After more than a week of record-breaking heat waves across the state of California, climate change is at the forefront of many residents’ concerns. This phenomenon isn’t only affecting California, but it’s also affecting the outskirts of the Amazon forest in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
The Chiquitania region covers most of the eastern part of the department of Santa Cruz and is home to more than 1,200 animal species, some of which are endangered, according to the EFE. According to Kew scientists, there are about 15,000 identified plant species in Bolivia. The diverse flora in the Chiquitania region is not only home to hundreds of animal species, but also provides medicinal plants to the communities inhabiting the region.
People in the Chiquitania region rely on nature to survive, but climate change has started to visibly affect their annual crops. The people of Chiquitania mostly rely on rainwater to irrigate their crops. While working with photojournalist Maria Daniel Balcázar in late July of this year, I was able to witness the importance of nature to the communities in the Chiquitania region.
During the last few days that I was in the Chiquitania region, in San Ignacio de Velasco, I noticed the cloud of smoke beginning to form at a distance. During my time there, it hadn’t rained a single day. According to El Deber, a local news outlet, the smoke in San Ignacio de Velasco is making the air almost too contaminated to breathe. And according to the FCBC, the fires have burnt down about 134,600 hectares of forest. Even though it was the dry season when I visited, local residents told us that it was unusual for it to not rain for such a long time. The heat was another unusual occurrence during my visit. July is winter in the southern hemisphere, but most of the days I was in this region, the temperature was above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
José Surubí Llopién is a coffee supplier and the local herbal doctor in San Lucas in the municipality of Velasco. The drought is so drastic that he is one of the few coffee cultivators left in his area; most of them have abandoned their crops to look for jobs elsewhere.
“Sometimes there’s coffee here when it rains, and sometimes there isn’t any,” Surubí Llopién said. “For example, now it’s flowered twice and the flowers fall because it doesn’t rain. The truth is that coffee gives fruit but only when it rains…It used to rain, but now in these years there’s too much drought and it’s harsh.”
The drought caused by climate change isn’t only affecting Surubí Llopién’s harvest, it’s also affecting his medicinal practice with the wildfires consuming the forests in that region. He learned about medicinal plants through his grandmother and has never had a book to teach him about the benefits of the plants near his home. Most of the residents in these communities rely on nature to heal themselves because of lack of accessibility to hospitals. The wildfires directly threaten generational knowledge of herbal cures.
The municipality of Roboré in the Chiquitania region has been thoroughly affected by this year’s wildfires. According to ANF, a local news outlet, in an interview with Ruben Darío Arias, the president of the Civic Committee of Roboré, the municipality of Roboré had run out of water trying to combat the fires in the Tucava Valley, a protected area. Rudy Edgar Vargas who’s in charge of the protected area of Tucava through the Santa Cruz government is responsible for protecting the valley against any threats.
“Our work consists of protecting the whole region that’s protected through patrols and inspections,” Vargas said. “What do we protect? Any type of threat to the protected area, for example, forest fires, landslides, illegal wood extractions, commercial hunting, and capturing endangered species of animals and plants…we’re already in the dry season so what’s most critical to us are the forest fires…The principal objective of creating this protected area is to protect and take care of the river sources.”
The fact that the municipality has run out of water trying to combat these fires shows the severity of the drought within the region. While I was in the Chiquitania region, I noticed that the water levels of every body of water I came across were about one meter lower than their usual level. Even though we visited during the dry season, our guide informed us that these are concerning water levels.
The incidence of fires in the department of Santa Cruz have been increasing to devastating levels since 2019. According to FCBC, the Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest, in 2019, 2020 and 2021 forest fires consumed 3.7 million, 2.2 million and 2.3 million hectares respectively. The majority of the area burnt down each of those years was concentrated in protected areas. According to research from the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, UMSA, about 18 million animals died during the 2019 wildfires in the Chiquitania region.
Most people I talked to while in the Chiquitania region would emphasize the importance of protecting nature. With the construction of new highways that facilitate access to this region, tourism has increased significantly. Even though local residents appreciate tourists who come to learn about the culture, some refuse to sell their land to large corporations trying to profit from the tourism in the area. Erwin Duvé Domichá has a property that overlooks the Tucava Valley, which is a prime location for tourism.
“I’ve lived in this place since 16 years ago with my wife because this was her father’s land,” Duvé Domichá said. “We’re trying to preserve, we’re reforesting what had been cut down before…We’ve had big offers to build cabins, hotels and societies but we don’t want that because that will impact the essence of nature. As long as we’re living here we’ve said that we’re going to maintain it as is.”
With several points of fire within the Tucava protected region, Duvé Domichá’s property is in danger of being burnt down along with all the effort he and his wife have made to try and reforest the land. Climate change is devastatingly noticeable in the Chiquitania region. Not only is nature at stake, but also, people’s livelihood, culture and generational knowledge about herbal cures found within the forests. To stay updated with the latest news about the fires or to donate, follow Alas Chiquitanas, a non-profit organization that helps preserve the Chiquitania region.
*Interviews originally in Spanish, translated to English