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Wildfires, Business, and Public Policies

06 February, 2024 | Ricardo Changala

At the onset of the year, raging flames engulf significant portions of the jungles, forests, and prairies across the American continent.

In Ecuador, data from the Secretariat of Risk Management reveals that, from January 1 to 31, 2024, a total of 102 forest fires have ravaged 14 provinces, 41 cantons, and 78 parishes, resulting in the loss of 1,620.67 hectares of vegetation cover. Provinces heavily impacted by over 100 hectares of burned vegetation include Carchi, Pichincha, and Chimborazo.

In Colombia, despite reports of extinguishing 443 fires in recent weeks, 17 active fires persisted by the end of January, aggravated by intense heat and drought attributed to the El Niño phenomenon.

While some fires are natural, the National Police confirmed 26 arrests related to arson crimes in Colombia.

In Argentina, an uncontrolled inferno continues to ravage the Los Alerces National Park, consuming over 2000 hectares of native forests, including species like ñire, laura, caña coihue, and lenga, in the UNESCO-declared Patagonian World Heritage Site. Although suspicions point towards intentional ignition, no arrests or specific accountabilities have been established yet.

 On January 28, Governor Ignacio Agustín Torres of Chubut Province in Argentina implicated an alleged organization, purportedly comprising members of the Mapuche community, as the masterminds behind the fires. However, such statements not only incite racial animosity but also deflect attention from the actual causes of this ecological catastrophe.

Moira Millán, a prominent Mapuche figure from the Pillán Mahuiza community, denounced the governor’s remarks as irresponsible and racially charged, emphasizing the Mapuche people’s role in preserving life on their territories.

Furthermore, Argentina, along with other regional countries like Peru, witnesses political maneuvers to dilute or dismantle regulatory and institutional frameworks safeguarding natural forests and firefighting services, posing imminent threats to these ecosystems.

 It’s worth recalling that deforestation significantly decreased following the 2007 legislation regulating forest usage and exploitation. However, recent governmental endeavors, including proposed amendments to national park workforce conditions and defunding forest preservation initiatives, threaten to undermine these gains, thereby compromising deforestation and fire control capacities.

The practices of burning forests, jungles, and grasslands, as well as the inadequate preemptive and responsive actions by state institutions across the continent, demonstrate that the problem is serious and not merely a series of coincidences or isolated incidents.

In addition to the mentioned cases, many other countries have been affected by wildfires in previous years and are currently facing them. While alterations caused by global warming, climate change, or phenomena like La Niña and El Niño should be considered and addressed, they do not fully explain the problem.

A significant portion of these fires is deliberately set with the clear intention of clearing natural forests to create favorable conditions for agricultural, livestock, or other purposes on lands that cannot revert to their previous conditions.

The same applies to the lack of interest in maintaining effective state forest protection systems or adequate legislation for prevention and punishment of violators. Even the repeated argument of reducing state “expenses” has no significant impact on public accounts in this regard.

Forest fires affect not only plant and animal species but also the people who inhabit these areas or rely on their resources for survival. The majority of those who live in these places are indigenous communities that have historically preserved these territories. These communities become inconvenient obstacles to the voracious profit objectives of large extractive companies and even for drug trafficking. Conversely, for these business sectors, fires serve their interests.

In this context, the recent call by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva offering assistance to his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro to combat fires in both countries, while proposing to “advance joint efforts to combat fire sources” within the framework of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (OTCA), is noteworthy.

In fact, to address the Amazonian environmental crisis, the OTCA summit of August 2023 adopted the Belem Declaration, committing to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples to territories and lands, their full and effective possession, considering ancestral conservation knowledge and practices. They also committed to establishing the Amazonian Mechanism of Indigenous Peoples to strengthen dialogue between governments and indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, within the same forum, a joint statement was issued by several presidents not only from the Amazon region but also from other countries with significant forest areas in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

In the message titled “United for Our Forests: Joint Communiqué of Forest Countries in Development in Belem,” the authorities reaffirmed their commitment to forest preservation, reducing drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, conserving biodiversity, and seeking a just ecological transition.

They expressed their conviction that “our forests can be centers of sustainable development and sources of solutions to national and global sustainability challenges, reconciling economic prosperity with environmental protection and social well-being, especially of indigenous peoples and local communities, including through the development of innovative mechanisms that recognize and promote the functions/services of ecosystems and the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.”

Several months have passed since these declarations without us knowing if they have been implemented as agreed.

In any case, they show a substantially different path from what is currently being pursued in other parts of the continent, focusing on where it should be: the protection of nature, the peoples and communities that inhabit it, and the promotion of development respectful of diverse worldviews through dialogue between innovative technology and ancestral knowledge.

This is a true emergency of our times because once nature, peoples, and their cultures disappear, there is no possibility of return.