NGO: Forest fires in Bolivia burn Switzerland-sized area

An environmental group says that forest fires have consumed more than 3.1 million hectares in just over a month in Bolivia, including areas in the South American nation's Amazon region

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Fires have consumed more than 3.1 million hectares (12,000 square miles) of forests and grasslands in just over a month in Bolivia, according to an environmental group, with the blazes affecting the South American country's Amazon region.

The Friends of Nature Foundation said the burned area is the size of Switzerland and its estimates are based on satellite images. In its report, it said that since January fires have burned 4.1 million hectares (15,800 square miles), including 3.1 million hectares since farmers and ranchers began burning pastures in August.

Bolivia neighbors Brazil, where fires raging in the Amazon have caused international anger and led to criticism of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's environmental policies. But most of Bolivia's fires are in dry forests, prairies and farmland in its southeastern Chiquitanía region although some are affecting its Amazon. The vast Chiquitanía region joins the Bolivian and Bolivian Amazon rainforests.

According to the foundation, in Chiquitanía, 1.4 million hectares of burned area "corresponds to forested areas and the rest to non-forested areas."

The government of Santa Cruz province, where most of the fires are taking place, said 2.7 million hectares have been burned in the province.

Authorities in Bolivia say farmers and ranchers start fires to renew pastures and clear land but the blazes got out of control this year due to a drought and strong winds that the government attributes to climate change. Critics say a decree issued by Morales' government in July allowing controlled burns for agricultural purposes contributed to the disaster.

Thousands of soldiers, police and volunteers are battling the blazes, along with two fire-fighting tanker planes from the United States and Russia.