countries are pretty similar, but Bolivia has less area and then the impact is bigger than Brazil.

OTIS: The impact in Bolivia is much bigger than in Brazil.

FORNO: In proportion.

OTIS: As in Brazil, many Bolivian farmers burn the forest to make room for crops and livestock. But this year's drought and high winds made the fires harder to control. Critics also blame the left-wing government of President Evo Morales. This past July, for example, Morales signed a decree authorizing so-called controlled burns here in eastern Bolivia to create new farmland and increase food production.

Cecilia Requena is a Bolivian environmentalist and opposition politician.

CECILIA REQUENA: Development according to this vision is bringing the tropical forest down for meat and soybean and biofuels.

OTIS: Bolivian officials did not respond to NPR's requests for comment, but they often blame the fires on global warming rather than government policy. Morales is running for a fourth consecutive term in next month's presidential election, and some analysts believe that the fires could spell his defeat. In response, a state-sponsored TV campaign is portraying Morales as Bolivia's firefighter in chief.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish)

OTIS: In this spot, a determined-looking Morales is shown spraying water on the flames. However due to the outbreak of so many fires, the job is often carried out by ill-equipped volunteers, like the crew I'm tagging along with.

ZAPATA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Zapata, the group's leader, says they have to buy their own equipment and rely on donations. Due to lack of vehicles, they often bum rides to get to the fires. Still their work is crucial.

Near the village of Limoncito, they stumble upon a fire creeping towards the house of a local rancher.


OTIS: They organize local residents to fill up buckets of water at a pump, then form a human chain to pass them forward towards the fire. Zapata's men break out a fire hose.


OTIS: It's old and leaky, but the volunteers manage to put out the fire and save the house - earning thanks from its owner.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Limoncito, Bolivia.


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