How did the fires start?

The events that led to these fires are many and complex. Government policies have created perverse incentives for uncontrolled agricultural slash and burn practices; chaqueo.

In July 2019 the Supreme Decree 3973 legalised burning forest areas. The decree along with Law 741, which allows up to 20 hectares of land to be burnt at a time, have created perfect conditions for out of control chaqueo.

Climate change has brought a drier than usual winter season with very high temperatures and strong winds.

Ultimately, the main responsibility lies with the Bolivian Government. Their late and ineffective response to the disaster has caused it to escalate exponentially. Unfortunately, there is a political agendas behind their lack of appropriate response and behind the laws and decrees that led to the increased use of chaqueo.

It is very important to stress the incredible bravery and dedication of the firefighters on the ground. They have demonstrated exemplary courage in action and done their absolute best in the conditions they have faced with the facilities and provisions provided.

Firefighters take a moments rest between battling fires near Concepcion.

It’s nesting season and when the trees caught light the parrots died in their nests. My companions and I would cry, we felt so powerless. It’s the worst tragedy we’ve ever seen here.

Manacá’s fire chief; Luis Andrés Roca

Slash & burn / Chaqueo

Uncontrolled agricultural slash-and-burn, or chaqueo as it’s known in Bolivia, is a common practice that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest to create a field for land-use and agriculture. In Bolivia, chaqueos are usually performed during the dry-winter season from July that can extend until December. It is thought that nearly all the fires were started with chaqueo (many of them illegally) and they spread rapidly due to poor management, climate change and a lack of an effective government response.

You can learn more about the government policies & agendas that encouraged the excessive use of chaqueo in the WHY section.

Climate change

2019’s extreme drought coupled with strong winds and higher than average temperatures have created the perfect conditions for the fires to escalate out of control. The worst hit areas are connected with the tropical dry forest of Chiquitania. Many areas are so dry that sparks or embers brought by strong winds from kilometers away have ignited many new fires.

The fires are an example of an ecological feedback loop; huge fires and forest reduction contribute to further global warming. Therefore it is doubly imperative to act to quicly to stop this feedback loop contributing to global climate change.


Ineffective response

President Evo Morales’s response to the fires has caused great political unrest in Bolivia. He often takes public relations opportunities to display his efforts in combating the fires. However he has equally stifled the efforts to resolve the disaster.

Morales has refused to declare a national disaster despite strong public pressure to do so. Much foreign aid, equipment and manpower has been refused entry into the country. Firefighting services are massively understaffed, underfunded and lacking in technical resources. Untrained volunteers including children have taken it upon themselves to join the efforts to stop the fires.


Follow the story…


What damage has been caused to forests, animals and human life? The disaster explained with stories from the ground and air.


Discover unique ecosystems, indigenous communities and animal species that are all under attack from man made fires.


How deregulated agricultural practices escalated into a national disaster. Who lit the fires and how they spread.


President Evo Morales refuses to declare a national disaster. Learn the big story behind industry, trade, politics and greed.