Looking for scapegoats in the Bolivian fire crisis - A conversation with Nataly Ascarrunz

Looking for scapegoats in the Bolivian fire crisis - A conversation with Nataly Ascarrunz

Bolivia - 30 January, 2020
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

In 2019 large parts of Bolivia have been burning. Fires started by farmers and cattle ranchers spread into natural areas, where they were hard to control. The fires caused widespread destruction, but banning the use of fire is not the solution, says Nataly Ascarrunz.

Recent forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon led to widespread international concerns, but Brazil is not the only country where forests fires have been causing problems. In Bolivia, 5.3 million hectares — an area larger than the whole of Costa Rica — have reportedly been destroyed by fires, of which 40 percent was forest. The Chiquitano dry forests of the country’s southern Santa Cruz region have been hit particularly hard.

The fires were started by large-scale and small-scale farmers and cattle ranchers to clear lands. This is nothing out of the ordinary — it happens every year. In 2019, however, many of these fires spiraled out of control, spreading into natural areas, with devastating effects for ecosystems and wildlife. Moreover, the fires resulted in large amounts of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. The environmental and climate-related impacts have been receiving a lot of attention, but the human suffering often remains overlooked, argues Nataly Ascarrunz.

Ascarrunz is the Executive Director of The Bolivian Institute of Forestry Investigation (Instituto Boliviano de Investigación Forestal), based in the city of Santa Cruz. During the fires of last year, the skies in Santa Cruz were grey from the smoke for weeks in a row, Ascarrunz says over Skype. Because of this, she and her staff were having difficulties breathing. But this is nothing compared to the hardship in the rural communities and Indigenous territories in the surroundings of Santa Cruz, she adds.

SUB: Nataly Ascarrunz handing equipment to community members of Lomerio

Here, Ascarrunz talks about the recent fires, what needs to be done to tackle them, and why she thinks it is shortsighted to simply blame small farmers.

In 2019, forest fires in Bolivia have been affecting a much larger area than in previous years. Why is that? Every year, farmers prepare lands for cultivation and cattle farming. They first remove the wood and shrubs, and then use fire to clear the land. This year, many of these fires got out of hand, because it has been an exceptionally dry year. Next to the lack of rain, the month of August was extremely windy, with winds of up to 80 kilometers per hour. These conditions were perfect for the fires to spread. Despite that, the authorities continued giving out permits for land clearings.


What is being done to stop the fires? Once the fires are out of control, it is hard to stop them. The most important thing is to prevent them from expanding further. A super tanker from the US has been used to fight the fire from the air, and professional firefighters have been working hard on the ground, trying to contain the blazes. In a desire to help the firefighters, many people traveled to the affected areas to work as volunteers. However, without the adequate training there was not much they could contribute. Moreover, they overloaded the small towns, causing a shortage of food and water, so people were told to stop going there. Instead, we have to focus on helping affected communities survive. In many communities, water holes dried up, or water sources got contaminated with ashes.

Through emergency funds provided by the Green Livelihood Alliance, we have provided water tanks for 10 communities in the indigenous territory of Lomerio. Additionally, we have partnered with Probioma to provide technical assistance to hard hit communities in the municipality of San Ignacio, including the restoration of productive systems. The communities reached by these emergency funds are already in the process of recuperating the production lost in the fires. This is key, because the main issue right now is the lack of production in communities affected by the fires; they are running out of food and water for human and animal consumption. We expect another dry year in the Chiquitania, so the situation remains worrisome.

What should be done to prevent fires from occurring in the first place? People in the city argue that the use of fire should be prohibited altogether, but you can’t do that. People’s livelihoods depend on it. Rather than prohibiting fire, we need to work with the Bolivian Forest Service, to improve the way they are authorizing land clearings, making sure that no authorizations are given when climatic conditions are unfavorable. Also, we need to provide technical assistance to improve fire management, increasing the capacity of communities and local governments to monitor and to plan for the burn season. Importantly, communities need to know how and when to notify the authorities when there is a risk of fires spinning out of control.


Fires have burned around 1.8 million hectares within Bolivia’s protected areas, covering a range of ecosystems, including rainforests, wetlands and dry forests, which are home to iconic species such as jaguars, tapirs, giant otters and hyacinth macaws. Biologists are estimating that fires have affected around 4,000 plant species and 1,600 animal species.

Ascarrunz understands that these ecological impacts receive a lot of media attention, but she laments the way small farmers are being portrayed in this context. “Sometimes it seems as if small farmers are setting fire to everything they can lay their hands on, but this is really not true,” she says. The use of fire is not necessary problematic, as long as it is properly controlled. It becomes risky when fires are not managed correctly, in combination with exceptional weather conditions.

What are your thoughts about the ways in which the media has been reporting on the Bolivian fires? What frustrates me most is the lack of empathy for the people who are affected, in particular Indigenous communities that consist of mostly subsistence-oriented farmers. These communities are remote, and they receive little help. The people there feel left alone — they feel abandoned. There is very little technical assistance or support for small and medium-sized farmers. Moreover, media reports tend to portray small farmers as the culprits, leaving little room for discussions about ways to improve fire management or how to improve sustainable practices in productive systems related to forest, cattle and agriculture.

What should be the discussion? We all know that the planet’s health and our common future does not just depend on what we preserve within protected areas. We also need to manage lands outside of protected areas in a sustainable manner. How do we do that? By allowing people to manage and use those ecosystems. People are living in these landscapes, and will continue to do so. So they must have the tools to manage them sustainably. We need to enable people to use forests sustainably, and fire management is an important part of that.  

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