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.

Evo’s extractivist dreams: Nuclear power and prospecting satellites

While facing an election next year, Bolivian President Evo Morales is thinking about his legacy. As the strong front-runner in national politics, his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, feels confident it will be in power for a long time to come. This self-confidence is driving the drafting of a 2025 Patriotic Agenda. Alongside the formal process, the president has spoken off the cuff of his desires for the future. And like any dreams, they provide an insight into the mind and orientation of the dreamer. In his oratory, Morales long seemed to equally embrace two visions: sovereignty through claiming natural resources for the nation and reorientation of society towards ecological harmony with Mother Earth. Now, however, he has discarded the Pachamama-centered rethinking of exploitation and dreams of technologies long criticized for their environmental destructiveness.

At the end of October, Morales declared nuclear power to be a long-term goal of the Bolivian state. Speaking at a government-organized summit called Hydrocarbon Sovereignty by 2025, he revealed that he had asked the governments of Argentina and France for assistance in launching a Bolivian nuclear power program. “We are going to advance, dear students,* we are not far off, we have the raw materials. It is a political decision that has to be made. [Vamos a avanzar queridos estudiantes, no estamos lejos, tenemos materia prima (el óxido de uranio es la principal materia prima utilizada en los procesos radioactivos), es una decisión política que hay que tomar.]” Soon after, he called it a dream: “Bolivia has all the conditions to exploit this form of energy, there are raw materials and studies, and I want you to know that alongside our brother Vice President, I am already dreaming of having atomic energy, and we are not so far from it. [Bolivia tiene todas las condiciones para explotar esa energía, hay materia prima, hay estudios y quiero que sepan que con nuestro hermano vicepresidente ya soñamos contar con energía nuclear atómica y no estamos tan lejos.]” (El País) By the middle of November, Morales had convened thirty scientists to sketch out a Nuclear Energy Commission.Read More »

Bolivia’s new Mother Earth Law to sideline indigenous rights

Bolivia, the country that became synonymous with indigenous and environmental rights on the global diplomatic stage, is about to approve a Mother Earth Law that lacks the blessing of the country’s leading indigenous organizations and undermines indigenous communities’ rights to prior consultation. Thursday (August 23), the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu (CONAMAQ) publicly walked out of the Chamber of Deputies’ drafting session on the “Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well” (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien).  CONAMAQ Spokesman David Crispin explained the walk out: “We in CONAMAQ dave decided to withdraw from the drafting because we do not want to be complicit, alongside the Plurinational Assembly, in building a Law of Integral Development that will damage the Pachamama/Mother Earth. nosotros del CONAMAQ hemos decidido retirarnos del tratamiento porque no queremos ser cómplices, juntamente con la Asamblea Plurinacional, en construir una Ley de Desarrollo Integral que va dañar a la Pachamama” The government had already broken off contact with the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the government-backed alternate leadership of the organization does not appear to be involved in the drafting process.

Readers of the English-language press may be thoroughly confused at this point. Doesn’t Bolivia already have a Mother Earth law, the strongest in the world? Many in the international environmental community know that Bolivia that introduced the concept of the Rights of Mother Earth to the world, hosted a global conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth [past coverage: 1|2|3] in April 2010, and passed the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth [Wikipedia] in December 2010.

What is less widely known is that the law that was passed was only a rough statement of principles—a declaratory “short law”—with no legal force behind it. Even the short law featured just 10 of the 12 principles worked out by the grassroots organizations in Bolivia’s Pact of Unity: right of indigenous people’s to freely consent to or reject megaprojects on their lands was cut at the last minute. In April 2011, Senator Julio Salazar (MAS) who is in charge of the law’s progress, declared, “Our indigenous brothers cannot block taking advantage of natural resources.”

Bus ad at Cochabamba Climate Summit'
“We, the peoples, are the voice of Mother Earth” reads a bus placard at the Cochabamba eco-summit, sponsored by the state-owned gas company YPFB.

Salazar’s position, embraced by the Evo Morales government as a whole, has been influential over the past two years. As highlighted by the TIPNIS controversy, the Bolivian government has prioritized national economic development over local indigenous choices; publicly vowed to ignore local opposition to transport, hydrocarbon, and mining projects; and backtracked from guarantees of indigenous rights to free, prior, and informed consent regarding projects on their territories. Alongside other left governments in the region, these policies tie continued mining, drilling, and pumping of natural resources to greater social spending, a combination called “neo-extractivism.” The transformation of the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth into a Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development reflects all of these trends.

The draft law (complete text), already fully approved by the Bolivian Senate, declares a governmental obligation to “Promote the industrialization of the components of Mother Earth,” while surrounding this objective with extensive promises about respecting the rights and development of indigenous nations and peoples, safety monitoring, clean technologies, and so on. In short, “Integral Development” in the proposed Bolivian law is about conditioning industrial extraction on environmental compliance (the environmental policy framework embraced throughout the West, from the Clean Air Act to the World Bank), not about rethinking the extractive model.

In a letter to Rebecca Delgado, the President of Chamber of Deputies, CONAMAQ argues:

The draft only keeps “Living Well as an alternative civilizational horizon to capitalism” and “Equilibrium with Mother Earth” by way of proclamation (i.e., propaganda). The Draft Law does not propose a change in the structural basis of the capitalist system, nor reconfiguration of the nation-state.

El proyecto solo conserva el “Vivir Bien como horizonte civilizatorio alternativo al Capitalismo” y el “Equilibrio con la Madre Tierra” de manera enunciativa (propaganda). El Proyecto de ley no propone un cambio de las bases estructurales del sistema Capitalista, ni una reconfiguración del Estado nación.

In CONAMAQ’s analysis, “‘Integral Development’ is introduced as a framework of processes and rights” that conflict with one another. The rights of Mother Earth, rights of indigenous peoples, rights of peasants, right to development, and the right to escape from poverty are all intermixed. CONAMAQ argues the law “incorporates the ‘right to development and the right to esacape from poverty’ so as to justify a developmentalist, extractive, and industrializing vision. [Incorpora el “derecho al desarrollo y el derecho a salir de la pobreza” para justificar un visión desarrollista, extractiva e industrializadora]” In my analysis (and here I’ll put my environmental policy degree on the line), combining these rights into a single mix will allow future Bolivian governments to decide on which right gets prioritized. Under the aegis of “integral development,” governments can decide to value oil revenues spent on antipoverty programs over an indigenous people’s rights to refuse drilling on their territory. (And the public statements of the Morales government make it clear they have every intent to make just that choice.)

The proposed law is also weaker than its well-known (but inoperative) predecessor on three key points:

  • Legally enforceable rights of the Earth and “life systems” — These rights are first the responsibility of the government itself, although “affected persons and collectivities” may intervene in court as well. However, these rights are limited to “the framework of Integral Development for Living Well,” limiting any ecological rights independent of the overall economic plan. In cases where a government agency and a private entity both step in to defend these rights, the case will be consolidated, perhaps making it difficult for independent critics to gain the ear of the courts. (It’s worth noting that the  original law was weaker than realized. The concept “life systems” that include human societies and ecosystems in a single interwoven package sounds intellectually innovative, but makes ecosystem protection much more complicated than a straightforward law like the US’s Endangered Species Act.)
  • Mother Earth Defender’s Office unspecified — Both the new law and the December 2010 call for the creation of a Defensoría de la Madre Tierra, equivalent in rank to the Human Rights Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo, often called the Human Rights Ombudsman). However, other than a one-year deadline, no specifics are included in the new law.
  • Indigenous free, prior, and informed consent— As expected, the new law does not explicitly recognize indigenous communities’ right to approve or reject projects on their territories, as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Bolivia incorporated into its national laws. The term ”free, prior, and informed consultation” does appear in a subordinate clause:“Generation of the necessary conditions for the use and appropriation of the components of Mother Earth in the framework of sustainable life systems which integrally develop the social, ecological, cultural and economic aspects of the Bolivian people, taking into account the knowledge of each indigenous, native, peasant, intercultural, and Afro-Bolivian nation and people, in the framework of free, prior, and informed consultation. Generación de condiciones necesarias para el uso y aprovechamiento de los componentes de la Madre Tierra en el marco de sistemas de vida sustentables que desarrollen integralmente los aspectos sociales, ecológicos, culturales y económicos del pueblo boliviano tomando en cuenta los saberes y conocimientos de cada nación y pueblo indígena originario campesino, comunidad intercultural y afro boliviana, en el marco de la consulta previa, libre e informada.

This verbiage makes indigenous consultation into just another phase of the approval process for “using and appropriating Mother Earth.” The protections for indigenous rights and the idea of a new relationship with the Earth and its ecosystems have been shelved for now in the Bolivian legislature.