Bolivia wildfires torch two million hectares since August: official

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A fire blazes near Charagua in Bolivia in August 2019

A fire blazes near Charagua in Bolivia in August 2019 (AFP Photo/Aizar RALDES)

La Paz (AFP) - Wildfires in Bolivia have torched two million hectares (4.9 million acres) of forest and grassland since August, including some environmentally protected areas, officials said Monday.

One cabinet minister decried the "macabre game" of fires being put out, then reset behind the backs of firefighters by "saboteurs."

Cinthia Asin, environmental minister for the eastern region of Santa Cruz, urged President Evo Morales to declare a national disaster to broaden firefighting efforts and better channel international aid.

Santa Cruz is the hardest hit of Bolivia's departments since the fires began in May and intensified in late August.

"We've had more than two million hectares of land burnt" in Santa Cruz, said Asin. "We've already gone nearly one month (with this problem) and a national disaster has yet to be declared."

Asin said that blazes have destroyed nearly 900,000 hectares of protected areas. Most affected are the Otuquis and San Matias areas of eastern Bolivia, rich in diverse flora and fauna.

Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta said that people have been found illegally restarting fires in places where the blazes have been put out.

"We are certain that the fires are being deliberately set," said Zavaleta. He blamed "saboteurs," and farmers and landowners "that start blazes that they cannot control," he told reporters.

"This is a macabre game. We put out the fires and there are people behind us that are starting them again.

"We cannot control wildfires like this," Zavaleta said.

Environmentalists blame laws enacted under Morales, who has encouraged burning of forest and pasture land to expand agricultural production. The government attributes the blazes to dry weather and winds.

Bolivia's government recently authorized farmers to burn 20 hectares (almost 50 acres) instead of the usual five hectares (12 acres) -- which is believed to have contributed to thousands of wildfires.