Bolivian President Evo Morales spoke at Hunter College in New York City. Photo by Juan Víctor Fajardo.
Bolivia, Dispatches

Bolivian President Evo Morales Struggles To Balance Environmentalism And Development

November 4, 2010 By Juan Victor Fajardo

Bolivian President Evo Morales spoke at Hunter College in New York City. Photo by Juan Víctor Fajardo.

NEW YORK — After the failed climate talks at Copenhagen, Bolivian President Evo Morales has emerged as a global leader on issues concerning the environment. Last month, he spoke at the Community Church of New York on “The Rights of Mother Earth,” criticizing the lack of political will among developed nations to address global warming.

“What is the Earth for us human beings?” Morales said. “We come from the Earth, we live off of the Earth, and we return to the Earth…I have come to the conclusion that the Earth is our mother, and now we have begun to fight for the rights of Mother Earth.”

Last April, 35,000 people from more than 100 countries traveled to Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change. The summit, organized by Morales to protest the Copenhagen Accords, drew representatives from social movements, environmentalists, indigenous leaders and members of civil society.

“It was a very exciting, inspirational time to see so many people from around the world coming together with real solutions,” said Kate Horner, Forest Policy Analyst of Friends of the Earth.

According to Juan Pablo Ramos, Bolivia’s Vice Minister for the Environment at the time of the summit, the conference allowed for the emergence of a new player in global climate talks.

“Until Cochabamba the negotiations had been reserved, or had only been done by governments and their negotiators within the frame of UN conventions. In turn, Cochabamba allowed for the emergence of ‘the social actor’ that does not negotiate directly within the frame of the UN, but generates for the first time a sort of incidence, demand, pressure, critique of the negotiations themselves…I think this is the most important contribution Cochabamba has made,” Ramos said in a phone interview.

The “Cochabamba People’s Accord,” signed at the summit, demands the creation of an International Climate and Environmental Justice Tribunal and proposes a Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth.  It calls for the recognition of Mother Earth’s “right to be free of contamination and pollution, free of toxic and radioactive waste” and proposes a justice tribunal with  “the legal capacity to prevent, judge and penalize States, industries and people that…contaminate and provoke climate change.”

At the recent climate talks in Bonn, Germany, the Bolivian government came through with its promise to submit the accord to the UN. It is now part of the documents up for discussion in the upcoming summit in Cancun, Mexico.

But despite Morales’ international efforts to push an environmentalist agenda, his own ecological track record at home raises difficult questions. As Bolivia looks for feasible ways to develop its economy, most of the industrial activity in the country takes a heavy toll on the environment.

According to the latest country report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Bolivian industrial sector represented 36 percent of Bolivia’s economy in 2007 and is largely dependent on the extraction of natural gas and the mining of tin, zinc and gold.

The issue of mining in Bolivia was not addressed at the Cochabamba Climate Conference. To protest the omission, local indigenous leaders set up an unregistered table to discuss the ecological impact of the Bolivian industrial sector. They demanded in a signed declaration that the government address the deforestation and pollution that mining generates in Bolivia.

A national highway that cuts through the Isiboró Sécure National Park, an ecological sanctuary on indigenous land in central Bolivia, has also drawn criticism. The highway project is said to be the cause of Vice Minister Ramos’ recent resignation. In a phone interview, Ramos said he had resigned for “personal reasons.”

When questioned on Morales’ ecological stance, Ramos said, “The contradiction is not bad in itself. It will allow us to create our own model” for development, he said.

What that model will eventually look like remains unclear, but it will not comply with the UN’s initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UNREDD).

The UNREDD website states that their program “is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions…and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.”

Morales  rejected the UNREDD option, claiming that market-based solutions to deforestation will lead to the commodification of rain forests.

“Many view UNREDD as a way to throw money at the problem.” Horner said. “The critique that we saw in Cochabamba was a reflection of this resistance to the commodification of trees. Yes, deforestation and degradation are big problems, but we have to address the fundamental and underlying drivers of deforestation.”

The internal debate in Bolivia on how to balance an ecological agenda with the country’s development goals is far from being resolved.

“The process that we are faced with internally is a difficult one. It’s no cup of tea,” said Carlos Fuentes, Bolivia’s government official in charge of the UNREDD program. “There are sectors and players at odds in this more environmentalist vision.”

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