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Monitoring forest fires expose devastation of Indigenous Peoples’ territories and unique biodiversity in Bolivian lowlands

The most widespread and intractable forest fires ever recorded in Bolivia ravaged the lowland regions of Santa Cruz, Beni, La Paz and Cochabamba last year, making 2019 a particularly dark period for the country and for Indigenous Peoples as many of the affected areas were on Indigenous territories and conservation areas.

Unfortunately, that dark period has returned in 2020 with forest fires raging beyond last year’s devastating numbers.

“Between the 1st of January and the 31st of July this year [2020], the number of forest fires had increased by 35 per cent in the national territory in comparison with the same time last year. Knowing this has generated an alert, because the numbers show that we are in a process of repeating the tragedy from last year,” Miguel Vargas Delgado, director of the Center for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS) based in Bolivia, said.

Since August 2019, IWGIA’s partner CEJIS has, as a response to the vast fires, established the Center for Autonomous Territorial Planning (CPTA) to fill a necessary reporting gap by monitoring the territorial situation of Indigenous communities in the Bolivian lowlands. It includes monitoring forest fires and releasing monthly reports with data on the fires that both maps the locations of the fires and measures their geographical scale.  

Based on their reporting, CPTA was able to conclude that the 2019 fires covered the largest area of land ever recorded in Bolivia: 2.1 million hectares had been burned to the ground in the lowlands just by August 2019, including parts of the Amazon and the unique dry forest area of Chiquitanía.

Now, in 2020, the CPTA has made another upsetting discovery: in September 2020 alone, 56 Indigenous territories have been affected by a staggering 17,200 fires in the lowland regions.

A danger to health

The lowlands are home to some of the most marginalised Indigenous groups in the country and the fires have had a severe impact on the communities’ daily ability to survive as their access to food has been severely endangered due to the contamination of water and ecosystems, and the spread of air pollution from the fires and smoke is leading to respiratory diseases.

According to the August 2020 CPTA monthly report, the health situation for Indigenous people is further jeopardized by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is not only the fire and the consequent risks they pose that put them in danger, but also the danger that lurks with the COVID-19 pandemic, which aggravates the Indigenous communities’ highly vulnerable position. The impact of the fires and the effects of climate change means a rebound on the shortage of necessary food that makes the communities able to endure the quarantine,” Delgado said.

Fires spark public debate

According to Delgado, last year’s fires sparked a public debate on climate change and the loss of unique biodiversity. However, missing from that debate was the effect the fires had on Indigenous territories and people in the lowlands, a fact that was also non-existent in official statements on the fires.                                                                               

The link between the environmental issues caused by the fires and the territorial issues that they pose for the Indigenous population has not been addressed by Bolivian institutions.

Apart from fire monitoring, the CPTA also uses their work and data to connect these issues in a time of both environmental and health crisis. They combine their information, including the quantitative data the monitoring instrument collects, with the information that CEJIS receives from partners in Indigenous communities and organizations on social and economic measures, thereby creating a unique collection of data.

With this key CPTA data, Indigenous communities and organisations are able to use the reliable information as evidence in a variety of ways: whether it is to mobilise and create awareness about their territorial rights and rights violations or hold stakeholders accountable for such violations.

“In my opinion, CPTA has an enormous potential to support the defence of Indigenous territories and contribute to the construction of Indigenous autonomies in Bolivia. In any case, new technologies like those provided by CPTA should depend on the political strategies that are defined by Indigenous organisations,” Alejandro Parellada, IWGIA senior advisor, said.

Expanding agricultural frontier contributes to fires

One of the main factors that led to the drastic increase in fires is the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

In 2019, the then-president’s administration of Evo Morales signed a decree allowing the cutting down of more hectares of forest than ever before, meaning that 4.5 million hectares of previously protected forest areas could now legally be cleared with the main purpose of expanding national cattle production.

Burning down land in order to restart it for the next agricultural season is nothing new in traditional agriculture. The method, called slash and burn, has been used by peasants and Indigenous Peoples to cultivate land, but is very far from the huge scale practice that has been carried out over the last couple of years by other actors. The clearing of land for large-scale agricultural purposes, such as cattle and soy production, has led to enduring and uncontrolled fires that move into Indigenous territories and protected areas.

Morales was ousted from his presidency soon after signing the controversial decree, partly by popular demand and partly due to speculations on election fraud on his fourth win.

Building on the Bolivian government’s historical close-knit relationship with the agricultural sector, the legal expansion of the agricultural frontier in 2019 caused an escalation of fires and led to the situation Delgado refers to as the environmental crisis.

Window of opportunity

The pressure on biodiversity, natural resources and Indigenous territories pushed by such policies create a distressing situation, but according to Delgado, the current political climate also opens a window of opportunity for the continuing work of defending and preserving natural resources and territorial rights.

“It puts us in a somewhat favourable context. Favourable in the sense that there now is a chance to reclaim the Indigenous agenda politically,” Delgado said.

The hope for the future as a window of opportunity is shared by Parellada: “The recent national elections in Bolivia open a new political scenario where, apart from the re-establishment of a democratically elected government, we hope that there will be greater willingness to meet the demands of Indigenous Peoples, especially in the protection of their territories. In this sense, we trust that the CPTA can be a valuable instrument”.

With the democratic election of the Movimiento al Socialismo candidate Luis Acre as Bolivia’s new president, a different political agenda may await Bolivia. While the nation holds its breath to see what the future might bring, CPTA continues to monitor and document the fires in the Bolivian lowlands and support the defence of Indigenous territories.


Photo: Fires in the Indigenous territory of Monte Verde in the Santa Cruz region in 2019. Credit: CEJIS-CPTA

Tags: Climate



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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