Bolivia's largest city Santa Cruz has seen fires destroy 2.5 million acres of forestland, with thick smoke closing in on the city
Most people have never heard of Bolivia. To be honest, until a year ago my only knowledge of the country was its appearance in the 1994 USA World Cup, when they lost 1-0 to Germany in the opening match in Chicago, a game I was lucky enough to be at.
Fast forward 25 years, and I have now been to Bolivia eight times in 12 months. La Paz, which at 3,650 metres above sea level is the highest city on the planet, is now my second home – and currently first home to my wife and three small children, as they take a year out of Dubai to learn a new language and culture.
Today, it is also the world’s forgotten country. While the tragic Amazon fires that have ripped through Brazil finally start to make headlines in the West, few people realise that the Amazon actually spreads into nine countries. Bolivia is on fire, with nearly 4,000 square miles affected. The fires have nearly doubled in size in the past week.
The country’s largest city, Santa Cruz – where I always change flights on route to La Paz – has seen the fires destroy 2.5 million acres of forestland, with thick smoke closing in on the city. Protests are breaking out in some cities as I write this. And around 500 different types of animals are in danger, with many thousands having been burned alive.
According to the BBC, these include jaguars, tapirs and 35 endangered species.
I have spent many weeks in the different parts of Bolivia’s Amazon rainforest, and to say it’s spectacular is an understatement. To see nature in its purest form is an experience I wish everyone could have. The warmth and hospitality of its people is second to none.
What is now happening to both the animals and the many thousands of indigenous people that live there, I have no idea. Most experts think it could take 200 years for the forests to return to the habitable state they were a month ago.
Anyway, I could go on and on about the unfolding tragedy. I could make a decent case as to why current President Evo Morales has a lot to answer for. But there is a wider question here, and one that most of my Bolivian friends constantly ask me whenever we speak: “Why does nobody give a damn?”
Well, maybe the answer is because there is no fancy cathedral like Notre Dame that is slapped bang in the middle of Santa Cruz.
Within two days of the Parisian cathedral catching fire in April this year, $994m had been raised from various sources for the rebuilding efforts. Salma Hayek’s husband François-Henri Pinault handed over $113m himself. Maybe the man behind Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent could throw in a fashion show to raise some more cash.
But at least that’s over five times more than the paltry $20m the entire G7 offered the Amazon in aid last week. I’ve often wondered what the point of the G7 is. Now I know. It is pointless. I’m quite a fan of Emmanuel Macron, but the way the French president has trapped himself into a row with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro – while the fires rage – really is politics at its worst.
I do notice that there is a growing sense of anger, even rage, across other countries at how the Amazon story has been largely neglected. The devastating environmental damage for generations to come is something best not to talk about. Best leave that to the next generation.
But ironically, the one place where you won’t find such anger and rage – just disappointment (at being the forgotten country) – is in Bolivia itself. In a country where 12 percent of the 9 million population live on $1.25 a day, most people have bigger things to worry about.
But the real tragedy is many of those making $1.25 a day have done so by working in the Amazon and its many associated industries. Many will soon be taking a pay cut.
In late September, my wife is planning a photo exhibition to help raise money for some of the fire victims. “This is a great idea,” I told one of the local organisers. “How much do you think we can raise?”
“I think if we can get 500 Bolivianos that would be amazing. We can start to make a difference,” he replied.
I’ll save you the trouble of going and getting out your currency converter, 500 Bolivianos is $72.