The faces of the fires
The indigenous peoples of Bolivia facing the fires and a new development model
The international press clearly showed how the fire swept through the Brazilian Amazon and Bolivian forests. The images of calcined trees and animals suffering from the voracity of the flames brought climate change and environmental depredation to the forefront. However, in the shadow of the Amazon, other victims are invisible: the indigenous peoples that live in the jungle and mountains, and establish reciprocal relations with Mother Earth.
In its new State Political Constitution approved in 2009, Bolivia recognised that 36 languages coexisted in the country. This is a way of saying there are 36 indigenous nations, which symbolises a Copernican revolution for those who since the 17th century believed that a state belongs to only one nation. Therefore, the name of the Andean country is currently the Plurinational State of Bolivia: a simple semantic change that symbolises a profound political transformation.
Of the 36 indigenous ethnic groups, the Chiquitanos are the fourth largest, behind the Quechua, the Aymara (both located in the “highlands” about 4,000 metres above sea level in the Andean region) and The Guarani. Its territory is known as “la Chiquitanía” or “los llanos de Chiquitos”, an ecosystem that acts as a transition between the Amazon and the Gran Chaco, in the Bolivian East. These three regions make up the "lowlands" that are around 500 meters above sea level and house a unique diversity. The history of the Chiquitanos is also of great cultural interest, which eventually became a tourist attraction. There are six Jesuit missions built during the 17th and 18th centuries, whose architecture is recognised by UNESCO as "world heritage”.
The municipality of Roboré and the Monte Verde Indigenous Territory, located in Chiquitanía, are the most affected by the fires that hit Bolivia in recent weeks. Additionally, there are fires in Charagua (in the Chaco region) and the South Amazon, in the region of Beni.
The expansion of the agricultural frontier, frost and drinking water
The municipality of San Javier is 220 kilometres from the capital of Santa Cruz. Founded in 1691, it is the first Jesuit mission in Bolivia and the main church still maintains its original construction. On the front of the church is a passage from Genesis in Latin: "Domus dei et porta coeli" (The house of God and gate of heaven).
The community explains that it is normal for there to be fires due to the use of fire to clear the lands. However, this year the community began to feel the effects of the laws and supreme decrees that authorise the clearing, forgive illegal activity, allow the use of transgenic seeds and increase the agricultural frontier for the production of ethanol and biodiesel in lands that according to the Plan of Land Use (PLUS) are protected forests.
"The fires we face are not natural disasters, they have not been caused by nature, but are consequences of human activity caused by clearing and burning," says the pronouncement of the Indigenous Organization of the Chiquitano People (OICH). The critical statement strongly requires that the state declare the fires a national disaster that would allow international aid to come in and repeal regulations that enable the clearing and expansion of agricultural exploitation of new lands.
The chief of the Paiconeca indigenous power station, Luis Rivero, says that the fire began in the community of Las Conchas, when a group of farmers burned his farmland. With the change of winds, the fire burned out of control and advanced eastward.
"There is a total sadness. This winter the biggest frost fell in 30 years which dried up the vegetation and the pastures with which the cattle are fed. Crops were burned, the lands lost their fertilizer and now we need to wait a year before the land can be sown again. Another problem is that the wild animals that communities depend on need to go further [for food] and there is no support for families,” says Rivero.
From San Javier, via a dirt road, one can access the Monte Verde Indigenous Territory: an area of 974,447 hectares that is collective and only the community members who live there can use their natural resources. It is an ancestral, indivisible and imprescriptible land—the right of indigenous peoples to exercise their own development and their property does not end with time; a constitutional blow for the private property of capitalism.
Don José drives while chewing his "bolus" of coca leaf mixed with bicarbonate. The road inside the indigenous territory is not good. The truck looks like a cocktail shaker that jostles the five of us from one side to the other. The chief tries to sleep, but his head keeps on hitting the window. On the sides of the road the trees show the passage of the fire and the smell of burning gets through the window. Some trees still emit smoke after the rain the night before.
The community of Las Conchas consists of 573 hectares and 11 families that live from forestry activities, raising cows, pigs and chickens, and agriculture. Benito Soqueré has lived in the community for the last four years with his children Julio and Agapito. This winter, climate change affected their economic livelihood.
"Before the freeze, we took out 30 kilos of cheese per week that we sold in the city at 20 pesos per kilo. Now we can’t take anything out. Since there is no grass, the cows are thin and do not give milk," he explains while he shows a cut in his collar from a branch he couldn’t see because of the smoke.
The dry grass was also fertile ground for the recent fires, which affected the entire territory and burned the wood they use. Two cows also died due to the fires.
"Since yesterday we have had diarrhea. As it rained, the ashes left by the fire drained into the river and contaminated the water we drank. In addition, the poison of the eightó [a characteristic tree of tropical forests whose resin is toxic] killed the fish. The water is totally contaminated,” adds Agapito.
Despite the bad news, they are optimistic and believe that the grass will grow again.
We arrived at the El Rancho community at night. The starry sky lights up where we meet five community members. A lawyer for the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS), Débora Díaz Araujo, is greeted with applause and jokes: “How are you doing, doctor? Were you lost?” More than ten years have passed and the Chiquitanos of the Monte Verde Indigenous Territory still remember the work of the NGOs in the legal procedure that regulates the right to agricultural property and titling of community lands. In addition, the process of autonomy, a right recognised in the new Political Constitution that allows them self-government.
"We work so the fire does not advance. It is controlled, but it is not completely extinguished. The information that circulates is not completely correct. In our community it did not rain. That is why we are alert," explains community member Sandro Macoñó. "The problem of water is more serious. Until last year we had a little. Today the rivers and streams are drying up. That is worrisome."
The community members are upset at the lack of help from the national and municipal governments. In the communities of Monte Verde, a SuperTanker plane hired by the government passed, but did not drop any water.
Climate change: strong winds
The next day, we take the route to the northeast. Near the border with Brazil is the municipality of Concepción. The earth is red and the sun is hotter. In the centre, Mennonites are seen with their horse-drawn carts and the main church repeats the same Genesis passage as the church in San Javier, but in Spanish: "House of God and gate of heaven".
An hour and a half from the centre, the Palestina community is home to about 40 families. The wooden and adobe houses stand between the pigs, chickens and the “grey” trees (as they call the grapefruit). Don José shows the tree and jokes: "They quench thirst ... And they calm hunger."
If in San Javier the trigger for the fires was the frost, in this community they point to the strong winds that cause the fires to burn out of control and sparks the fires that were going out.
Gathered in an assembly, Isael Zavala, from the Community Justice Council, thanks the doctor's presence and reports that the focus of the fire is in Río Blanco where 146 firefighters and volunteers are trying to control the fire divided into three groups that go from and return to the community. Don Pedro proposes to open a gap to defend the cusi palm plantation.
"The palm trees are high. If the fire reaches there, we cannot extinguish it anymore. How are we going to feed our families if our plots are burned?"
The problem of drought and lack of water is repeated in the Palestina community. If the wells dry up, the nearest river is seven kilometres away.
A group of forest firefighters and volunteers approaches the assembly to ask the community for help to establish a base camp of 40 people. They report they observed 37 heat sources from satellite data and that temperatures above 30 degrees are not optimal. They propose to work at night when the wind calms and the height of the fire drops from 1.40 metres to 40 centimetres.
On the way back to Concepción we found two fires that we had not seen on the way. Nature puts an image to the community’s stories: the wind blows and the fire grows. Dr. Débora says that this is only the first part.
"When the fire goes out, respiratory, stomach and vision diseases begin. Then come the economic problems, beyond livestock and plantain and cassava crops, and it affects forest activities which is the most important source of resources. We will have to see what happens with the contracts signed with entrepreneurs," she explains.
In the truck bed rests a burlap bag full of greys.
Rethinking the development model
So far in the 21st century, Bolivia has been one of the countries with the most transformative processes in Latin America. However, today its development model begins to show signs of exhaustion. The change in power relations within the "process of change", in favour of peasants and agribusiness, and to the detriment of indigenous peoples, is beginning to show its impact on Mother Earth. The message of the protests against the fires became: "Neither soy nor coca; the forest is not touched".
Outside of real politics, environmentalism and the electoral campaign, the Plurinational State of Bolivia has to rethink its development model: is progress against nature the only way to continue reducing poverty and hunger that the country has been dragging from the colonial era? In that question, perhaps, indigenous peoples can provide some keys to change the present and the future: their being in the world shows that there are other modes of development in harmony with the environment.
Photos: Adán Palachay Ortiz
* The author thanks the Chiquitano people for allowing them to enter their territories, and the CEJIS organization for the information on the processes and the transfer to the communities. A first version of this note was published in the Amphibious Magazine .
Tags: Land rights