Playing with fire in Santa Cruz

Currently there is a lot of speculation about the causes of the forest fires in the Amazon region. A Bolivian congressman, speculated that they probably originated in Brazil, while Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro claimed that NGOs have set fires to the forest to hurt his government. Many people in Bolivia have blamed the Supreme Decree 3973 of the 9th of July 2019, which authorizes controlled fires for agricultural purposes in Santa Cruz and Beni. The new meat export agreement signed with China is also a suspect.

In this blog we will present some empirical evidence to help improve the quality of speculation. For that purpose, we have analysed all the fires detected in the Department of Santa Cruz in Bolivia by NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor between the 1st of January 2016 and the 28th of August 2019.

Most readers will surely be shocked by the sheer number of fires detected in the department: About 100,000 per year! In Table 1 we have cross-tabulated all detected fires[1] by year and type of area in which they were detected, according to the Departmental Land Use Plan (PLUS). About 59% were in areas designated for agropastoral use, but an astonishing 41% of all fires were in areas which were designated for forestry activities or protected areas, neither of which are supposed to have caught fire.

Table 1: Number of fires detected, by year, and type of land use, 2016-2019

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from NASA’s VIIRS sensor and the Departmental Land Use Plan (PLUS).

In this table 2019 does not look much different from previous years, but that is because we are still early in the burning season. If we graph the accumulated number of fires by date of the year, we see that this year clearly stands out (see Figure 1). 2016 was the previous worst year ever in Bolivia for both number of fires, extent of land burned, and area deforested, but 2019 looks set to beat those records easily. Just the first 28 days of this month saw more than 83 thousand fires in Santa Cruz. This is more than double the 36,591 fires detected during the same period in 2016.

Figure 1: Fires detected in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, by NASA satellites, 2016-2019

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from NASA’s VIIRS sensor.

Usually, fires take place either on already deforested land, or very close to already deforested land, but this year fires have ventured farther away. In 2016, for example, only 16% of all fires in Santa Cruz took place more than 1 kilometre from areas that were already deforested by the end of the previous year. But so far in 2019, 37% of fires in Santa Cruz been observed more than 1 kilometre away from already deforested areas (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Location of fires in Santa Cruz, by distance to already deforested areas, 2016-2019

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from NASA’s VIIRS sensor, and the Hansen Global Forest Change data set version 1.5.

Burning of natural pastures is an ancient practice, which ranchers use to encourage the growth of fresh and tender grass for the cattle. However, we tabulated the number of fires in Santa Cruz by tree cover density in the year 2000, and found that so far this year, about 45% of fires have taken place in areas that used to have high tree cover like the “Cerrado Chiquitano” and “Cerrado Chaqueño” (between 61 and 90%) and 31% in areas that used to have very dense tree cover, more similar to the “Chiquitano Forest” (91-100%).

Figure 3: Location of Bolivian fires, 2016-2019, by tree cover the year 2000

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from NASA’s VIIRS sensor, and the Hansen Global Forest Change data set version 1.5,
where tree cover corresponds to canopy closure of vegetation taller than 5m.

While there may be a few fires caused by a fluke accident (such as a burning cigarette or a camp fire left by an irresponsible tourist), it is safe to suppose that by far the most likely culprits are the hundreds of thousands of farmers intentionally setting fire to the vegetation in Santa Cruz every year to prepare for the next agricultural season. The dramatic increase in fires just this last month suggests that the Supreme Decree and the meat export opportunities to China have indeed encouraged farmers to clear land more aggressively this year.


[1] We excluded all low-confidence observations from the analysis, as these might reflect glares from metal roofs or cars rather than actual fires.


* Lykke E. Andersen, Ph.D., Executive Director, SDSN Bolivia.

** Juan Carlos Ledezma, Scientific Manager, Conservation International Bolivia

*** Eduardo Forno, Director Ejecutivo, Conservation International Bolivia

The viewpoints expressed in the blog are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of their institutions. These posts are part of the project “Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia” that is currently carried out by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in Bolivia.

Deforestation and wildfires in Bolivia

Each year, towards the end of the dry season, Bolivian farmers burn forest and other vegetation to prepare for the next agricultural season. Slash-and-burn agriculture is a traditional farming technique that begins by cutting down the trees and woody plants in an area. The downed vegetation is then left to dry, and before the rainy season starts, the debris is burned, resulting in a nutrient-rich layer of ash which makes the soil fertile, and also temporarily eliminates weed and pest species. After some years of cultivation, nutrient contents fall and weed infestation increases, and the plot is left to grow into forest again. This practice works well on a small scale, but can be disastrous at a larger scale, and can accidentally cause out-of-control wildfires.

This is what Bolivia is suffering right now. Forest fires are ravaging more than 500,000 hectares in the Santa Cruz department, which is why the department has declared a state of emergency due to out-of-control wildfires. Particularly affected are the municipalities of Roboré, El Trigal, Pampa Grande, San Ignacio de Velasco and San Rafael who also declared themselves in a state of municipal emergency.

Due to the dry weather and strong winds, fires expand far beyond the plots on which fire was intended. Currently, human settlements and protected areas are also affected by forest fires, which are completely overwhelming the limited response capacity of the Departmental Emergency Operations Center (COED).

As we have seen repeatedly in the news lately, even rich countries with massive resources find it almost impossible to fight forest fires (1). Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that a few Bolivian helicopters, appointed to help put out the fire, will make a difference. Similarly, after more than a week of fires, it is difficult to know whether even the American Supertanker will have a significant effect. If the government of France couldn’t even protect their treasured Notre Dame in the middle of a wealthy city, the natural and human made treasures of the Chiquitania are facing long odds.

The current situation should not come as a surprise to anybody, though. Bolivia has been burning forests more and more aggressively for decades to expand the agricultural frontier. While intact Amazon rainforest is quite fire resistant, this is not the case for the fragmented forests at the drier areas at the border of the rainforest. If hundreds of thousands of hectares of transitional forests are intentionally burned, not only are huge amounts of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, but the habitat of the biodiversity that resides there is systematically destroyed. Moreover, as has been the case with other fires around the world, it is only a matter of time before fires come out of control and cause huge human, economic and cultural losses.

The question arises whether the benefit that the Bolivian society receives from the soy beans and livestock in Santa Cruz takes into account the costs of the enormous loss of biodiversity and environmental services. Not only would they have to be enough to pay the direct costs of the Supertanker rental, the countless hours of helicopter flights, the lost cattle heads, etc., but also the indirect costs that will arise after the fires, when those same regions experience stronger flooding and droughts due to the lack of vegetation cover to regulate the water cycle.

To reflect this threat, we are including several indicators related to deforestation in our Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia. We have updated all the indicators to include information from 2018.

Figure 1 shows how annual deforestation has increased in Bolivia from an average of about 150,000 hectares per year during the 1990s to almost 300,000 hectares per year during 2016-2018. These are averages over several years, since there is a lot of random variation from year to year, mostly due to climatic variations and the dynamics of land use, and these random variations obscure the overall trend. For example, 2016 represented the highest level of deforestation in Bolivia ever, with more than 417,000 hectares deforested, but the number fell to about 263,000 hectares in 2017 and 215,000 in 2018. But in 2019, it looks destined to increase again due to out-of-control wildfires. Thus, we believe that the averages over several years provide a better idea of the general trend.

Figure 1: Average annual deforestation in Bolivia, 1990-2018 (hectares/year)

Source: Authors’ estimation, based on the sources cited in the footnote (2).

In the rest of the article we will focus on data for the last three years (averaging 2016, 2017 and 2018) and explore in more detail which municipalities recently recorded high deforestation levels.

We present the data in three different ways:

  1. Absolute levels of deforestation (hectares);
  2. Deforestation rates (annual deforestation as a percent of forest in 2015), and
  3. Deforestation per capita (m2 deforested per inhabitant per year).

In each of the cases we present the 25 municipalities with the highest deforestation between 2016 and 2018.

The blue column in Table 1 shows the 25 municipalities with the highest levels of deforestation in absolute terms (hectares/year). These 25 municipalities are responsible for 80% of total deforestation in Bolivia between 2016 and 2018. Of these, 16 are located in the department of Santa Cruz, the rest comprise municipalities in the following departments: 4 in Beni, 3 in La Paz, 1 in Cochabamba and 1 in Tarija.

The yellow column shows the 25 municipalities with the highest rates of deforestation (% of the existing forest in 2015). 23 of the 25 municipalities with the highest rates of deforestation are located in the department of Santa Cruz, while the remaining two are located in the departments of Cochabamba and Pando.

Finally, the red column shows the 25 municipalities with the highest rate of deforestation per capita (m2/person/year). Again, we see that most of the municipalities on this list are located in the department of Santa Cruz, but there are also some in Beni, Pando and La Paz.

Table 1: The 25 Bolivian municipalities with the highest levels of deforestation between 2016 and 2018, according to the three deforestation  indicators.

Source: Elaborated by the authors.

Table 1 shows three different ways to measure the intensity of deforestation. High levels of deforestation in absolute terms can be justified if the municipality has a large population. However, if a municipality is on the list of municipalities that most deforest in all three columns, deforestation is certainly considered to be high in that municipality from any point of view. This means that in such municipalities the environmental impact will be great in the short term.

In total, 50 different municipalities have made it to one of the Top 25 lists of deforestation in Table 1 above, and 7 made it to all three lists. These 7 municipalities with high deforestation, by any measure, are all located in the department of Santa Cruz and they are the following:

  • San José de Chiquitos
  • Pailón
  • Santa Rosa de Sara
  • Cabezas
  • San Javier
  • Cuatro Cañadas
  • El Puente

Map 1 shows in how many, and in which dimensions, each municipality in Bolivia have made it to one of the Top 25 lists above. Each dimension is represented by one of the primary colours (blue, yellow, red), but if a municipality appears on more than one list, it is coloured in the composite colour that arises from mixing the two primary colours. There are a lot of purple coloured municipalities, for example, which implies that they are both on the red list (high per capita deforestation) and the blue list (high absolute levels of deforestation). The 7 municipalities that made it to all three lists are coloured in black.

Map 1: Municipalities listed on one or more of the three lists of municipalities that deforest the most in Bolivia, 2016-2018.

Source: Developed by the authors based on information from Table 1 above.

Three of the municipalities that are currently in a fire-induced emergency (Roboré, El Trigal, and Pampa Grande) were not among the worst deforesters themselves during 2016-2018, but they are located close to some of the worst deforesters, and, unfortunately for them, fire does not respect borders.


*The Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Bolivia

* Conservation International – Bolivia

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in Bolivia is currently preparing a Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia. It is a significant collaborative effort involving many different institutions. The viewpoints expressed in the blog are the responsibility of the authors and may not reflect the position of their institutions. Readers are encouraged to provide feedback to the overall coordinator of the Atlas, Dr Lykke E. Andersen, Executive Director of SDSN Bolivia at:


  1. For example, the Camp Fire in California last year destroyed about 60,000 hectares, but since it was close to densely populated areas, it was the most costly (USD 16.5 billion) and deadly (at least 86 persons died) in California’s history. The same year, British Columbia in Canada lost more than 3 million hectares to wildfires, breaking the record of the previous year, where 1.2 million hectares burned, and 65 thousand people were forced from their homes. This year, at least 3 million hectares of forest has burned in Siberia, causing massive CO2 emissions, but fortunately few human casualties.
  2. Data sources: Data for 1990-2010 are from SERNAP & CI (2013) Deforestación y regeneración de bosques en Bolivia y en sus Áreas Protegidas Nacionales para los periodos 1990-2000 y 2000-2010. La Paz: Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, Museo de Historia Natural Noel Kempff Mercado y Conservación Internacional – Bolivia. Data for 2011-2015 are from the Bolivian Ministry of Environment and Water (Sala de Observación – OTCA, Dirección General de Desarrollo Forestal y Autoridad de Bosques y Tierras 2017). Finally, data for 2016 to 2018 are from the Hansen Global Forest Change data set version 1.5.
    Note: Only municipalities with more than 0.1 km2 of forest have been included in this analysis.

Winning proposals: Transversal studies with actionable proposals

On July 11th, SDSN Bolivia launched a call for transversal studies with actionable proposals. It surprised us pleasantly when we received 23 proposals from 16 of our affiliate institutions. We must recognize that the quality of the proposals was very high in general terms, making the selection of the winning proposals a difficult task.

We must clarify that for confidentiality reasons, winning researchers may not reveal details about the data we will be sharing with them for the studies. However, when the time comes, we look forward to widely disseminating the results.

For the effort put into the proposals, we congratulate all the institutions and researchers who delivered them timely. The winners will have a very important task in order to provide the general public with inputs to make actions for development more efficient in Bolivia. But we also remind all our network members, that we will be needing their contribution in the near future, thus doors for inter-institutional cooperation will always remain open.

Finally, we officially announce the 12 winning proposals that will be taking on the task of deepening and making applicable the data and indicators of the Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia.