A sloth smiles, supporting itself on a branch with its three claws without sensing what is coming. It has just finished eating a few leaves and it readies itself for its never-ending nap to help along digestion.
Sloths are the slowest mammals on Earth. Their lives of repose have allowed them to survive for 64 million years, much longer than humans and other more agile animals.
The fire remains unseen but travels at the speed of the wind. The sloth sleeps.
Slashing and burning
The politicians exclaim that “the fire was an accident". In 2019, how can there be an accidental fire that razes 957,000 hectares (3,700 square miles)? This is sixty times the area of Bolivia’s capital of La Paz. It’s almost the entirety of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).
A fire of these dimensions is not the product of one or one hundred accidents; it is the product of thousands of fires all started in recent days.
Every year there is chaqueo - slashing-and-burning - but this time it has been multiplied a thousand-fold by the government’s call to expand the agricultural frontier. Ethanol and biodiesel require hundreds of thousands of hectares for inputs like sugar cane and soy.
To this, add meat exports to China which require millions of hectares of pasture for cattle. There are also the political land grants and illegal settlements in forest areas. What is happening is no accident.
Five years ago, the vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera challenged Bolivian agro-industrialists to expand the agricultural frontier by one million hectares (3,860 square miles, or two-thirds of Connecticut) per year. That target figure has been reached, but with lands devastated by fire, not productive agricultural lands.
The fire approaches. First a spark, then another. Ash falls on the fur that camouflages the sloth. It wakes, confused, without understanding what is happening. It feels burning pinpricks and lets out a painful moan as it slowly moves in search of refuge.
This is Bolivia. The country where Mother Earth has rights. Where there is a law that says forests, rivers and sloths have the right to life and to “maintain the integrity of the life systems and natural processes which sustain them.”
A country where contradiction is in power. Where the president gives speeches at international meetings in defence of Pachamama, the Mother Earth revered by the indigenous people of the Andes, while in Bolivia the rights of Mother Earth are violated. A country where in just 24 hours the parliament unanimously approves a law for the massive expansion of biofuel production.
Not a single parliamentarian speaks for the forests that, even then they are crackling at more than 300 degrees centigrade. The legislators all celebrated Bolivia’s entry into the era of biofuels. The same happened with the export of meat to China. None demanded prior environmental impact studies.
Of all the ways to die, the most painful is by fire. Feeling your skin char, the flames invading even your bone marrow and screaming until your voice melts, you plead for cardiac arrest.
In the times of the inquisition witches and heretics were burned at the stake. Today human bonfires are prohibited. Since World War II and the Nazi Holocaust, the cremation of the living is considered a crime against humanity. No government would consider promoting policies of human incinerations, yet torching other living beings is on the rise in various countries on Earth.
The fires this year are the product of a reelection strategy for national elections to be held in October. From a prior position of opposition to biofuels, the government flipped 180 degrees – without even blushing – to promoting ethanol and biodiesel as “green energy” sources.
The idea is to grow agribusiness of Bolivia’s eastern lowlands to win their support in the elections. The same with the cattle producers, and large refrigerated shipping companies. Following the example of Paraguay which devastated their forests to feed cattle, the Bolivian government cleared agribusiness a pathway to export meat to China.
The dry leaves start to catch fire. The sloth hangs, climbing in slow motion until it reaches another tree. Anguish is reflected in its face. Smoke filling its lungs, it breathes with difficulty. Without hurrying or pausing it continues its climb. Occasionally wavering, it’s sustained by claws and survival instinct.
The candidates, who have said little or nothing about deforestation, biofuels and meat exports, run to the disaster areas for photo opportunities. Among themselves they look for who to blame, but no one wants to point to the development model of agribusiness in the eastern lowland capital of Santa Cruz, which is responsible for most of Bolivia’s deforestation.
In 2015, of the 240,000 hectares deforested in Bolivia, 204,000 hectares were in Santa Cruz. In 2012, when deforestation in Santa Cruz stood at 100,000 hectares, 91 percent was illegal. By 2017, with a stroke of the pen the government had declared legal one-third of that deforestation.
Nature should not be burned at the stake, legally or illegally. Setting fire to a forest or other living beings, human or not, is a crime that degrades the human condition.
The sloth reaches the top of the highest tree, an imposing mapajo (ceiba pentandra) 70 meters tall. The horizon is in flames. It is said the sloth lives slowly to not die fast. Now all depends on the fortitude of a 300-year-old tree.
Hopefully the winds will help. No chance of rain. In the distance the President’s helicopter flies over the inferno. He talks of evacuating people without uttering a word about the sloth or the other beings of Mother Earth.
In a few days the candidates will return to campaigning, some to challenge totalitarianism and others to camouflage it, but none to denounce the anthropocentric totalitarianism we carry inside.
Pablo Solon is former Bolivian ambassador to the UN. This article was first published in Spanish in Rascacielo (Skyscraper), the Sunday magazine of Pagina Siete. The article was translated by Tom Kruse.