When Morales took office as President in 2006, he appointed Casimira Rodríguez, Executive Secretary of the Bolivian Federation of Domestic Workers, as the first indigenous Minister of Justice.
A woman who wore indigenous dress and spoke Quechua, she had spent almost all her life performing household chores for derisory wages. Nothing could be more symbolic than appointing an indigenous woman who was a cook and a worker to this post.
A series of progressive measures characterized the first years of the Morales government. These included the nationalization of the oil and gas industry, which restored the revenue from the sale of natural gas to the state, allowing the new government to develop redistribution policies that increased benefits for children, pregnant women and new mothers, and older people.
It also marked the start of a period of economic growth that moved Bolivia from the category of ‘low-income country’ to ‘middle-income country’. Support for the Morales government rose to as high as 81%.
This is not simply a ‘revolutionary ebb’ but a change of direction that can be seen in the deteriorating social fabric and institutions, and the impact of its economic and political model in local territories
Now, ten years after taking state power with the legitimacy of social struggles that demanded deep social change, things have changed a great deal. This is not simply a ‘revolutionary ebb’ but a change of direction that can be seen in the deteriorating social fabric and institutions, and the impact of its economic and political model in local territories. It also represents a failure to establish the necessary social oversight mechanisms to sustain the vision.
Gaining access to power gradually became an end in itself. Hundreds of trade union and social movement leaders became secretaries, vice-ministers, ambassadors or members of parliament, weakening these popular forces. The number of civil servants grew by more than 70% since 2005, with the consequent increase in expenditure and government infrastructure.
By 2009, the Morales government and its Movement for Socialism (MAS) long-term political and economic project was becoming more apparent. It involved so many concessions to the reactionary and racist forces of the Santa Cruz oligarchy (in the east of Bolivia), that its youth wings – such as the Juventud Cruceñista, which had committed violent racist attacks against indigenous people during the Constituent Assembly process – actually joined the MAS support base in eastern Bolivia.
Even though MAS leaders continued to use environmentalist and leftist rhetoric, in practice the leadership was opening up to the proposals of the agribusiness sector and conventional visions of development. It aligned itself with a vision that is industrialist (this has not been achieved), developmentalist (this has not produced much in the way of results either) and extractivist, in partnership with local trade unions and capital from Europe, China and Russia. This model carries a heavy environmental and social toll for Bolivian society.
The rebellious and anti-systemic legacy of the water and gas wars – led by peasants and working class Bolivians – ended up being expropriated by the government, which turned it into the emblem of its ‘crusade for gas and economic growth’. This became a dogma laid out in national development plans that nobody is allowed to criticize.
The slogan ‘partners not bosses’, which was used to confront regional economic powers and transnational imperialism, had secured the government a high degree of legitimacy and enabled it to strengthen the state and to establish a basic system of social redistribution. However, it also fortified a process of plundering indigenous territories in the Altiplano (highlands) and the Amazon region, affecting the rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities around the country.
On the international stage, President Evo Morales gave lengthy ecological speeches at the United Nations (UN) on the rights of nature and proclaimed an alternative view of development around the idea of ‘Living Well’ and ‘Mother Earth Rights’ that captivated everyone, at home and abroad.
Contradictions in process of change unravel
But the rhetoric was not matched by any consequent action within Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia was already wedded to a development model that, far from reflecting a vision of harmony with nature, sought to re-enact a populist modern industrialism and developmentalism.
This was evident in April 2010, when Bolivia organized the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, bringing together thousands of international activists in an edifying policy debate that produced one of the most interesting social movement declarations on climate change. Yet at the same time, the government was going ahead with gas and oil exploration in Bolivia’s national parks, mining projects and had already decided to build a road through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory.
The TIPNIS road, a government project to connect Villa Tunari (in the Chapare region of Cochabamba) with San Ignacio de Moxos (in Beni in the north of the country), would cross the Isiboro Sécure National Park and the territory of indigenous peoples, supposedly protected by the Constitution.
The people – still trusting in their power to change government decisions – took to the streets in September 2011 to oppose the government’s plans, without suspecting that this time their power to change things would not stop this new injustice. The government did not hesitate to harshly repress the lowland indigenous peoples as they began the 8th Indigenous March to La Paz.
The conflict caused the resignation of Defence Minister, Cecilia Chacón and great desperation and outrage among people who had supported the process of change right from the start. Shortly afterwards, the indigenous authorities who had led the march were harassed and persecuted, and the indigenous organizations forcibly split and manipulated by the government, which would then go ahead with the road-building project.
The conflicts surrounding TIPNIS marked a turning point in the process of change in Bolivia. It split the social movements, breaking the unity of the indigenous and rural organizations that had driven the process of change and alienating many activists who were not in government.
The conflict over the TIPNIS road revealed the crudest side of the process of change: the use of power and a national project … imposing an unscrupulous developmentalism
The conflict over the TIPNIS road revealed the crudest side of the process of change: the use of power and a national project which – departing from constitutional principles – was imposing an unscrupulous developmentalism and breaking openly with the rhetoric of Mother Earth and the rights of indigenous peoples.
It is hard to forget the way in which the government promoted this road using populism and the language of machismo and patriarchy. When the project began, Morales said to people in the Chapare region:
If I had time, I’d go and flirt with all the Yuracaré women and convince them not to oppose it [the TIPNIS road]; so, you young men, you have instructions from the President to go and seduce the Yuracaré Trinitaria women so that they don’t oppose the building of the road. Approved? (La Razón, 2011)
Although women’s movements criticized these statements, they did not cause much of a reaction in the left-wing circles that were part of the Morales government.
Consolidation of extractivist economy
It was with these contradictions that Bolivia consolidated its model, defending its decisions by celebrating the highest economic growth rate in the region, ignoring the fact that it increased the economy’s dependency on the primary sector and inherently unstable commodity prices.
The oil and gas industry currently accounts for 69.1% of Bolivia’s exports, while agriculture (timber, quinoa etc) contributes 3.3% and manufactured products – in which the National Institute for Statistics (INE) includes soya and gold – represents 26%.
Annual deforestation rates in Bolivia are extremely high, with roughly 270,000 hectares disappearing each year. The country’s main contribution to global emissions and climate change comes from this change in land use, and it now ranks 27 out of 193 countries on this count.
In the last year, the clearing of new land for agriculture has been legalized in an agreement with agroindustry and the farming sector, allowing four times more land to be deforested than in the past.
These agreements have also led to an exponential increase in the use of genetically-modified seeds and glyphosate. Ninety-seven per cent of the soya produced in Bolivia is now genetically modified, and although it is argued that this is justified in order to supply food to the Bolivian people, these crops are mainly destined for export. Corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta or Bayer are already in Bolivia.
Major mining TNCs such as Sumitomo, Glencore, Pan American Silver and others are operating in the country in business deals with the state mining company.
And the government has done little to address the power of so-called ‘mining cooperatives’ – small informal local enterprises that make up most of the mining industry (115,000 miners, compared with the only 7,500 workers in the state mining company), known for exploitative working conditions and destructive environmental practices due to the lack of regulations for this sector.
The Mining Law approved by the government in 2013 did little to improve this situation, undermining principles of prior consultation mandated by ILO Convention 169 and even allowing water courses to be altered to benefit mining projects.
Even the huge revenues obtained from the sale of natural gas at better prices have not been able to generate value-added productive industries nor used on the scale needed to assist the transition to renewable energies that would be more in tune with the rhetoric of climate justice that Bolivia proclaims in UN negotiations.
Indeed, contrary to its discourse, Bolivia did not support proposals to limit fossil-fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 and UN Climate Change summits, and it continues to subsidize its oil industry without even considering transitional energy policies.
Worse still, in the National Development Plan for 2025, Bolivia proposes to become a major regional ‘energy power’ (based on fossil fuels and big dams) and supply energy to neighbouring countries, which hardly reflects the transitions recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to avoid worsening the climate crisis:
The new idea coming from this government is that we’re going to be an energy power. The twenty-first century for Bolivia is to produce oil, industrialise petrochemicals, industrialise minerals. (Álvaro García Linera, Página Siete, 2015)
The plan is based on the commercial logic of selling electricity to Brazil to generate revenue expected to materialize in 10–15 years. Major hydroelectric dams, such as La Bala-Chepete and Rosita projects, take pride of place in the plan, even though this model has displaced indigenous peoples elsewhere in Central and South America, costing the lives of union leaders such as Berta Cáceres in Honduras.
Vice-President García Linera appears to see no limits to their expansion:
That’s why, with President Evo (Morales), we’ve flown all over Bolivia in helicopters, looking for places where we could put a dam, and looking for gas. We’re seeking out the areas where there’s more gas, where there’s water, sites for dams. Where there is water, it’s like pure gold falling from the sky. Where there is water, where we can build dams, that’s where you’ll find the gold, the money.
These plans are clearly out of line with the energy transitions required to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They do not consider the damages in ecosystems and to indigenous peoples that currently inhabit those forests. They also fail to take into account that neighbouring countries may take advantage of falling prices for solar and wind energy in the near future, which would eliminate the market for Bolivia’s energy exports.
As part of the same aim to become a major energy power, the government has also proposed investing in research on nuclear energy in partnership with Russia, with an ambiguous proposal that includes research on health and food radiation and the building of an experimental nuclear generator.
This is a project that requires a vast amount of money and, in the its rejection by La Paz residents, is now being imposed on the people living in La Paz’s neighbouring and poorer city, El Alto. The project was approved through an international treaty signed with Russia that has been criticized as illegal for contradicting constitutional restrictions that prohibit transit of nuclear waste in Bolivian territory and for bypassing required legal procedures.