Written by Diego Martinez-Schütt

On Friday 4th October, over 1.5 million Bolivian people formed a mass gathering at Santa Cruz to protest over the central government’s handling of the fires in Bolivia. More than 5,3 million hectares of Amazonian and Chiquitano forests have been destroyed since July 2019, an area larger than the size of Costa Rica. Bolivians from the department of Santa Cruz, an eastern region in the centre of the disaster, gathered together to form a ‘Cabildo’. A Cabildo is recognised by the Bolivian constitution as a legitimate and legal form of democratic mass gathering, to express the views of the population over a specific issue.

The sheer number of people that attended the Cabildo is a clear sign that the people of Eastern Bolivia are angry, frustrated and had enough with the fires that are destroying their homeland. During the gathering, people were presented with a set of questions for popular consultation. People overwhelmingly supported the need to stop human settlements in protected and natural areas. They also supported the need to introduce an “ecological pause” in those affected areas, so that ecosystems and forests can benefit from a period of restoration and regeneration.

Bolivia is having presidential elections on October 20th. With this Cabildo, the present and future Government in Bolivia has been given the mandate to change the course of environmentally harmful development. The people of Santa Cruz have been clear that they want a future that is in harmony with nature, an economic and agricultural model that respects both the environment and human rights. The disaster has raised big questions about democracy in Bolivia, and how the country will move forward. Hopefully this will be in a more sustainable manner, one which respects future generations and the rising challenges of climate change and habitat loss.

The department of Santa Cruz has been the region hardest hit by the disaster. The fires have destroyed savannahs, virgin forests, agricultural land, it has affected the livelihoods of indigenous communities and it has devastated wildlife. Experts believe many of the ecosystems affected by these fires will take decades if not centuries to recover. This is serious because the natural cycles of those ecosystems are key to provide water, pollination and biodiversity to the area.

The fires have shown us that this is only the beginning and we must be ready for future disasters. In a post-fire reality, Action for Bolivia and our partners will be pushing for solutions that are truly sustainable, solutions which respect indigenous people, allowing the forests, wildlife and the vital ecosystems to regenerate in the coming years.