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Climate Change

Apocalypse Bolivia: Amazon on Fire

by Alec Loftus
November 16, 2021

One man’s trip to the Bolivian Rainforest turns out to be more than he bargained for.

I’m in the bus depot in the border town of Guayaramerin, Bolivia wondering if I should bite the bullet and take the 24-hour bus south to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. 

Wait, what’s to ponder? There’s no other way out of town. I’m just dreading this bus ride as I contracted a bad stomach bug while staying at my “Eco-Resort” in Guayaramerin, and the lady at the counter tells me our bus has no bathroom. 

People say don’t hang around border towns, now I know why.

I buy my ticket and get on the bus which has a large Iron Man decal on the side. It’s morning and already 90 degrees out as our non-A/C equipped coach rolls out, packed with passengers on top and goods below.

The passengers are all locals, some very young-looking parents with babies and quite a few seniors chatting away in Spanish. I’m the only gringo, which has been the case for the past four months traveling through Brazil and now Bolivia in the wake of COVID-19.

Out my window, to the left, I’m watching the landscape change from dusty border town to massive cattle farms. These are ten times as big as any farm I’ve seen in my home state of Wisconsin — and that’s the Dairy State, don’ cha’ know?

 

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These Bolivian cows are tall and skinny and look ghastly white as they graze under the punishing sun. 

According to the map we’re supposed to be driving through the Bolivian Amazonica Reserve but I see no rainforest in sight, just massive cattle ranches. I’m guessing each is about a mile wide and 20 miles long, and they’re lined up back-to-back for more than a hundred miles.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, just as the sun’s hitting directly overhead, Iron Man breaks down alongside the dusty road. The driver comes out to survey the situation sporting a T-shirt that says “American Nurses Week 2016.” 

The engine has conked out and at some point we lost our entire front end. Now there’s just a giant gap from the windows to the wheels. I get off with the other passengers and we all huddle under the shade of two small trees.

The young and wired-looking assistant driver jumps out with a cheek stuffed full of Coca leaves. He grabs some tools, dives under the bus and has Old Iron Man back in action in 45 minutes.

Finally the sun is setting and providing some relief. But now I smell something charred wafting in, like the remnants of a barbecue or campfire. I look out the window and see miles upon miles of freshly-scorched farmland.

Just at dawn comes we are rolling through real jungle terrain for the first time. It’s dense and green with trees twisting up in the elegant orgy that I’ve come to love during my month traveling the Amazon.

Nature’s beauty is quickly broken though as smoke billows up into the bus and my eyes start to water. I see a patch of flames glowing off in the distance and then more small fires emerge in patches of orange surrounding the bus. 

Then Bolivian President Evo Morales helps firefighters try to control a fire near Charagua, Bolivia, in the border with Paraguay, south of the Amazon basin; Getty

Then Bolivian President Evo Morales helps firefighters try to control a fire near Charagua, Bolivia, in the border with Paraguay, south of the Amazon basin; 

Getty

For a second I naively wonder if these are natural fires, with it being so hot and dry outside. My innocence is lost as I see a man walk into the jungle with a barrel of gasoline and a torch. 

He lights it up under the cover of darkness.

Now we’re driving through a blistering inferno. Out my window a neatly set line of fire cuts through the forest like a flaming scimitar. 

A terrible feeling washes over me and I look to see if the other passengers are just as shocked. One woman is looking out the window concerned, but others are just playing with their babies or staring down at their phones, texting and playing games.

I later read that nearly 600 square miles on the Bolivian Amazon were burned in the first half of 2021 alone, blazing through indigenous lands and killing countless animals. This region, which which recently functioning as the lungs of the planet, is now emitting more carbon than it takes in, according to a recent study in Nature

Much of the burnings are illegal, but many are still sanctioned by the Bolivian government all part of its plan to create enough cattle farms to become the premier beef supplier to China.

Now I’m starting to understand why these tech billionaires are building rockets to Mars. My head is swirling as I attempt to sleep for a few hours. I awake at the crack of dawn as our bus comes to a halt in front of a roadblock of protesters sitting on a massive tree trunk in the road. 

They’re drinking booze, waving flags and shooting fireworks into the dawn sky. I can’t quite figure out what they’re protesting but I give them a “thumbs up” hoping it's something to do with the rainforest. 

We park the bus in front of some roadside shacks selling Coca leaves, Coca-Cola, and camouflage gear. Out of boredom I buy a small bag of the Coca leaves mixed with powdered sugar for five Bolivianos, which is less than a dollar. 

I stuff them in my cheek, get a little buzz, and then quickly spit them in disgust.

After five hours of waiting, the protesters disperse we are finally back on the road. As we approach Santa Cruz the landscape changes to massive factories producing plastic, paper, chemicals and grains.

Now it’s somehow evening time again (wasn’t this supposed to be a 24-hour ride?) and more protesters are blockading the streets. 

I learn that they’re fighting the government’s plan to warrantlessly access citizens’ bank accounts and imprison a former president, among other sins. But unfortunately no protests about burning down the rainforest to sell steaks to China.

Finally, just as the sun is setting for the second time, our bus rolls into the city. After more than 900 miles, an engine breakdown, an apocalyptic inferno, and several revolutionary roadblocks we’re finally in Santa Cruz.

Old Iron Man made it in 35 hours — a mere 11 hours past schedule.

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