Bolivia: Who wins in Evo Morales' battle between environmentalism and extractivism?
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Bolivia: Who wins in Evo Morales' battle between environmentalism and extractivism?

Bolivia’s government, led by President Evo Morales, was once held up as the “climate change conscience of the world.” But environmentalists  this July spoke of a “critical situation” caused by a “total contradiction” between poetry and practice in the landlocked Andean nation. What explains such a dramatic shift?

Thanking Mother Earth

It was a scene typical of the Morales presidency. Wearing an oil-worker’s helmet, with a lit match in his right hand, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state leaned over a gas stove in the Altiplano town of Oruro. Flames flared and cheers broke out from the residents assembled behind his back. A new pipeline had just been opened, pumping gas from the dry and desolate Chaco to this marginalised community, 3,700 meters high in the Andes – and clearly, it was working.

Morales looked up and flashed his characteristic shy smile at the cameras. “Thanks to Mother Earth, we have cheap natural gas,” he said, encapsulating in a single line tensions in his government’s stance on conserving the natural world.

“In the hands of capitalism everything becomes a commodity,”

Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), Morales’ political party – took power in 2006, seven years before the inauguration of the Chaco-Oruro pipeline. They were quick to position themselves as environmental stewards, opposing a reckless capitalism that, in their view, was driving climate change and risking global catastrophe.

“In the hands of capitalism everything becomes a commodity: the water, the soil, the ancestral cultures and life itself,” Morales wrote in a 2008 open letter on climate change. “Humankind is capable of saving the earth only if we recover the principles of solidarity, complementarity and harmony with nature.”

In place of traditional models of development, MAS proposed a more sustainable approach. Their vision drew on Andean philosophy and the concept of Vivir Bien, or “sumaq kawsay” in Quechua, the region’s most widely spoken indigenous language.

Vivir Bien is an anti-consumerist worldview valuing community and connectedness over material wealth – a rejoinder to the self-serving individualism that drives the motor of capitalism.

Morales took his defense of Mother Earth on to the world stage. He unsettled world leaders at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, asserting they had a moral duty to keep temperature rises below one degree. He called on industrialised countries to pay climate reparations and proposed an international climate court of justice to prosecute countries for climate crimes.

Pachamama gains new rights

Back at home, his party forged a new constitution which included solid protections for the country’s 22 National Parks. It also empowered indigenous communities to make decisions regarding oil or gas projects slated to start in their territory.

Even more radical was the 2011 Law of Mother Earth. In much Andean philosophy, Mother Nature – known as Pachamama – is a living being, “scared, fertile and the source of life,” as the text of the law puts it.

Consequently, the legislation assigned 11 new rights to Pachamama. These included the right to pure water and clear air; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; and the right “not to be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and local communities.”

Speeches and decrees such as these made Morales an international symbol for the environmentalist movement. In 2009, he was named World Hero of Mother Earth by the UN General Assembly.

Writing in The Guardian in 2011, Jonathan Glennie, now Director of Policy and Research at Save the Children, described Bolivia as “the conscience of the world on climate change and sustainable development.”

Talk to environmentalists on the ground today, however, and you hear a quite different story.

“We are coming to a total contradiction between discourse and practice in terms of the protection of Bolivia-based environment and natural areas,” César Pérez, Regional Director of the Bolivian NGO Gaia Pacha, told Latin Correspondent this July.

“We’ve become entirely short-sighted and lack any vision or drive to move to alternative and more sustainable forms of energy.”

What has changed?

See more:

Bolivia president Morales promises to increase coca production

Evo Morales loses ground in Bolivia’s local elections