The metropolis of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, is living on the edge of multiple water crises. Water suppliers struggle to keep pace with its rapid population growth. Its overall supply is dependent on glacial melt water, which may not survive the 21st century (as covered previously on this blog: “Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg”). And the cities’ principal river, the Choqueyapu, is a site of dramatic pollution.
This last issue is the subject of Choqueyapu: Un río enfermo que nos alimenta (Choqueyapu: A sick river that feeds us). Bolivian newspaper Página Siete has re-released one of its most important investigative pieces of 2017 in an online comic-book format. The narrative follows a drop of glacial meltwater as it travels past industrial sites, through the city center, and out to the vegetable and fruit-growing fields that lie downstream of the city. There, farmer Eugenia Mamani explains how her downstream community has adapted: “In the early morning the clean water comes” (because polluting industries and the slaughterhouse aren’t operating). “We irrigate from 3am onwards; during the day it comes in dirty and we no longer use it. We have to make sacrifices [to make] our products.”
La Paz’s water pollution has many causes, from industrial waste to the riverside slaughterhouse to urban runoff to mining waste to inadequate water treatment. It all ends up flowing downstream. As the comic and other reporting shows, solutions like pollution inspectors, slaughterhouse modernization, and a new water treatment plant are all behind schedule. One of the few public works that affects the river, the culverting of its downtown segment in 2008 (see above photo), has only added to its problems by creating de-oxygenated segment right in the middle of its flow.
Like many environmental matters, this is a slow-motion crisis with no end in sight.
Unprecedented ambition is transforming the landscape into a source of new exports, an ambition that is measured more in dizzying numbers than individual projects. A feasibility study begins for a dam, El Bala, that would submerge the heart of Madidi National Park to produce 1600 to 4800 MW of electricity, but in announcing the contract, President Evo Morales speaks of a potential 48,000 MW of new projects across the country. Government aspirations for energy production also include investing US$2 billion in a nuclear power plant in Viacha, a still-hypothetical prospect that would place the vast El Alto–La Paz metropolis at risk in the event of a major accident. When exploratory drilling in the Lliquimuni petroleum block in the northern Bolivian Amazon is inaugurated, Morales proposes building an improbable but possible oil refinery to commoditize oil from a cluster of oil fields underneath the rainforest. At an agricultural policy forum, co-hosted by the government, the peasant confederation CSUTCB, and big agribusiness (the Chamber of Agriculture of the East), the government proposes quintupling the land under cultivation in the next decades, mostly by expanding mechanized monoculture. While the peasants are partners in the summit, it is the Chamber who drafts the legislation that follows. Speaking to the European Union, the president vows that global South governments “will not be park rangers” on behalf of the global North. He returns home to sign a decree authorizing oil and gas extraction in National Parks as a national strategic priority. In public speeches, Morales has also pledged that NGOs and foundations that stand in the way of using Bolivia’s natural resources face expulsion from the country.
This was the country I visited for the past three weeks. I’m at a point of inflection in my research agenda from studying how movements build power and exert pressure to looking at the how conflicts between indigenous peoples and extractive industries will evolve under the Plurinational State. In part because of the power built by indigenous movements, Bolivia is a place where indigenous territories and rights have some of the most extensive protections in written law. Those legal commitments contradict equally formal commitments by the government to fulfill oil, mining, and logging contracts, and the government’s drive for new revenues to fund its anti-poverty social agenda. Conceptualized from afar, this should be a complex story of uncertainty and contradiction, of the indigenous state official who is pulled in two directions, of hard choices and ambivalences. But as the list of extractivist plans makes clear, the government of the Plurinational State is anything but ambivalent on this issue.Read More »