Today, about 2,000 of Indigenous marchers are expected to arrive in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia. They have been on the road for more than two months, and have kept going despite the violence of a police-led attack on Sept. 25. They say they expect President Evo Morales will meet with them to negotiate an end to the conflict over a proposed highway.
Eventually, I think that Morales will agree that he has no alternative but to respect the constitution, accept the will of the people (whose right to free, prior and informed consent was ignored in this case), and change the route of the highway so as to conserve the TIPNIS.
But in trying to build the highway, I don’t believe he abandoned the cause of the Indigenous people or revealed himself to be a turncoat or traitor: he’s a politician who needs to be held accountable to his promises and the law.
Let’s think about Bolivia in the global economy. It’s still one of the most impoverished countries in the world. From the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), we learn:
- Bolivia has a gross national income per capita of US$1,620 compared to Canada’s $42,170
- On the human development index, Bolivia is 95th of 169 countries; Canada is 8th
- Bolivia’s ecological footprint (global hectares per person) is 2.57 compared to Canada’s 7: that means Bolivians use less of the Earth’s resources to live than Canadians
- The mortality rate for children under 5 (per 1,000 live births) is 51 compared to Canada’s 6
These are some of the factors that led the Bolivian government to propose construction of a highway that would open access to the heart of the country’s principal ecological reserve: the “Isiboro Sécure” Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), located on the southern edge of the Amazon basin.
The 300-km highway would run from Villa Tunari, in the Cochabamba department, to San Ignacio de Moxos in the Beni department. With it would come loggers, coca producers and oil and mineral explorers. The TIPNIS is made up of 1.2 million hectares, a million of which are communally held by 64 Indigenous communities (about 10,000 people). The other 200,000 hectares are inhabited by 20,000 farming families (100,000 people), many of them coca producers: sometimes they are called “settlers” but others say they too are Indigenous.
The road’s advocates point out that Bolivia’s economy is weakened by poor infrastructure. They say the highway would open up a savannah region in the north and establish a trade corridor connecting the Brazilian interior to Pacific ports in northern Chile.
The highway is to be built with a loan of $322 million from Brazil’s National Economic and Social Development Bank. The Bolivian government would invest another $110 million. The government has, in effect, opted for economic interests (forest companies, coca producers, petroleum extraction) over preservation of the forest and water preserve.
But to meet the challenges of the country’s poverty, Bolivian leaders feel they have little choice but to play ball with promoters of development mega-projects. For example, Bolivia expects private companies will invest more than $1 billion for natural gas and other hydrocarbons exploration in 2012, a new record.
Impoverished countries are like impoverished families: they make imperfect choices not out of freedom but from near the bottom the economic power structure. The government is forced to export minerals and primary agricultural products so as to have funds that allow the state to function, to reduce poverty, improve education and to stimulate economic growth. As such, Bolivian leaders are pressed to maintain policies that are developmentalist, extractivist and that promote the export of cash crops—an approach that collides with the goals of protecting forests and natural resources (water, forests, biodiversity) and protecting Indigenous lands and cultures.
The concept of “ecological debt” may offer some clues about an equitable way forward. I’ll say more in the days ahead.
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