Evo Morales: forest fires could cost him the re-election

At the end of last month, in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a powerful agricultural center at the foot of the Amazon rainforest, Bolivia's President Evo Morales met with farmers to celebrate the first meat shipment to China.

President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, putting out fires in the Amazon

President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, putting out fires in the Amazon. / Via REUTERS

Reuters | Monica Machicao y Daniel Ramos

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Leer en español: Evo Morales: los incendios forestales podrían costarle la reelección

An imposing ceremony was organized to mark the achievement of China's mass market entry, just as Beijing seeks alternatives to American farmers, key in Morales' plan to transform his country into a global food supplier.

"It's another policy that allows Bolivia to continue growing economically," said Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, at the August 28 event in Santa Cruz. The country would send 8,000 tons of beef to China next year, he added.

However, on the city outskirts, the cost of promoting agriculture was clearly visible. Forest fires burned, probably caused by an increase in the clearing and burning of land for livestock or soybean production.

Fires in Bolivian territory, which occur at the same time as in areas of Brazil, threaten Morales' commitment of achieving his fourth consecutive term and another five years of "Evonomics," his mark of capitalism mixed with state intervention.

Morales detractors link fires with laws he has passed to encourage settlements of farmers and ranchers in forest areas in recent years. This includes authorization this year for greater use of "chaqueo" - the burning of vegetation to prepare crops and grasslands - despite the drought.

The magnitude of the fires threatens what is considered a natural bulwark against climate change. In recent weeks, more than 2.1 million hectares have been burned, an area almost the size of New Jersey, including more than 700,000 hectares in protected reserves, according to a report by the local conservation group Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN).

The fires have drawn attention to the support Morales has provided to an industry that once disagreed with his government, putting him on the defensive before the October 20 elections.

"If before (from the fires) it was going to cost him to find support from the undecided (voters), today it will be much more difficult," said political analyst Marcelo Arequipa. "(Now) it is very complicated," he added.

Also read: Indigenous tribes fear hard year ahead after Amazon fires

"The course of history"

Morales' support for agriculture has surprised some. Unlike the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who describes climate change as a myth, Morales is known abroad as an environmental strident, who often expresses the need to protect the "Pachamama," or Mother Earth, in international forums.

But Morales also seeks to boost the development and economic growth of Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America. The Morales government has become better known as a promoter of agricultural raw materials, calling them the "new gold" that will help diversify the economy that depends on the export of natural gas.

"Maybe the fire has managed to reverse the course of history," said political scientist Franklin Pareja, based in La Paz. "It is so large ... that it has begun to strip other things more. For example, it is not only an exploitation of poor people, but there are corporate agribusiness interests that will be the most favored."

After a wave of criticism for a slow initial response from his government to the fires, Morales hired a Boeing SuperTanker late last month to help firefighters extinguish them.

Morales' chances of succeeding in the election can now depend on whether outrage over fires can be exploited by his main rival, Carlos Mesa. Some pre-fire surveys already indicated that Mesa could win in a possible second round.

"This is a national disaster," Mesa told local broadcaster, Red Uno. "We know who caused the incident, originated by Evo Morales and his irresponsible policies regarding land use."

The government has denied that its policies have produced the fires, described Mesa's sayings as "a lie" and promised to invest whatever is necessary to recover the burned forests again.

Morales, a former coca farmer, blamed the periodic droughts that hit hard this year. "If you smoke a cigarette and boots it around, there's a spark, there's a fire," Morales said at the ceremony in Santa Cruz last month.

Read also: Biochar: a better start to rain forest restoration

Kill the golden egg hen

A decade ago, Morales was so despised in Santa Cruz that he avoided the agriculture fair that takes place every year. The conservative agricultural province had resisted an agrarian reform proposed by Morales and even declared itself autonomous from his government.

But it has become more popular in Santa Cruz since its government announced in 2013 a plan to triple Bolivia's agricultural land to 13 million hectares by 2025, an objective that, according to some, is only possible by destroying large areas of forests.

A series of government pardons for illegal deforestation that began that year encouraged an increase in settlements in the Amazon, which saw deforestation for agriculture doubled between 2014-2018, Bolivia's forestry authority said in an April report.

Morales, the leftist president of South America with more time in power, has also backed infrastructure works that would open the Amazon even more, such as a Chinese project to build a $580 million highway and a proposal for a transcontinental railroad.

This year, Morales has approved rules to increase soy exports and signed agreements for meat exports to China and Russia. At the end of July, at the beginning of the dry season, he authorized the use of controlled fires to expand the agricultural frontier in two Amazonian provinces that now fight an increase in fires.

Agricultural business leaders say those measures were necessary to support the industry and urged Morales not to give in to demands to repress the sector, despite the fires.

"The rules in question are well thought out and well-elaborated ... they should not be repealed," said Oscar Pereyra, president of an important livestock association in Bolivia. "Let's not kill the golden egg hens" of the agricultural industry, he added.

But others say that the environmental cost of the sector cannot be ignored anymore.

"Every time I pass the road ... I see new clearing, whether for livestock, for the cultivation of soybeans or other things," said Robert Flock, a Catholic bishop in the Santa Cruz region. "That means prolonged drought, more intense every year."