August 25, 2019 / 5:34 PM / 21 days ago

Bolivia president does about-face and will now accept aid to put out wildfires

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales did an about-face on Sunday and said he was now open to international aid to fight the blazes that have engulfed rural villages and doubled in size since Thursday.

Ricardo Ruiz sits as he refuses to leave his home due to an evacuation in San Lorenzo Community, an area where wildfires have destroyed hectares of forest, near Robore, Bolivia, August 24, 2019. REUTERS/David Mercado

Morales is also suspending his campaign for re-election for at least a week, just two months from election day, to focus on the wildfires.

The blazes burn unabated across vast swaths of hilly tropical forest and savannah near Bolivia’s border with Paraguay and Brazil. At least 1 million hectares, or approximately 3,800 square miles, have been impacted by the fires, officials said.

“There have been offers of aid,” Morales told reporters on a tour of some of the impacted areas. “They are welcome, be they from international groups, people or presidents.”

Morales’ government had been slow to accept the aid, initially saying it would use its own resources to fight the fires, but pleas from villagers and officials of Santa Cruz province led to an about-face. Argentina, Paraguay, Peru, Chile and Spain have all offered support.

“I’ve instructed the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Relations to see how they can be of help to put out these fires,” Morales said.

Television footage showed out-of-control flames and opaque clouds of smoke engulfing villages, scorching savannah and farm fields dotted with wavering palm trees and ripping across hillsides.

Bolivia late last week contracted a Boeing 747 “Supertanker” from the United States to help with the fire-fighting, and has mobilized more than 2,000 firefighters, as well as small aircraft and helicopters. But the area affected by wildfire has nonetheless nearly doubled since Thursday.

Political rivals accused Morales of a slow response. Some have said his rural development policies have contributing to the problem, as farmers set the forest alight to clear land for pasture and settlement.

Thousands of wildfires are also decimating the neighboring Brazilian Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. The blazes have nearly doubled this year compared with the same period in 2018, prompting global outrage.

The Amazon basin’s vast forests are widely seen by scientists as a buffer against climate change.

Bolivia’s portion of the Amazon, while not as extensive, remains heavily forested. The Andean nation is one of the poorest in the western hemisphere but one of the richest in biodiversity.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Monica Machicao, writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing Lisa Shumaker

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