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Bolivia: Amazon Wildfires Crisis Spills into Political Battle Space

Bolivia wildfires_2019_8By Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett, United States Navy (Retired)

A little over a month ago, videos clips of uncontrolled fires raging across the Brazilian Amazon captivated the attention of the international community. The Twitter hashtag   #PrayForAmazonia quickly became a lighting rod for expressions of outrage, and a forum for withering criticism against Jair Bolsonaro, the nationalist Brazilian president that made undermining the authority of environmental agencies, and opening up protected lands to agriculture and mining, central to his economic agenda.

However, forest fires don’t recognize international borders  and so in neighboring Bolivia, conditions were also ripe for a similar crisis to play out – a crisis that presently shows no signs of abating. Moreover, if the unrest of this past weekend is any indication of the mood of the Bolivian electorate, Bolivia’s once very popular president, Juan “Evo” Morales (the country’s first indigenous head of state) might lose his bid for an unprecedented fourth term.

Unbeknownst to much of the world, Bolivia, a nation of around eleven million people, was on the brink of an environmental crisis at the same time last August that Brazil’s fires were being spotlighted by international news sharing platforms. However, although the Bolivian fires (and Morales’ handling of the growing crisis), escaped the international attention, his co-citizens were anxiously watching as their green spaces burned. Soon, the crisis would spread outwards from the smoldering forests and into the nation’s political battle-space.

Late last week, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s largest city) demanding that Morales take more decisive actions in fighting wildfires that have already claimed  an area larger than Costa Rica. Causal factors for the unprecedented fires are numerous, but Bolivian environmental experts lay blame at the feet of a controversial bill signed into law by Morales this past July for the crisis.

The pro-agro industry bill allowed for more “controlled burning” across Bolivia’s frontiers as a means to expand areas for the agro-industrial sector – a sector that Morales, like Bolonaro, deems critical to their respective nation’s economic development. Lamentably, high temperatures, and lack of fire-fighting equipment, have only compounded the unintended consequences of the new bill and has highlighted the government’s lack of preparedness for a risk of its own making.

Not lost on the Bolivian electorate is that fact that environmentalists and opposition parties have for months lobbied Morales to declare the crisis a national disaster; a move that would set the conditions for the mountain-nation to start accepting international aid. However, Morales, echoing statements from his ideological opposed Portuguese-speaking counterpart on the other side of the Amazon, warned that a disaster declaration could invite foreign meddling in a Bolivian issue.

Before the fires, Morales, once a widely popular leader who was able to incorporate aggressive environmental protection laws into the Andean nation’s constitution, is now even more  likely to be forced into a second-round runoff with his chief rival, Carlos Mesa, a business-friendly former president. Morales’ “go it alone” stance has many Bolivians rallying for a “punishment vote” in the upcoming Oct. 20 presidential election – an election that seems more likely to tip towards Mesa’s favor if the outpouring of outrage last week is an indicator.

Across the Americas, it is becoming increasingly evident that largely preventable ecological disasters have the potential to influence politics in consequential ways. Populations – especially the region’s youth – are increasingly sensitized to the concept and practice of environmental custodianship, and as a consequence, are responding angrily to regimes they perceive are not doing their utmost to protect the environment. In a few weeks Morales could very well become the first political casualty to a region-wide popular attitude that deems preserving green spaces as far more important than rigid, ideologically inspired notions of sovereignty.

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