A Belated Happy World Environment Day, President Morales

Evo Morales Ayma, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, has many promises and expectations to fulfill as viewed by his fellow indigenous. During his two terms in office, he has created many new opportunities for Bolivia’s native people, by enforcing the government’s new constitution and promoting social and political equality. One of his most momentous undertakings has been his stance on climate change and environmental responsibility. Morales’ ascent to power is historically significant to Bolivia, a country with an explosive history of social and ethnic inequality. His party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) represents a myriad of social groups and interests and has enjoyed a strong support group among poor, rural, indigenous Bolivians. Morales has offered hope to indigenous communities in his nation, but some skepticism exists over whether he has been true to his roots or if his newfound political power has worn away at his connection to his people.

Since Morales’ initial election in 2005, Bolivia has been renamed the Plurinational State of Bolivia in recognition of the diverse indigenous groups that inhabit the country. Many of these campesinos are involved in small-scale farming, making their connection to the land vitally important to them because it is their lifeblood. The Bolivian economy relies heavily on agriculture and the mining industry. Its thinning natural resources today are among the most sought after by the outside world and also are among the most rapidly consumed. For example, Bolivia is among the world’s top twenty exporters of natural gas, but the country still manages to suffer from the “Resource Curse:” it contains an abundance of resources, but based on its export book value, remains one of the poorest developing countries in the hemisphere.

Each region has its own distinct environmental problems, with oil and gas extraction affecting much of the lowlands while extensive mining is to be found in the highlands. These pursuits and resulting issues are not necessarily limited to their point of origin. The pollution caused by mining waste in one region can be carried downstream by a river, poisoning fisheries in a distant area. The air pollution caused by the burning of forests in the lowlands may affect the rainfall of a region in the highlands, further hurting farmers trying to make a living there. The environmental problems they face are intricate, and often crushing, and are too often caused by forces entirely outside of Bolivia, both in developed and developing nations.

Environment & Economy

On the face of it, Bolivia is a poor country possessing a wealth of natural resources. As a result, mineral extraction and exportation is one of its most important industries. Bolivia contains mines where lead, tin, and silver are to be found, as well as an abundance of natural gas and timber. The land was exploited for silver and tin for over five centuries under Spanish colonial rule. During this period, Bolivian silver and tin enriched the Spanish viceroyalty of Upper Peru but the indigenous of the region obtained no reciprocal benefits. The economy of Bolivia is still heavily based on exporting minerals: 80% of its exports are attributable to mineral extraction. After being brought to the surface, the minerals are then sent abroad to be refined by major foreign corporations. As a result, up to now the Bolivian economy has been denied significant access to the refining and finishing functions where the real profits are to be made. The future of extraction in Bolivia rests in the hands of its policymakers who recognize the potential that could come from processing a range of the commodities as well as introducing newly identified resources, such as lithium, to improve the nation’s economy. Silver and tin mines of the past helped make Europe rich, but Bolivia is now looking for ways to make itself wealthy, and lithium could prove to be the way out of its traditional economic stagnation.

In addition to its vast altiplano area, Bolivia is home to 440,000 square kilometers of rainforest. From its timber sector it makes upwards of $130 million in profits yearly, which represents 7% of the country’s total exports. Although the timber industry, in relation to other sectors of the Bolivian economy, is relatively modest, it manages to destroy large areas of the Bolivian rainforest and impairs the economic progress of a number of indigenous communities. Indigenous environmental activists, as well as environmentalists worldwide, see forests as more than just a source of lumber: forests are habitats and homes, and vast sources of oxygen. Forests provide food, water, plants and animals that are essential to the livelihood of the Amazonian populations.

Bolivians also have to grapple with the problems of land depletion and pollution. Farms use unsustainable cultivation tactics, such as the slash and burn method, and allow their animals to overgraze the land. The overuse of land for agricultural purposes has caused desertification, creating unavoidable problems for future generations of farmers. Bolivian workers and farmers have seen the results of pollution emitting from the growing number of factories and mines, invidiously affecting their air and water. Additionally, the results of global warming have caused unsuitable conditions for traditional crops, such as oca potatoes, which are now being infested by pests which flourish under hot and dry conditions. The fact that Bolivia is a landlocked country with very limited access to water resources furthermore exacerbates the people’s water woes.

Bolivia lost its coastal access to the Pacific Ocean in 1879 as a result of the War of the Pacific, when it was forced to cede its coastline to Chile. However, it is home to over a hundred lakes, including the world’s highest navigable body of water, Lake Titicaca. Bolivia’s rivers provide water to hundreds of communities. However, environmentalists are concerned that these rivers are fast becoming severely polluted by the solvents and chemicals used in the mining industry. Water pollution due to waste disposal also has caused profound health problems in some of the poorest Bolivian communities, including the indigenous communities of the Selva as well as the highland areas where Quechua and Aymara speaking inhabitants live. Furthermore, the alarming matter of glacial retreat in the Bolivian highlands is beyond dispute a result of global warming. Bolivians are witnessing their glaciers melting and disappearing, diminishing their future water sources.

“The Gold of the 21st Century”

Not hydropower, not oil, but lithium: the mineral is expected to change the face of energy production in the coming decades. Lithium is used in cell phones, electric cars, and laptops, with Bolivia having the largest known reserve of the mineral in the Western Hemisphere, with its source located in the Salar de Uyuni desert. However, the full effects of extracting lithium could result in pollution of the land, air, and water. Bolivia is determined to start up lithium mining, production, and exports in a process that could cost billions of dollars to launch, but would also likely yield enormous profits once operational. Bolivian authorities recognize lithium’s important potential, and are determined to milk the product’s economic impact for all it is worth, as well as create a competitive market for lithium extraction among developing nations, for instance, Afghanistan. The full dimensions of lithium deposits in other nations have yet to be established should the industry expand.

The local indigenous population is wary of letting lithium become another tin or silver- a resource that enriches foreign enterprises and local elites, but does nothing to alleviate Bolivia’s poverty or benefit nearby indigenous communities. Instead, the government would rather plan, lay out, and control the industry, where Bolivian state corporations or foreign investors will not only mine the resource, but will also industrialize the entire area, as well as create jobs, and stimulate the entire Bolivian economy. The impoverished people of Bolivia have been sold out in the past by greedy local politicians who promised growth through industrialization but allowed a host of international entities to exploit the natural resources of the country, accompanied by pay-offs to themselves, but no lasting benefits to the nation. Currently, there are many interested parties who hope to set up camp and do business in Bolivia. The Bolivian lithium industry is still in the early stages and the government is hesitant to accept any proposals just yet. If La Paz manages to effectively use lithium to the nation’s advantage, lithium profits could be a huge boost to the country’s economy. It could mean constructive economic changes for Bolivia, but would have no direct impact on poor Bolivians unless it creates new jobs and retains the bulk of the earnings within the country.

Therefore, the Bolivian people would be disadvantaged by the hasty and ill-advised growth of the lithium industry. While lithium extraction could allow for development and job creation, it will not necessarily provide a quick fix for Bolivia’s economy. When lithium deposits in one region are exhausted, the industry will move on, leaving impoverished peasants behind. Unfortunately, this pattern is not a new one to the people of Bolivia. They and their ancestors have worked in mines for centuries, and each day is a step closer to the depletion of the mines without sustainable benefits to them or their families. The effects of over mining include mountain collapse, contamination of water and air, deterioration of the surrounding land, mud slides and sink holes, dispersal of chemicals into the air and water, the destruction of animal habitats, and providing inadequate housing conditions for indigenous peoples.

Indigenous People

The indigenous people of Bolivia include a number of ancient peoples from the mountains, rainforests, and fertile plains. The two largest groups living in the nation’s mountainous highlands are the Quechua and the Aymara peoples. In the east, the lowlands are home to multiple indigenous groups, the largest being the Guarani. Roughly stated, the indigenous people of Bolivia hold a majority of 55% of the population, while Mestizos compose 30% and people of European origins represent 15% of the population. This demographical advantage has been important to the Movimiento al Socialismo’s widespread success, deriving from its numerical majority.

Bolivia is a country of strong social movements. The MAS has taken various related social movements and combined them into one relatively cohesive party. More often than not, indigenous groups are frustrated that their labor and land are exploited and are eager to be counted after having been marginalized for centuries. Even after such exploitation and marginalization, indigenous Bolivians have strong beliefs about their land and their rights. Indigenous opinion is varied: some see the need for the extraction industries to put food on their tables. Others in the agriculture and tourism industries will see their jobs possibly jeopardized by increased extraction. Bolivians are hard workers, and their opinions are mainly based on economic motives rather than purely environmental ones.

Past governments have welcomed foreign investments in an effort to industrialize the country. But this is not to say that all environmental problems affecting the Bolivian people are of the county’s own making. Bolivians often have earned the right to be worried that they are bearing the brunt of adverse climate change. According to 2006 estimates, the country’s CO2 emissions are 1.2 metric tons per capita. This is a minute contribution when compared to the United States’ total emissions, which in 2006 were 19.3 metric tons per capita. Demonstrably, the real culprits of climate change are the developed countries, and the poorest, especially indigenous, people of developing countries are faced with this fact. These populations are trying to figure out a strategy to react to climate change without worsening their economic situations. Dr. Thomas Perreault of Syracuse University, who is a specialist in indigenous social movements, notes that climate change is a “problem that they have to deal with but is not of their own making.”

Morales’ Mission

Many world leaders are prepared to talk the talk when it comes to environmental action, delivering speeches about defending the Earth, but often failing to support their words with tough deeds. Morales seems ready to take action, making climate change a key issue in his foreign relations portfolio. He has recently traveled to several European countries to speak with leaders there, and climate change has been at the forefront of these encounters. Morales has become a defender of the rights of Mother Earth, or Pachamama in both Aymara and Quechua, and has been bringing the indigenous case around the world in interviews and meetings, such as that with the Pope on May 17, and with the president of Finland on May 21. These diplomatic occasions have occurred one month after Morales staged the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Tiquipaya, Bolivia.

Evo Morales sees Bolivian culture in black and white: Western, capitalist oriented presuppositions in contrast to traditional indigenous culture. In the past, most of the political and economic power in Bolivia, as in much of Latin America, rested with the values and aspirations of the white elite. The election of Morales created quite a stir both in the region and abroad. A self made man coming from the most humble of origins as a llama herder in a poor farming family, Morales used his image as a man of the Aymara people to garner enough support to win the presidency in 2005. Morales began his term with the support of an estimated 54% of the nation’s vote, which rose to 63% of the ballot as he won his second term. Morales’ poor rural background has often caused him to have fractious moments with mainstream Bolivian culture and the tribunes of the country’s economic affairs.

Morales was elected in 2005 after running on three major campaign planks: land reform to benefit small farmers, nationalization of many of Bolivia’s industries, and a new constitution that would recognize the rights of indigenous communities. So far, all of these commitments to one degree or another have been met. Morales was given the title of “Apu Mallku,” or Supreme Leader of the Aymara people in 2006, further proof of his nearly limitless support among indigenous groups.

One of MAS’s major problems is that it is a confederation of varying social movements. As such, its proponents have demanded different things from the party. When united, the movement is strong. However, it may have posited too many ideals to which it must relate and too many schools of thought whom it must satisfy. The party’s strength in numbers may ultimately become its weakness as sharp divisions develop over such rancorous issues as nationalization and land reform.

Morales’ presidency has been fraught with controversy and inconsistent environmental policies. He declares himself an anti-capitalist, but holds the role of private enterprise in achieving his country’s economic success as being close to his heart. He claims loyalty to the indigenous communities within Bolivia, but has certain preferences among them. He continues to be the president of the Coca Growers’ Union, mainly made up of indigenous cocaleros, along with other rural farmers, and continues to ardently defend the rights of coca growers.

Nonetheless, Morales has been severely criticized for his often counterproductive dialogue concerning environmental and economic policy. On one hand, he has characterized himself as a ferocious environmentalist, but his administration has supported construction projects that seem to be intuitively anti-environmental in nature, such as a transoceanic highway through some of the county’s most important ecological treasures. Bolivia’s continued reliance on the development of its fossil fuels also does not contribute to a greener reality. The bulk of the environmental community’s protests are of the use of seismic testing, drilling, mining, and the construction of hydroelectric dams on traditionally indigenous terrain. The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia, or CIDOB, accuses the government of using “dishonest and corrupt consultation methods” to gain the approval of indigenous communities to begin these projects. Should these “megaprojects” come about, they will drastically alter the traditions as well as the futures of these indigenous groups living within the Amazon and the Chaco, threatening to deplete the rivers and forests upon which their lifestyles presently rely.

Environmentalism among politicians is rarely without economic or political consequences as well as motivations. 60% of Bolivians are living below the poverty line and many are worried about losing their land and their livelihoods. In the past, Morales’ anti-capitalist jargon has resonated with his people, while vilifying capitalist nations (principally the U.S.) and stressing the urgency of the situation have been successful tactics for him to manipulate public opinion. Morales commitment to environmental affairs comes from a culture which has very close ties to the earth, but his administration has not been free from accusations of hypocrisy or internal contradiction on environmental issues. His policies on such environmental issues demonstrate a mixed record. His rhetoric is popular among environmentalists, especially in the western media, as well as rural workers adversely affected by climate change. Despite the movement’s popularity, evaluating the efforts of Morales’ administration reveals that much of his environmental policy is meant to benefit MAS’ main political base in the highlands and among coca growers, and not always indicate conditions in the country or the actual policy which Morales will end up following.

The People’s World Conference on Climate Change

Concerned Bolivians are not only worried about environmental issues facing their own country- they understand that what poses a danger in other countries could eventually affect Bolivia. Morales has used a number of public occasions to reiterate his desire for nations to help one another to protect the entire planet. His name has been associated with a number of new indigenous grassroots environmental movements which reflect the belief that capitalism is the root cause of Earth’s environmental problems, such as climate change and dwindling resources. “We have two paths: to save capitalism, or to save Mother Earth,” claimed Morales this past April during the “People’s World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights.” This conference represented an important response to the recent climate talks in Copenhagen in which world leaders gathered to discuss climate change but ended up making no transformative decisions. No official representatives from Bolivia attended Copenhagen, as Morales vehemently believes that the countries that had attended the talks were the very ones which have caused most of the environmental problems.

The conference, held on April 20-22 in Tiquipaya, Bolivia, near Cochabamba, attracted upwards of 35,000 attendees. These included environmentalists, scientists, and policymakers from 110 countries, as well as throngs of various groups of indigenous representatives. One main goal of the meeting was to allow representation of the world’s humblest of populations, those who create the least pollution, consume the least amount of resources, yet who will have to bear the brunt of climate change. Representatives of these developing countries felt largely marginalized by the Copenhagen proceedings; Morales created a podium for their voices to be heard and their values to be shared. The conference also created a venue for celebrating indigenous culture. Native music, art, and food were important aspects of the event as various grassroots and left-leaning political leaders spoke to the crowds.

The conference drew up new commitments to the Kyoto Protocol as well as the “People’s Accord,” which is expected to be included in the upcoming UN climate talks to be held in Cancun, Mexico later this year. This includes the proposal that developed countries drop 50% of their 1990 carbon emissions, and accentuates the United States’ role in this action. President Morales proposed a global tribunal on environmental issues. At the conference, capitalist countries were blamed for their massive contributions to environmental damage, excessive resource consumption, and disregard for the destructive practices of these actions upon developing nations. According to Morales, capitalism is the “enemy of the planet” and the main cause of all climate change.

The conference addressed these nations’ debt to the earth – its lands, waters, and atmosphere- and to the people who live on the planet. The idea of climate debt was a popular tactic for solving climate problems among nations. The gathering preemptively addressed the large numbers of predicted “climate migrants,” or “climate refugees”- individuals and nations who will be forced to migrate due to catastrophic changes in climate and degradation of livable and farmable land, water, and air. The overall preservation of “Mother Earth” (popular terminology among the conference’s attendees) was the main goal of the People’s World Conference, as well as the rights of people to live free from pollution and man-made environmental hardship. The grassroots conference proposed that countries should aim to spend the same amount of funding on environmental budgets as they do on security and their militaries in order to develop new, environmentally safe technology.


The Bolivian Environmental Movement

Bolivia’s environmental movement is led by individuals, popular NGO’s such as the Liga de Defensa del Medio Ambiente, workers’ unions, and various indigenous environmental movements. In Bolivia, workers’ unions hold enormous political power and represent close to the majority of the population. The grassroot environmental movement has received encouragement and praise from Morales, though he has done little to support their appeals or address their concerns. The groups have learned to work without much government assistance, relying upon relatively loose connections among themselves, concentrating on working in their various areas of expertise, prompted by the needs of the immediate regions in which they dwell. Middle class workers, farmers, and intellectuals are learning how to work together to spread the word on climate change. There is a good deal of local support for individual and groups who work to solve the environmental problems they find surrounding themselves.

These groups have accepted what is tantamount to a huge undertaking- one which is linked to the historic and traditional problems which are found throughout Latin America. “You can’t separate the environment from society…you have to look at human rights and justice issues as well,” said Dr. Perreault. Environmental problems can cause eruptive changes to rural and urban livelihoods and bring a host of human rights issues. In many cases, pollution in Bolivia is the result of the poor industrial practices used throughout the country for decades. The rampant poverty in parts of the country has at times reached a boiling point, and the people are ready to say “no” to climate change, and are organizing themselves in ways never before witnessed in South America or elsewhere in the world. Mesa 18 is an indigenous group that supports Morales but criticizes what it sees is his lax protection of indigenous rights against the foreign industries which exploit minerals on the traditional lands of the people. It also hopes that the government will attend environmental issues within Bolivia, rather than those caused in other parts of the globe.

Bolivians are prone to launch protests against incendiary government actions by turning to strikes, protests, marches, and road blocks to proclaim their grievances. The Confederation of Ind9igenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB) and the Central Organization of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (CPILAP) are two such groups which have made use of public protests to defend their rights against big-name gas and mineral companies conducting business in Bolivia. This past May, indigenous groups, including the two aforementioned ones, jointly proposed a 1,000 kilometer march from the town of Riberalta to the capital city of La Paz. The groups wished to bring attention to the fact that the rights of indigenous communities were being compromised as civilian settlements as well as new commercial enterprises encroach upon their ancestral reservations. In addition, the demonstrators were ready to protest the seismic testing, mining, and drilling that has uprooted them and disrupted their way of life in the Amazon. The proposed march was set to begin on May 20, but last minute negotiations with the government led to an end in the unrest, and the march never took place.

Evo and the Environment

It has become obvious that many Latin Americans are exposed to some of the more evident effects of global warming and environmental crisis than their northern hemispheric counterparts. Many Bolivians relying on their local water have become susceptible to polluted water supplies as well as pervasive shortages. Exports are a major part of the Bolivia’s economy, and most of these exports consist of nonrenewable materials. It is up to the government to make the fateful decision between harmful environmental degradation and curtailing jobs in extractive and other economic sectors that are dangerous or ecologically harmful.

President Morales has challenged Bolivia’s traditional way of doing things, but needs to back up his words with decisive action. While he cannot change Bolivia’s past, he can determine how industrialization and development can harmfully impact the Bolivian environment today and do something about it. For now, Bolivia has tough choices to make about the practices that go on within its own borders. Its people know that Pachamama cannot wait forever. Developing nations, especially those with large indigenous populations, are keenly aware of their bitter histories, and that they can no longer look to developed nations to take the lead in prompting beneficial environmental policy and practices. However, while Morales and his supporters claim that capitalism is the great cause of global climate change and environmental strife, there may be less drastic ways to frame the issue. The founder and executive director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba Jim Shultz points out that “It’s a myth to say capitalism is the great demon and socialism is the great protector of the environment. They’re talking about the wrong ‘ism’. Consumerism and materialism are the enemies of the environment, and Chavez and Morales aren’t talking about that.” If Evo Morales manages to close the gap between his rhetoric and his policies that may not always hold up the most enlightened environmental precepts in planning for a sound economy.

Later this year in Mexico, Morales will once again call upon organizations and governments to stand together to protect the environment, and in turn, provide protection to those who might be harmed the most by climate change – the future climate refugees; the workers who will lose their livelihoods and the families who will lose their homes. The Climate Conference was a start for Morales, a gesture to both Indigenous populations and the world at large. There are bigger steps to take, and they include solving Bolivia’s domestic environmental problems before attempting to take on those of the world.