Fires rage in Brazilian Amazon, Bolivian Chiquitanía, Paraguayan Pantanal

This image from NASA offers a panorama of the fires raging across South America during the week of August 15 – 22, 2019. World attention has turned to the Amazon rainforest fires in Brazil, where ultra-right President Jair Bolsonaro has drastically cut back environmental enforcement. This week, there has been needed attention brought to Bolivia’s rapidly expanding fires, primarily in the Chiquitano dry forest. Claire Wordley offers a solid primer on the situation in English.

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. These are parallel crises, caused by independently set fires. 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 Bolsonaro.

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Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg

The Bolivian government has declared a “national emergency” as water shortages grip five of the country’s nine departments, and severe rationing has been imposed on La Paz–El Alto, the two-city metropolis that is the seat of government and center of highland life in the country. (Coverage: Guardian 1 | 2| photos; La Razón 1)

As La Razón reports:

It all began in an inopportune manner on November 7, when a rumor unsettled the residents of La Paz: water was getting scare. One day later, the Public Water and Sanitation Company (Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento; EPSAS) began to apply a rationing plan that would grow harsher and harsher until this Sunday regular 72 hour cutoff of water supply were set, with just three hours of running water for 94 neighborhoods in the city.

In many cases the schedule was not kept, provoking neighborhood complaints, and now long lines of residents in the affected neighborhoods await the few tanker trucks that are available in the city.

In the last few hours, the supply plan has spread to other neighboroods in La Paz and El Alto.

Todo comenzó intempestivamente el 7 de noviembre, cuando el rumor de que el agua escaseaba en La Paz inquietó a sus habitantes. Un día después, la Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento (EPSAS) comenzó a aplicar un plan de racionamiento que se endureció progresivamente al punto de fijar este domingo cortes de servicio de 72 horas con solo tres para la dotación de agua en 94 barrios de la urbe.

En muchos casos, el cronograma no se cumplió lo que provocó la queja de los vecinos, que ahora hacen largas colas en los barrios afectados a la espera de los pocos camiones cisterna que hay disponibles en la urbe.

En las últimas horas el plan de suministro también se ajustó en otros barrios de La Paz y de la ciudad de El Alto.

The crisis combines a periodic drought, which last hit Bolivia this hard 25 years ago, and the worsening effects of climate change. The 1980s drought set off the explosive urbanization from the Altiplano into La Paz’s twin city El Alto and spurred migration to the Chapare, soon to become a coca growing center and the home base of current president Evo Morales.

Climate change is the slower, but more inexorable threat. As a World Bank report, Turn down the heat: Confronting the new climate normal, observed:

Major population centers, such as Bogota and Quito, rely on páramo water as a significant supply source. The melting of the Andean glaciers, increasingly unpredictable seasonal rainfall patterns, and the overuse of underground reserves are affecting the urban centers of the highlands (e.g., La Paz, El Alto, and Cusco), which rely to some extent on glacial melt for dry season water supplies and are already facing dire shortages. The arid coastal plain of Peru faces similar challenges. Water shortage has become a huge risk and a source of tension in Lima, which is dependent on water from the Andes. (v. 2, p. 92–94)

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-9-48-44-amThe high altitude of the Andes Mountains has allowed significant glaciers to exist for thousands of years, even in the warm Holocene epoch when human civilization flourished. As we enter the Anthropocene, however, industrial changes to the atmosphere are likely to clear nearly all permanent ice cover from the tropics of South America. Glaciers are now declining at 3%/year throughout the region (see graph, right from p. 57 of the World Bank report).

Even optimistic scenarios for climate action leave little hope for tropical Andean glaciers. Between 66  and 94% of the ice mass from Venezuela to Bolivia is expected to be gone by 2100, provided that global warming is limited to 2C. A 4C warming would complete eliminate tropical glaciers, and leave just half of the Patagonia ice in Argentina and Chile by 2100 (p. 58–59).In the coming decades, glacial meltwater may temporarily offset some water crises, if supplies are managed effectively and kept clean.

Climate scientists have recently offered stark warnings to the Bolivian government on the threat of climate change to generate flash floods and to imperil water supplies.

The Bolivian government seems to have been caught off guard by the current crisis, however. Research documenting new mining concessions on the ice of La Paz’s iconic Mount Illimani has touched off public alarm and official denials. (Additionally, the venerable Cochabamba-based research group CEDIB has suffered online harassment in the wake of its revelations).

In the long run, however, the Altiplano capital’s vital resources are in question. As climate scientist Simon Cook asks, “Most glaciers will be gone or much diminished by the end of the century – so where will the water come from in the dry season?” Bolivia’s recent and long-term history has been marked by massive internal migration among its regions. The last of these has quadrupled the size of La Paz–El Alto metropolis. It remains to be seen whether the twenty-first century climate migrations that are likely in the region will come in the form of sudden tragic crises or a collectively managed transition to sustainable living. This month has offered cautionary rather than hopeful signs.

Photo above: The dried-up reservoir of the Ajuan Khota dam near La Paz. By David Mercado-Reuters.

What’s at stake in the Paris climate talks

Addressing climate change is one of the most important collective decisions facing us as humans living in 2015. Based on decisions made in the next two weeks, the states of the world will either commit to restrain global climate change to under 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or plan for modest reductions in pollution that still put us on track for 4°C of warming by 2100 (with greater increases beyond that).

Let’s assume you know the importance of this choice in theory, but maybe not in its details. Or even that you knew what the major risks of a 4°C warmer world back when the climate talks were held in Copenhagen, but haven’t updated your knowledge since then. Or that you know, and want something to share with those who don’t. Here are some places to get informed, in way that speaks to the immensity of the risks ahead, relatively fast…

  • Getting To Four Degrees: This hour-long  BBC radio drama puts a typical British family in a world warmed by 2°C and 4°C, while climate experts interrupt and discuss the details of what those world will look like. (original weblink dead; archived here)
  • Five possible scenarios for our future climate (The Guardian, 2009) — Degree by degree summaries of the world at 1°C through 5°C. Begins with our unavoidable future: Most of the world’s corals will die, including the Great Barrier Reef. Glaciers that provide crops for 50m people with fresh water begin to melt.
  • Turn Down the Heat — A series of reports from the Potsdam Institute and the World Bank spelling out the case for limiting warming to 2°C. Remember, the World Bank technocrats are people who have prioritized market-based growth and resource extraction, but they’re not afraid of the science on global warming. In this series, they’ve brought together detailed analyses of how much worse 4°C is than 2°C. If you’re doubting that controlling climate change matters, read about somewhere you love. Comes in three parts: A global summary released in 2012; and regional details for Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and South Asia, and for Latin America and the Caribbean; the Middle East and North Africa; and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
  • Professor Kevin Anderson on what’s under negotiation in Paris.
  • Understanding key positions of the Least Developed Countries in climate change negotiations: “Warming and associated risks will still be unevenly and unfairly distributed with a global average rise of 2°C, and temperature change will be highest in those regions where particularly vulnerable countries are located. A more ambitious ‘1.5°C pathway’ for limiting global average temperature increase is essential to minimise the risks to Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States, and Africa.”
  • The state of the carbon budget to reach 2°C (Washington Post, November 29).

And when you’re wondering how to feel about all this, read these for some company in the face of stark realities:

Indigenous voices echoed by Papal Encyclical on the environment

With the release of the Papal Encyclical on the environment, I am reminded of how indigenous peoples have been offering spiritual and practical guidance on the global ecological crisis for decades. These two statements seem particularly relevant to me:

Our cultural principles include the defense of the right to a dignified life, respect for mother earth and the environment, essential and sacred elements that we should leave as an inheritance to our children, grandchildren and their descendents. Read More »

Bolivia: A Year in Ten Protests

I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

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CMPCC: Root Causes of Climate Change are Capitalism and Culture

Big conference, bigger questions

Tuesday at the CMPCC was the first day of truly massive events, besides the 17 (+1) Working Groups (Mesas de Trabajo) which themselves reached up to 500 people each. Yesterday morning was devoted exclusively to a massive opening ceremony held at Tiquipaya’s stadium. The New Bolivia has a combination of faces: the grassroots movements gathered in a stadium face, the indigenous tradition face, and the we’re running the state face. All three were on display in the pageantry of yesterday morning: dozens of banners and hundreds of wiphalas (indigenous flag of the Andes whose rainbow colors symbolize inclusion) marked the first side; the ceremony was inaugurated with requests for permission from Mother Earth and Father Cosmos; and Evo’s entrance began with a massive salute from hundreds of red-coated soldiers.

The content of the speeches was more interesting (Evo’s personal content was extended and rambling, but had its good moments which are already beginning to be overshadowed by tactless and factless comments about male sexuality and European baldness), and led into the afternoon session on “The Root Causes of Climate Change.”

The morning speeches were marked first by representatives of five continents (no one from Australia or Antarctica) addressing the summit: Faith Gemill (a Gwich’in from Alaska) spoke about a shared need to decolonize indigenous peoples; a member of the European Parliament’s left-green alliance said that the summit has allies on the European left willing to challenge the Copenhagen Accord; Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth-Nigeria/International called for an end to fossil fuels (“Keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, and the tar sands in the lands”) and a rejection of false solutions; Suma Dutra argued that more than 90% of her native India has not been part of the new fossil-fuel-dependent economy and that this majority is waking up to the issue; and Eveldina Mazioli (Brazil) spoke to the systemic change towards small-scale agriculture advocated by Via Campesina, one of the world’s largest and most dynamic transnational alliances.

This brought us to Evo, who addressed with props differences between the capitalist and indigenous way of life. What I found striking was the personal animus involved on the part of people wanting show they are “better than” indigenous people, by using commodities. Contrasting a ceramic, fancy china, and plastic plates, Evo pointed out that capitalism/consumerism encouraged people to leave behind the plates that return to being earth when they break, in favor of modern versions that contaminate the world around them.

The massively attended afternoon session on “Root causes of Climate Change” kept its focus more exclusively on capitalism, with activists, a sociologist, an ethicist, and a vice president all framing the issue. Real aspects of capitalism are driving factors in the global ecological crisis: the quest for expansion, relentless incorporation of resources into the economy, an inability to settle for sufficiency, the promotion of consumerism as an economic strategy, treating environmental costs as externalities, and on and on.

Of course, however reasonable it is to put capitalism at the center of the ecological crisis, doing so raises more questions than it answers. Let me put this another way for people who aren’t as skeptical of capitalism as I am: suppose we accept that the dynamics of capitalism are provoking a crisis in the liveability of the planet; and that those same dynamics make any kind of solutions extremely difficult. What other questions does that raise?

First, what kind of economic and social systems might substitute for endless growth? How will they provide incentives for a “people-centered economy”? Unlike when I was growing up, the other possible are less unified, but far more diverse. The plural left here in Bolivia is one example of the kind of diversified solutions: nationally direct industries function alongside communal indigenous economies, and small and massive cooperatives. What is not capitalism is many things.

Second, how in the world does the political groundswell needed for real transformations get built? Third, what alternatives? (This is the easy one, actually: There’s a ton of movement, planning, and visioning work done on this question.)

Fourth, and most complicated, given that capitalism isn’t going anywhere in most of the world for at least a few decades, how much inside-capitalism response to the climate crisis is necessary? This may be the hardest question, since capitalism and its critics will have to work together to solve one of the most difficult technical and social problems ever, even as the critics remain skeptical that an end to the crisis is possible through such cooperation.

Beyond our economic system (as if that were a small matter), I think we have to ask real questions about the other issues raised by our five continental representatives.

Culture: We are talking about a real ethical transformation, built atop many cultures that have got used to relentless consuming more as a chief measure of personal status. And we’re also talking about internalizing all the consequences of our decisions for other people and the planet in our economic and social choices. What in the world will that look like.

Colonialism: The power states exercise over indigenous peoples, and that a powerful few countries exercise over the rest ends up being a key factor in climate change. The oil and mining industries operate through inequality between regions of production and consumption. Simply put, the kind of people who drive SUVs wouldn’t put a conventional oil pit in their backyard to do so. Instead they rely on less fortunate communities to supply the fuel, and pay the price. The one nice thing about this arrangement is that confronting it creates a virtuous cycle. To the degree that drillsite and fence line communities demand respect or gain in power, the whole system gets an incentive to switch to green ways of being. The difficult part is that very real systems of power have to be challenged in the process.

False solutions: In the short term, there are both real and false solutions to climate change. Some things will in fact slow, and one day reverse, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Others won’t. How do we tell the difference? And how do we stop the false solutions from being implemented? This is extremely important in a “flexible” climate change regime like the one that exists since the Kyoto Protocol: any country can pay another to implement a cheaper false solution, and avoid real emissions cuts in return.

Finally, in writing this I feel torn geographically. Half of these questions may seem un-askable in the United States. They are daily matters of discussion in movements here. And from the looks of the conference not just here. The thing about the global climate crisis is that it makes asking difficult questions a necessity. Since the 1990s, the small island states of the world have regarded these kinds of global discussion as life or death matters, because they are: they might be literally underwater without comprehensive solutions. In recent years, much of Africa (facing desertification and major food production loss) and countries like the low-lying, very-dense Bangladesh (not as low-lying or dense as the Netherlands, but money works wonders) have been added to the list. In circumstances like these, you must move very quickly along a chain of logic like this: “If capitalism is the problem, what might be the solution.” Or along a different chain of logic: “If the global economy can’t feed over one billion people, what good is it?” Part of seeing this week’s conference for what it is, is to recognize that thousands of people from movements across the global South, and some of the North as well, are here asking themselves just these kinds of questions. It may be a while before such questions seem reasonable to North Americans, and longer before they seem practical. This post hopes to make that possible.