Bolivia's New Beginning - Andres Maclean

In 2019 Bolivia was plunged into a deepening crisis. Firstly, Wildfires ripped across the Chiquitanía region for three months. The global community seemed to take no notice of the ecological catastrophe taking place, and with the slow, corrupt, and incompetent government under Evo Morales, the wildfires quickly escalated to a scale of national emergency. 2 million animals dead and 5 million hectares turned to ash are the repercussions of Bolivia’s most deadly fire. To make matters worse, Evo Morales was running for president for the fourth time, despite being denied to run after a 2016 referendum. During these 2019 elections, it was clear Morales had committed fraud and had undermined the basis of democracy. What followed was one of the most united, inspiring, and peaceful civic movements in history. In just 21 days, a united Bolivia was able to restore democracy. We were able to reach out to a Bolivian photographer called Andres Maclean, who documented these crises, and was able to get an insight into his views and experiences on these matters.

About Andres Maclean

Andres is from Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He is also known as the Bolivian Traveller and has lived in more than four countries. His photography career has led him to travel around the world, photographing different cultures and Earth’s geographical diversity, which he thinks is “one of the most important lessons” one can experience. He also frequently works with companies, helping produce works that often show Bolivia’s cultural diversity and natural beauty.

Photographed by Andres Maclean

Photographed by Andres Maclean

La Chiquitania Fires

Ex-president Evo Morales introduced a series of policies, allowing farmers to clear more land by controlled burning – quadrupling the limit from 5 to 20 hectares. However, even when the fires were undoubtedly out of control, Morales avoided international aid at all costs, placing his campaign first rather than governing Bolivia. Realising the lack of documentation and consciousness of the fires, which were quickly escalating, Andres travelled to the Chiquitanía region to raise awareness and begin to document the dire situation.

“At one point, there were more than 1 million hectares burnt, and if you typed on google ‘Bolivian fires’, I didn’t see any articles even after scrolling to the 6th page. One million hectares burnt and not even a bit of media coverage. This is the part when you realise that you have a large community on social media and that I can use it to communicate something bigger and make an impact.”

Photographed by Andres Maclean

After arriving in the Chiquitanía region, Andres started documenting the fires with his camera. Besides documenting the fires and shedding light on the situation, Andres was able to go a step further and begin to help combat the fires directly through the use of his drone. “You would imagine that the fires are so big that you can see them from everywhere, but that’s not the case, and that’s when the drones became useful. We were able to give the firefighters coordinates. With the drone, we were able to be more accurate than ever and tell the firefighters the type of fire, where it starts and where it ends, and helping them be more organised and more effective.”

Photographed by Andres Maclean

Fighting fires can be excruciating. It is not only physically demanding but also mentally. Wildfires don’t tend to just go away quickly; it requires a lot of effort for a long period of time to make them subside. On top of that, there was no rain for three months, and with temperatures occasionally reaching 40ºC, the fires were exacerbated and engulfed the Chiquitanía region, resulting in huge efforts and sacrifices from those helping on the frontline.

“Every single day, we were going to three or four different spots to help the firefighters. We would come back at midnight and leave at 8 in the morning, and we did that for eight days in a row. Sometimes, it was very depressing because even if you went there to fight the fire for 9 hours, it ultimately still beats you. Also, during this time everyone wants to help and become a volunteer firefighter, and at this point they were training volunteer firefighters for 4 hours before sending them off. Fighting the fires was not an easy job, especially if you have only been trained for 4 hours, and it was very intense, which is why most of the people that died were volunteers.”

Photographed by Andres Maclean Photographed by Andres Maclean

Las Pititas

Subsequent to the fires, Bolivia went through a turbulent time following Evo Morales’ disregard of democracy after circumventing term limits as he sought to be the country’s leader for the fourth time. The Organisation of American States conducted an audit that found “clear manipulation” during the 2019 elections. Bolivia quickly united, and a peaceful civic movement known as “las Pititas” resulted in Evo Morales’ government being removed and the restoration of democracy. Although Andres was not actually in Bolivia at the time, we still talked about the experiences of witnessing this movement as a viewer.

“The role that not only photography had but also social media was crucial because it tended to be able to resonate more with the people and was easier for everyone to unite behind a common cause. It was important for me as a viewer to not only depend on the news and general media but on the people that were actually documenting minute by minute what was happening. There was a lot of fake information which lead to panic, and so it was very important to share information that was true and to check sources, which ultimately helped keep the movement peaceful.”

Andres also mentioned that he was “very proud, not only because of what happened but how it actually happened. As Latinos, we tend to be very passionate about everything and in Bolivia, that is very noticeable. I was incredibly proud that it maintained peaceful.” Many Bolivians, including myself, feel this way, and their voices were truly heard, from chants such as “nadia se cansa, nadie se rinde” (which translates to no one gets tired, no one gives up), to maintaining peaceful protests across all nine departments of Bolivia. Las Pititas was instrumental in restoring Bolivia’s democracy, and it was something that “other countries such as Haiti and Hong Kong have been trying to do for over a year, but we were able to achieve it in 3 weeks, and that has to be maintained.”

It’s without a shadow of a doubt that 2019 was a roller-coaster of a year for Bolivia. Nevertheless, as a Bolivian myself, I have never been so proud of my country and what it has been able to achieve. Sometimes people have this negative perception of Bolivians due to the current stereotypes surrounding the country, but to me, 2019 was the epitome of how resilient and unified Bolivians can be in times of adversity. Andres Maclean is a great example of this and how you can use your skills and social media platform to not only raise awareness but also make a direct positive impact. Photography, along with many other mediums, proved to be crucial in helping raise awareness of the Chiquitanía’s wildfires when there wasn’t a shred of media coverage. As Bolivia moves into unchartered waters with the upcoming elections and the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, the role of mediums, such as photography, has never been so important in raising awareness. Thankfully, there are inspiring individuals like Andres who realise this and seek to make the world a better place through the lens of photography.

Written by Matias.