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Top Bolivia

Social and Environmental Issues

Indigenous Rights


On December 18, 2005 Juan Evo Morales Ayma, popularly known as Evo Morales, was elected  president with 53.7% of the popular vote. This election represented a dramatic shift in the politics of Bolivia. Not only was Morales one of the few presidents to be elected with an outright majority, he is also the first fully indigenous head of state in Bolivia’s nearly 500 year history. And his presidency has been a controversial one.


The tone was struck when, before his official inauguration, he participated in an indigenous Aymara inauguration ceremony. While the historical  veracity of this ceremony may be in doubt, there can be little doubt that it was an important nod to the indigenous community of Bolivia, and represented an important shift in the politics of the nation.


Since then, the Morales administration has followed an leftist tone, more in keeping with communal indigenous values. In one of his first acts as president, Mr. Morales made a move that has been widely seen as an attempt to re-nationalize the nation's oil and gas.  Companies were given six months to renegotiate the terms of their contracts and sell at least 51% of their stakes in the resources. Mostly, this consisted of a combination of tax increases, renegotiated rates, and a greater share of state ownership in the natural resources. With that greater stake, more control has been given to local, often indigenous, authorities.


While this move was popular in most of the country, it did face serious opposition from abroad – notably from nations with powerful oil companies.  Even more notably from nations with oil companies active in Bolivia, including Spain, Argentina, Brazil and the United States.


In January of 2009, a new constitution was passed that improved the rights afforded to the indigenous people of Bolivia. Some of these improvements include the right of native peoples to use their traditional systems of justice, a broader definition of property to include collective ownership and greater local control of natural resources. 


To be certain, the new constitution, with its 411 articles, did not enjoy unanimous support. In particular, it faced serious opposition from the mostly European, eastern lowlands of the nation.  This area, which has abundant oil and gas deposits, has developed a serious secessionist movement. Morales's shifting of support to the indigenous community has also faced serious opposition from abroad – including such organizations as the WTO and the World Bank.



Although an economically poor country, Bolivia is incredibly rich in natural resources.  Over half the country is covered with tropical forest, and forests are essential components of the Altiplano and Chaco Grande. To a large extent Bolivia has been better about protecting its forests than some of its neighbors.  Between 1986 and 1990 only about 0.2% of the country's forests were lost each year.  Much of this was due to to landlocked nature of the country and the fact that most of the population was based in the less forested Andean regions.  The government focused its efforts on developing those areas, without looking at the economic possibilities of the rainforest.


In in the 1990s, the rate of deforestation more than doubled.  Roughly 20 million hectares were granted to timber companies.  Between 1990 and 2005 Bolivia lost roughly 6.5% of its total forest cover. While environmental protections were put in place, there were abundant loopholes that let the timber companies avoid these restrictions. 


Fortunately, the government of Bolivia reacted quickly to this problem.  Today, over 2 million hectares of tropical forest are certified, making Bolivia the world's leader in forestry certification. This program has been good for the country. In 2006, certified wood made up only 7% of the nation's timber exports, but was responsible for generating $21 million dollars worth of revenue.  The total sum of timber revenue for the country was $130 million, suggesting that timber certification is a considerably more lucrative method of timber extraction.


Indeed, today, the biggest threats to Bolivia's forests come not from the timber industry, but from other sources.  Oil and gas development, commercial and subsistence agriculture, and urbanization all pose threats to Bolivia's forests.  In 2005, fires burned for the purposes of clearing land burned out of control, destroying 500,000 hectares of pristine forest. 


Unfortunately, enforcement is Bolivia is poor, and it is estimated that as much as 80% of the nation's timber harvest is taken illegally.  Aside from the high profile damage that this does to the eastern tropical forests, this has allowed erosion and other forms of harm to take hold in other parts of the country.  Of special importance is the damage done to the Altiplano, which, aside from being a delicate ecosystem, is also an important agricultural center.


Climate Change

The 2008 James Bond film, A Quantum of Solace, features a plot in which the secret agent foils a plot hatched by a powerful cabal of villains seeking to gain control of Bolivia's water supply.  In real life, Bolivia's water supply is threatened by a much more ominous force–climate change


Much of Bolivia's water supply comes from alpine glaciers that tower above the Altiplano.  As global temperature has increased more rapidly than experts have predicted, Bolivia's glaciers have retreated more rapidly than experts have predicted. For example, the glacier Chacaltaya was supposed to have been melted by the year 2020.

It was gone by 2009.


The human cost of climate change has started to affect the day to day lives of Bolivians.  In 2009, the water supply of the city of El Alto was outstripped by demand.  As a result, between September and November there was usually no more than 8 hours of water a day – often with little pressure.  While El Alto has been one of the hardest hit places, other areas are starting to be affected. 


It might not seem significant officials of the city of La Paz shut down car washes in October 2009, but it is almost certainly a sign of things to come. 


Agriculture is also threatened by climate change.  This past year drought killed 7,000 farm animals and sickened nearly 100,000. In other places, increased glacial runoff has loaded the water with sedimentation, making it useless for agricultural purposes. While engineering projects might help with these problems, they can take years to build and are very costly. 


Warmer temperatures has also exposed Bolivia's crops to pests such as locusts and worms, as well a human illness such as malaria and dengue fever. Furthermore, intense storms, normally associated with El Niño now occur on an almost annual basis, causing considerable damage to the nation's infrastructure.


In response, Bolivia has become a vocal advocate of ensuring that the third world does not carry a disproportionate amount of the burden of carbon dioxide reduction.  Bolivia has recently demanded that wealthier, first world nations provide economic support for third world nations attempting to reduce emissions.





Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Bolivia: Totora, Mizque and Aiquile, Tarata, Cliza, Arani, Punata and surrounds, Gay Bolivia, Lodging in Bolivia, Studying Spanish in Bolivia, Hostels/ Hotels/ Posadas/ Casas de Huespedes, Tarija Safety, Organized Tours and Traveling with Children in Bolivia.

12 Jan 2010

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