From the ashes
“It was a pretty unusual hotel,” concedes photographer Juan Pablo Ampudia. Given that his fellow guests included a comatose anteater and a stir-crazy armadillo, this is quite the understatement. The accommodation in question is in Bolivia’s eastern Chiquitanía region, and when fires hit the surrounding rainforest this summer its owners, José Sierra and Claudia Mostejo, decided they had to do something to look after the animals that were being affected. So they closed their doors to most human guests and transformed the place into a makeshift animal sanctuary. The Biotermal Aguas Calientes Hotel became the Biotermal Rescue Center for Fire Victims.
Ampudia was there to document the results. “The hotel’s surroundings are magical, with hot springs and an incredible array of biodiversity,” he says. “José and Claudia are in love with the nature that surrounds them. So when the fires started they didn’t hesitate to help.”
Soon the hotel was home to a mix of biologists, veterinarians, firefighters and volunteers, all doing what they could to save the wildlife in their corner of the Amazon as it burned. “It was amazing to see,” says Ampudia. “This community improvising, doing anything and everything they could to help creatures that couldn’t help themselves.”
“The Amazon burns every year, but nothing compared to this summer,” says Ampudia, who has spent years travelling between Bolivia and Brazil documenting deforestation and the impact of the meat industry on the rainforest. “People told me the fires were the worst they’ve ever seen.” As of October four million hectares of rainforest – an area twice the size of Wales – had burned in the Chiquitanía region of eastern Bolivia alone and 14 fires continued to rage. New ones were still being lit to clear the land, in defiance of emergency environmental laws brought in over the summer.
Ampudia believes a number of factors explain why this year’s fires were so devastating. “It had
been a particularly dry summer,” he says. “But the agriculture industry and politics also play a part. A lot has been said about President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, how his politics have encouraged agriculture and industry to expand [into the Amazon] and how he responded to international criticism by saying, ‘It’s our Amazon. We can deal with it ourselves.’ But the political situation in Bolivia [where the same amount of land has been affected by burning] is also important.”
According to Ampudia, Bolivia’s October general election had an impact on the response to the fire. Then-president Evo Morales issued a decree in July 2019 that quadrupled the amount of land farmers could clear for agriculture, a process involving burning. The fires coincided with his campaign to win a fiercely contested fourth term in office. “He didn’t want to declare a national emergency and get international help,” claims Ampudia. “Because he didn’t want to look weak in front of the people.” Morales would claim a short-lived victory in the election before protests and military pressure forced him to resign in November.
In the absence of international aid, many Bolivians took matters into their own hands. “People from every town in the region were trying to put out the fires,” says Ampudia. “Brigades were formed from a mix of the police, the air force and volunteers from the local communities.”
The team at Biotermal embodied this unity. They took on jobs that ran from venturing into the forest to tackle the fires and look for survivors to tending to the sick animals that were found. Ampudia was amazed by the response of people of all ages, particularly the young.
“There were 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds going in to tackle the fires,” he says. “Young people understand the call
to action, they were the first ones to help.”
The rescue missions into the forest were not easy. There were far more remains of dead animals than there were survivors in need of aid, with even agile creatures such as monkeys unable to escape the flames. But the team was undeterred. “Even now [in October], they go every day to look for animals,” says Ampudia. “Every time it’s mostly ashes and skeletons.” But there is some hope among the devastation. So far scores of animals have been rescued and treated at the centre, including parrots, toucans, hawks and peccaries.
One of the most memorable patients was an anteater, who was christened Valentina. She was found in the forest alive, but severely dehydrated, disorientated and with third-degree burns on all four paws. Soon after rescuers brought her to the centre she fell into a coma. The situation looked grim, but the team refused to give up hope, administering painkillers, tending her wounds and monitoring her condition. When it became clear that the animal would need oxygen, a volunteer undertook a ten-hour round trip to pick up the nearest tank. According to Ampudia, “At the height of the fires, people were sleeping just three hours a day. They didn’t stop.” After 18 hours Valentina woke up. “It was an incredible thing to witness,” says Ampudia.
Six weeks later, Valentina is walking again and there is hope that she will soon be able to be released back into the wild, which is the plan for all the centre’s patients. For some creatures freedom can’t come soon enough. “There was an armadillo and you just couldn’t keep him in a cage,” says Ampudia. “He was so strong he broke through everything. It took four people to get him into place when he was finally well enough to be released.”
Ampudia found that the releases of animals back into the forest attracted a lot of attention. “Suddenly everyone was there: politicians, officials, the media,” he says. “It was funny to watch, because while they were trying to get their photo op the armadillo was going crazy in the background. I remember one of the biologists saying to me, ‘Yeah, but what’s going to happen after the election? Because now everyone wants to be in a picture, but after the election will they still care about these animals?’”
Sadly their cynicism seems to have been well founded. While a number of animal shelters were opened by the Ministry of Environment during the fires, by 20th October they’d all closed. Only Biotermal remained. “All the animals from the other centres are being transferred to Biotermal,” says Ampudia. “It’s a challenge.”
José Sierra and Claudia Mostejo remain focused on their goal. They are seeking to turn their temporary animal rescue shelter into a permanent fire-victim centre and wildlife park, to run alongside the hotel. They hope that if they are successful, they’ll be able to unlock government funding allowing them to install adequate equipment and employ permanent staff. In the meantime, they continue to rely on their own savings, a crowdfunder campaign set up by Ampudia and the kindness of volunteers.
The good news is that the rainy season is coming, which should extinguish the remaining fires. Until next year. “It will be a time for the rainforest to heal a little bit,” says Ampudia, “but things won’t really change unless the underlying causes are addressed”.
For Ampudia this includes the way that the agriculture industry operates across Bolivia and Brazil. “From what I’ve seen, 80 to 85 percent of the fires in the Amazon are started because of agriculture,” he says. “The rainforest is not only cleared to create pasture for cattle, but also to grow soy that is used for animal feed. It’s really alarming because it’s not going to stop; it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry and it is growing, and now the consumption threatens to overwhelm us.” Ampudia believes that the only way for the Amazon to be protected is to look for other ways it can contribute economically as well as environmentally. “It’s not realistic to think it will be left alone for purely ecological reasons,” he says. “We need to figure out how to make the Amazon profitable but in a way that doesn’t do the same amount of damage as agriculture.”
He also believes we all need to play our part, by eating less meat and checking the meat we do eat is responsibly farmed. “Like the rescue effort, it starts with people,” he concludes. “We all need to open our eyes and really ask the question of where our food comes from and what is its real cost.”
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