Like Brazil, Bolivia is burning due to deliberate government policy

With the world’s eyes turned towards the fires in the Amazon rainforest, and primarily on Brazil, there is good reason to survey the larger problem of deliberate deforestation across South America. Right now Bolivia is several weeks into the most devastating season of fires in at least a decade. As of August 22, the Bolivian government reported that 744,000 hectares of the country were affected by the blazes, and by Saturday, August 24, the regional government of Santa Cruz raised that estimate to over one million hectares.

A key driver of the fires in both countries is the deliberate clearing of forest land for agricultural production, which has been prioritized by left-wing government of Evo Morales as well as the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. Last week, both presidents reacted flippantly to the growing international attention surrounding the fires. (On August 19, Morales called the fires “natural phenomena” that “will continue” in years to come and seemed preoccupied with avoiding blame: “This is not the first time that there have been fires, they have always been around. Now they want to blame Evo Morales for the fires.” ) After the fires became a key discussion point at the G7 meeting, and following growing protests demanding international aid in eastern Bolivia, however, both men have attempted to show their governments are proactively responding to the emergency. Nonetheless, government policy in Brazil and Bolivia is fueling and authorizing the underlying drive to convert more of primary forests into croplands and grazing fields for cattle. This fact has been widely recognized for the government of Bolsonaro, who defied environmental regulators on his own private property before taking office, and who has dismantled environmental protections as president.

Unfortunately, the same policy priorities are at work in Bolivia under President Evo Morales. While from a different social class, as the leader of the Chapare coca grower’s union, Morales shares a similar orientation towards the forests of their respective countries. Both men see the Amazon rainforest (and in Bolivia’s case, the Chiquitano dry forest as well) as underpopulated areas of land that ought to be incorporated into the national economy through production for the market. (Contrary to some wild-eyed  Twitter claims, however, the current fires in Bolivia are in the service of cattle and lowland export crops like soy, not coca.)

In 2013, the Morales government laid out its territorial vision as part of its 2025 Patriotic Agenda, a thirteen-point series of goals whose target date is the bicentennial of Bolivian independence. The plan, describing “how we want our beloved Bolivia to be” in Morales’ words, proposes an ambitious reterritorialization of Bolivia that will affect large portions of the country’s land surface, with millions of hectares altered by new agricultural, hydrocarbon, and infrastructural initiatives. It offers quantitative targets for the use of Bolivia’s land, water, and natural resources. In writing the plan, Bolivian government planners worked on a wide canvas: the full area of Bolivia’s national territory, which consists of nearly 110 million hectares and land and domestic waters.

The most dramatic shift proposed in the Patriotic Agenda is the so-called “expansion of the agrarian frontier”: increasing the total land under cultivation from 3.3 million hectares (in 2013) to as many as 13 million hectares by 2025. This staggering figure has been put forward by the president, vice president, and ministers, but their reach exceeds their grasp. The technical data used by the government’s planning staff, according to Fundación Tierra researcher Enrique Castañón Ballivián, corresponds to a still-startling 6-million-hectare cultivated area. Nearly half of the projected expansion would come in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, where soy (and soy oil)-exporting agribusiness dominates the economy. Costañón argues that this expansion would inevitably clash with indigenous collective titles, as well as forested areas.

While this agricultural land goal seemed unrealistically ambitious at the time, it has set the direction for Bolivia’s forest and land management agencies and for new decrees like the one that set off the current fires in the Chiquitanía.

Law 741 (issued September 29, 2015) authorized landholders and families living on communal lands to clear up to 20 hectares of forest each without filing previously mandatory land use plans. Supreme Decree 26975, issued on July 9, 2019 and therefore just before the fire season, expanded land clearing rights in Santa Cruz and Beni departments. This month’s devastating fires is Bolivia are the all-too-predictable consequence of the Morales government’s policies authorizing new land claims on cleared land.

Bolivia is a largely food self-sufficient nation and does not need to replace its forests with crops or rangelands to meet its own needs. The purpose of these policies is new production of foodstuffs for export. In announcing the July decree, President Morales tweeted, “We have the task and mission that Bolivia should also grow through agricultural development. Another responsibility is the construction of an industrial slaughterhouse in Beni …  Beni needs to prepare to export meat directly to China.”

Many observers in Bolivia are connecting the recent policy shifts to Bolivia’s disastrous fires. Among them are the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), which declared both Evo Morales and Jair Bolsonaro persona non grata (unwelcome persons) in the Amazon region. The Chiquitano Indigenous Organization has called for the government to immediately roll back the recent Supreme Decree. The current devastation is a further reminder of the importance of government consultation with indigenous groups on matters of policy that affect them, something that has been systematically lacking in the past decade in Bolivia.

Meanwhile, the international left needs to engage in some serious soul-searching about very real possibility for left-wing developmentalism, like that embraced by Morales, to exact the same environmental costs as the aggressive frontier capitalism embodied by Bolsonaro. Only serious and direct attention to the environmental and social costs of economic growth can avoid this kind of destruction.

Top Image: Fires in Roboré. Photo by Jerson Bravo, bombero voluntario from Mongabay.

A divided Pact of Unity lashes out on TIPNIS, continues to press its agenda

A truncated version of Bolivia’s most prominent grassroots alliance, the Pact of Unity (wikipedia background), met last week in Sucre. The indigenous-campesino Pact has had various versions but generally (since 2006) consists of five nationwide organizations: the campesino federation CSUTCB, the campesino women’s federation known as the Bartolina Sisas, the agrarian colonist federation CSCIB, the lowland indigenous CIDOB, and the highland indigenous traditionalists in CONAMAQ.

Since the divide over the August–October CIDOB-CONAMAQ march in defense of Isiboro Sécure, however, disunity has prevailed. The November 17 to 19 meeting, which hosted President Evo Morales, had just three national participants, the three campesino organizations (or “the triplets”) while CIDOB and CONAMAQ stayed away. (Some Moxeños and representatives of Conisur, an organization of indigenous residents in the colonized area of TIPNIS attended.)

Early reports show no signs of rapprochement on the the TIPNIS issue from the Pact; instead they took an even harder line than the Morales administration by supporting the highway and urging indictments against a human rights activist who repeated the widespread (but unsubstantiated) reports of deaths during the September 25 raid on CIDOB’s march. However, the Pact of Unity continues to have its own agenda independent of the government it supports, and the multifaceted  demands emerging from this week’s gathering serve to illustrate that fact.

Signature Agenda: The Pact of Unity is responsible for major legislation re-envisioning agriculture and environmental policy. These initiatives remain in their early stages. The Law on the Rights of Mother Earth (wikipedia), a general environmental law has become world famous, but its full, operative version has yet to pass the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. On the other hand, the Law of the Productive, Communitarian, and Agricultural Revolution, a plan for massive investment in the agrarian sector, passed in July, but major implementation challenges are ahead.

On both fronts, the Pact has been a combative force and at times a harsh critic of government. With the presence of CIDOB and CONAMAQ, the June meeting of the Pact critiqued “resistances to change, deviations and political errors” within the government, manifesting in “a nationalist bloc within the government that does not want give up the Nation-State, and does not want to build the  communitarian and autonomy-based Plurinational State.” That same meeting placed the Mother Earth and Productive Revolution laws as the foundation for rewriting of Bolivian policy around all types of interaction with the environment, including new laws on consultation, mining, forestry, water, and food sovereignty.

Social control over the state: In the Pact’s June 2011 vision, social movement organizations, indigenous nations, and grassroots communities must watch over the process of change. This week they agreed to form a Supreme Mixed [that is, multi-organization] Council on Monitoring and Social Control to watch over and meet with government Ministers on a monthly basis. This represents the most institutionalized high-level step so far proposed for social movement involvement with governance, although it is unclear whether Morales will accept it. Previously, Morales traditionally held annual (and sometimes quarterly) meetings between Ministers and allied social movements, but broke the tradition before the 2010 gasolinazo.

Critique of Ministers: The La Paz delegation pressed a call for ministerial resignations. In the past the La Paz campesino federation has singled out a few ministers, notably Nemesia Achacolla, for such requests. This time, their delegation called on the entire cabinet to resign. The Pact as a whole kept this to a vague statement referring to ministers “not working for the process of change.”

Gasolinazo: Eleven months after the MAS government’s politically disastrous abandonment of fuel subsidies (quickly reversed by protests), the Pact remain unable to reach consensus on the issue. For now, however, they’re asking the administration to hold off on any new price hikes until the economy approves. Morales acquiesced, while declaring subsidies “a cancer for the country’s economy” which one day the public will ask him to eliminate. No one should hold their breath.

TIPNIS: The Pact embraced a finger-pointing strategy consistent that the movement in defense of the park  and indigenous territory is an attack on the grassroots “process of change” underway in Bolivia. Accordingly, they called for lawsuits against the media; prominent activists (Alejandro Almaraz, Lino Villca, Rafael Quispe were named); and the president of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights. The three activists were blamed for “instigating violence and confrontation among social movements.” Without naming names, the Pact also resolved to expel “all the traitors to the process of change without regard to office or hierarchical rank.” They also now support building the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and the northern highway from La Paz to Pando.

In short, while the TIPNIS issue continues to be divisive, the peasant wing of the Pact of Unity are far from pro-government yes men (and yes women) on other issues. The common agenda they share with their absent counterparts continues to occupy their time and may lead to friction with the Morales government. The future of an alternative development model based on Vivir Bien, long demanded by the Pact of Unity and long promised by Evo Morales, remains undecided. The Pact’s legislative agenda, and tangible actions on extraction projects will be decisive on these issues.