Worst Drought in 30 Years Causes Nearly 50,000 Fires in Bolivia


By Staff Writers, LAHT (Latin American Herald Tribune)

The worst drought in the last 30 years has ignited more than 47,000 fires in Bolivia over the last few months, creating health problems among the population and affecting the nation's air traffic, the Andean country's forest service chief said.

Recorded up to now have been "47,835 centers of combustion and we're close to 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) burned," making it the nation's "worst drought season ever," Bolivian Forest and Lands Authority president Cliver Rocha told state media.

"The drought has kindled these massive, widespread blazes and estimates tell us they will continue in Bolivia until December. It isn't possible to quantify the damages, which are irreparable," Rocha said.

Two people have been arrested for setting premeditated fires, "the first arrests for forest fires in Bolivia's history," Rocha said.

One of the culprits is a Mexican Mennonite living in the eastern Santa Cruz region, who last week was caught in the act as he was setting fire to pastureland near the Brazilian border, the forestry chief said.

Intentional fires set to clear land between June and August this year, chiefly in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando, bordering on Brazil and Paraguay, choked Bolivia's main cities with smoke and forced several airports to suspend flights.

Rains during the last few days, however, have aided in dispersing the fumes, but the fires are expected to continue until December.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said last Wednesday that the billowing smoke affecting the eastern regions of the country are due to blazes in southwestern Brazil, which in recent days have created health problems in the Amazon region and have interrupted air traffic.

President Evo Morales and several government officials have described these intentional fires as "natural phenomena" and blame climate change for the rapid spreading of the flames.

Chile, Brazil, Argentina and the United Nations sent aid to Bolivia over the last few weeks to assist with controlling the fires.