Guardian News and Media/London
Heavy rains have all but extinguished the devastating wildfires that tore through the dry forests of eastern Bolivia for nearly two months. But, with national elections approaching, recriminations over the blazes have ratcheted up tensions in the already politically volatile region.
According to figures from the government of the Santa Cruz department, more than 4mn hectares (9.9mn acres) of forest and arable land – an area almost the size of Switzerland – have been ravaged by the fires.
A further 1.3mn hectares were destroyed in the northern Beni department. Seven firefighters died and 10,000 families were forced to leave their homes.
Carmina Aguilera, a 40-year-old administrative worker, found herself on the frontline of the battle against the flames after she volunteered to provide food and supplies to affected communities.
“I was born for it,” she said, speaking by phone from Concepcion, 280km north of Santa Cruz, the regional capital. “I didn’t need any introduction, I simply put on the extinguisher backpack and start killing the fires. I went in four times, it felt good.”
Aguilera says she had always wanted to be a firefighter but had been put off by the training and time constraints that come from being a mother-of-three. She became a certified forest firefighter on September 25.
Thanks to the work of more than 1,000 volunteer firefighters such as Aguilera, rural populations can now start taking stock of the damage done.
The impact on the ecosystem has been catastrophic. More than 2mn animals are estimated to have been killed and huge swathes of forest turned to ash.
“The Chiquitano dry forest is a unique ecosystem, some of the trees there are over 200 years old,” said Aguilera. “It will take many years to recover what was lost.” The government says that in the coming days it will send teams of zoologists and botanists to study the affected areas, with their reports due in November.
But the fires have focused public anger on President Evo Morales, who is seeking his fourth consecutive term in elections on October 20. Polls suggest he may be forced into a run-off vote.
Earlier this month hundreds of thousands of people joined a mass protest in Santa Cruz over what they said was a slow response to the fire. Speakers held Morales responsible for the destruction because of his decrees promoting slash-and-burn agriculture in forest areas.
Morales would need 40% of votes nationwide and a 10-point margin for a first round victory, but polls published on Thursday showed him on just 36.2% of votes, behind his main challenger, the former president Carlos Mesa.
“A couple of months ago it seemed Morales was set for a first-round victory, but his handling of the fires have seen him lose support,” said Raúl Peñaranda, a political analyst. “The fires have also caused increased tension and polarisation in Bolivian society.”
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