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Recent Wildfires Across South America Highlight Disparities in International Disaster Responses

Hannah Hains | Latin America Fellow

Aerial view of the forest fire that affects the hills of the city of Videl Mar in the Las Pataguas sector, Chile. Taken 3 February 2024. Image credit: Arnaldo Botto via Flickr.

This February, Chile faced a record-breaking wildfire season. Fires engulfed the region of Valparaiso, killing approximately 131 people and injuring a further 1,100. An estimated 14,000 homes were destroyed, displacing more than 40,000 residents. The long-term health impacts from the smoke that covered much of the region remain to be seen. A month later, another wildfire struck the same region, killing two children. The widespread destruction caused by these fires is seemingly worse than Australia’s ‘Black Summer’ fires of 2019-20. Yet the international responses to the two events differed greatly, likely impacted by their positions in the Global North and Global South and their diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, it is imperative that equal attention is given to climate disasters across the globe, as international responses are critical to mitigating their fallout. 

During Black Summer, a total of 33 people were directly killed from the blaze, and a further 450 from smoke inhalation. The initial lives lost were much smaller than that of Chile’s, despite the latter affecting a significantly smaller region and occurring over a smaller time period. Furthermore, 3,000 homes were destroyed across Australia - less than a quarter of those lost in Valparaiso. 

Fires in Chile’s Valparaiso Region as seen from satellite imagery, 6 February 2024. Image credit: Michala Garrison (NASA Earth Observatory) via Wikimedia Commons.

While the Chilean fires were reported internationally, the fires across South America this year have not garnered the same attention on social media that Black Summer received. In January, fires tore through Argentina and Colombia. In February, the Amazon rainforest was ablaze, with record-breaking fires recorded across Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, and Suriname. In Brazil’s north, there were 2,606 fires recorded in the first two months of this year, compared with the 2023 total of 2,659. The extent of land damage and biodiversity loss is unknown, yet it is likely to be greater than that of Black Summer. For comparison: the Amazon rainforest alone is almost the size of Australia. 

International Reactions 

As of January 2020, the hashtag #australianbushfires had been shared on over 62,000 Instagram posts. At the time of writing this, the hashtags #chilefires, #chileanwildfires, and #chileanfires yield less than 500 collective posts, suggesting little social media outreach in the English-speaking world. While this is alone not a definitive marker of international reactions, especially when taking language barriers into consideration, it does suggest an international treatment disparity between both countries, despite their similarity in population size and susceptibility to catastrophic fire events in the last decade. 

The Amazon is not an anomaly in the international news cycle, which regularly features ongoing issues surrounding deforestation, narco activity, and Indigenous affairs in the region. The recent fires are just another crisis, fueled by soaring temperatures in the region. Thus, no apparent trend or hashtag has surfaced on social media to consolidate or draw attention to the fires across South America this summer. 

International Aid: Knowing thy Neighbour? 

Disparities can be also seen in responses from the international community to the recent fires in South America and Black Summer. Aside from celebrity campaigns and donations from billionaires, the outpouring of support given to Australia from other countries was overwhelming. The United States, New Zealand, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, France, and Canada offered firefighters, troops, and helicopters to help combat the fires. In contrast, in Chile this year, Mexico and Bolivia sent food and other supplies to the affected region, and the EU sent 250 emergency responders. It is unclear if further donations from other countries were received, and no public major donations were headed by foreigners.

This suggests that a country's diplomatic relations can make a critical difference in disaster management. International aid can be crucial in effectively responding to natural disasters, particularly when the impacted country (i.e. Chile) does not have sufficient resources to combat large-scale incidents. Chile has no state-owned fire department and relies solely on volunteers to make up its fire service. Many have expressed concern that such a vital service depends solely on volunteers and claim that its non-professional status means it is not transparent

What Lies Ahead

Climate change is evidently leaving many parts of South America and Australia more vulnerable to fires. However, the two continents will not be impacted equally. The Black Summer and 2024 Chilean wildfires show that quality and reliability of emergency services, international aid, and coordinated responses are crucial to minimising loss of lives, homes, and habitat. Reports suggest that Latin America will be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, with the region already made more vulnerable to poverty and instability by the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, they urgently need to develop their early climate warning systems and coordinate regional responses

Increased coverage on social and traditional media of regional stories, is integral to raising awareness, rallying support from citizens and non-government organisations and successfully demanding increases in governmental aid to South America. The climate crisis is an international one, and it lies in the interests of countries beyond the region to aid in South America’s disaster response and recovery operations in order to prevent loss of life, mass displacement and economic turmoil. It is vital that equal attention is given to climate-related disasters in the Global South and the Global North in order to ensure an equitable division of global resources. Though some countries are more vulnerable to climate disasters than others, it is in the best interests of all states to provide appropriate support to countries, regardless of their diplomatic relations.

Hannah Hains is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She recently completed her Bachelor of International Relations from The University of Adelaide and looks forward to undertaking postgraduate study in the future and investigating grassroots movements in Latin America.


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