Bolivia’s Dilemma: Development Confronts the Legacy of Extraction

Linda Farthing

As with so much else in South America’s landlocked and impoverished heartland, Bolivia’s natural environment excels in superlatives: It is home to the world’s largest salt flat (Salar de Uyuni in the southwest); the world’s highest navigable lake (Titicaca, straddling the border with Peru); and the second-largest high mountain plateau (the altiplano), after that of Tibet. The result is an often breathtaking landscape of magnificent snow-covered mountains surrounding windswept plateaus and lakes of an almost unimaginable deep blue, high valleys unfolding eastward into dense, vast jungles to the north, and open savannas to the south.

Less fortunately for both Bolivia’s environment and its people, the exploitation of the country’s considerable natural resources has also been nearly unparalleled: The country was once home to the Spanish colony’s richest silver and gold mine (Potosí); boasted one of the world’s richest tin mines (Siglo XX); and today has two of the world’s largest silver mines (San Cristóbal and San Bartolomé), an estimated half of world’s lithium reserves (Salar de Uyuni), the future largest iron ore mine (Mutún), and the second-largest proven gas reserves in South America (after Venezuela’s). It comes as no surprise that Bolivia’s history and environment have been dominated by relentless extraction.

Even since the 2006 election of indigenous president Evo Morales and his progressive government, the social pressure to satisfy the country’s immediate economic needs through extractive industries that destroy the natural environment—primarily natural gas, mining, and forestry—remains as strong as ever. Moreover, the government confronts a terrible legacy of ecological degradation. For despite a relatively low population density, about a quarter of the national territory, or 60 million acres, is environmentally degraded, with almost 17 million acres under threat, according to the Environmental Defense League (Lidema), Bolivia’s principal environmental coalition.1

It’s not that the current government doesn’t express a commitment to the environment. In April, Morales declared before the United Nations General Assembly: “Not only do human beings have rights, but mother earth should have them too. The capitalist system has made the earth belong to human beings. Now it is time to recognize that we belong to the earth.”2

But despite such inspired words, continued extraction is accelerated by the political demands from government supporters in powerful social movements that have long insisted that Bolivia’s vast natural resources benefit the country rather than foreigners. Their demands usually trump the small but persistent voices of Bolivia’s environmental movement, which comprises largely middle-class NGOs as well as local indigenous groups.

This pressure is compounded by Bolivia’s status as one of Latin America’s poorest countries. Basic survival needs frequently prevail over longer-term considerations, government bodies often lack the necessary resources to protect the environment, and it costs violators very little to pay off impoverished communities. “How are you going to tell someone struggling to feed their family that they can’t cut down a tree, dump garbage, or irrigate their crops with dirty water?” asks Mirso Alacalá, an official with the Ministry of Environment and Water.

You don’t have to look far to see the destruction. Even the most casual visitor to La Paz is likely to cross the turbid, foaming waters of the Choqueyapu River, which cuts across the city, some of it underground. From its head-waters 21 miles to the north in the altiplano, the crystalline glacial flow tumbles into the magnificent basin that cradles La Paz and is transformed into an open sewer. Heavy metals from the Milluni mine some 20 miles northeast of La Paz, industrial waste from neighboring El Alto’s textile and food industries, and household garbage mix into a poisonous stew that races downhill to the community of Río Abajo. There, its waters irrigate campesinos’ fruit and vegetable crops, later sold in markets throughout the city. The river then continues east, eventually dissipating its waste into a tributary of the Amazon.

Every week, the La Paz mayor’s office tests the river’s water quality and finds, in addition to organic waste, chemicals including chromium, lead, and arsenic at levels seven times international standards. In an “out of sight out, of mind approach,” the mayor, Juan del Granado, announced in December that even more of the river would be run underground, hiding it from public view.3El Diario.4

But the urban Choqueyapu is far from the only polluted body of water in Bolivia. One of Lidema’s eight most critical polluted sites (out of more than 100) is the Cohana Bay, located in the shallower part of Lake Titicaca, where waste from the constantly expanding altiplano city of El Alto is dumped, threatening local health, livestock, and crops. Partly in response to the outcry from the local population and Lidema, the government’s Ministry of Environment and Water announced in June that it would invest $7.5 million to expand the area’s water-treatment plant. But this will only partly solve the problem, since much of the contamination is due to the limited sewage system in El Alto, Bolivia’s poorest city.5

To the west of Cohana Bay, an oil pipeline burst in January 2000, spilling 29,000 gallons of oil into the country’s most important highland river, the Desaguadero, contaminating almost 2,400 square miles of crop and grazing lands belonging to indigenous peoples. The ruptured pipeline, operated by Transredes, a subsidiary of Shell and the now defunct Enron, caused one of the country’s worst environmental disasters; yet the cleanup and compensation effort was marked more by an expensive public relations campaign and government neglect than by a serious effort at environmental remediation (i.e., the removal of contaminants from soil and water). In a pattern repeated throughout Bolivia, poverty meant the company was able to defuse community protest by providing minimal compensation.6

Bolivia’s past inability to force polluters to pay for the costs of cleaning up their mess has left the country with what are euphemistically called “environmental debts,” and what Lidema’s research and monitoring coordinator, Marco Octavio Ribera, more accurately calls “transgenerational debts,” insisting that this legacy of pollution has never been addressed. “At some point, there has to be a day of reckoning,” he warns, “and every year it comes closer.”

According to Giovani Altuzarra, a planning analyst in the Ministry of Environment and Water, “To remedy these environmental problems, many of which are inheritances from mining operations dating as far back as colonial times, would take a massive investment and many years of work.” The remediation efforts throughout the country that have been under way since at least the 1990s are continuing at roughly the same pace under the Morales government.

In 1996, just outside the southern highland city of Potosí a tailings dam broke at Porco, a mine in operation since the Inca empire. Denounced by Britain’s New Scientist magazine as one of the worst environmental disasters in Latin America, and further exacerbated by the waste from Potosí ore concentration plants, the spill has destroyed the Pilcomayo River.7 At the time of the accident, Porco was owned by COMSUR, which itself was owned by then Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The government did not insist on remediation.8

Leonora Castro, of the Sucre Association of Ecology (ASE), one of Lidema’s 28 regional member organizations, which works downriver from Porco and Potosí in the department of Chuquisaca, has dedicated the last decade to coping with the Pilcomayo disaster.9 “Beginning in 2000, we started pressuring authorities to act. But actually the situation is only getting worse,” Castro says. “In 2002, there were 14 legal ore-concentrating plants in Potosí. With the mid-2000s boom in mineral prices, the number rose to 33.”

The contamination forced people to migrate. One of the most affected communities, Sotomayor, has seen its population drop from 1,200 families to 800 since 1996. The 192 acres of cabbage and carrots the community produces for markets in the city of Sucre contain a range of contaminates.10

When the ASE pushed hard for solutions, the Chuquisaca Department government appointed Castro director of the local environment ministry in 2004. Under Castro’s leadership, the ministry began educating local authorities and communities about the problem. “But we faced an enormous complication,” she says. “If we publicized the level of contamination, the urban population won’t buy products from anywhere near the river. You can imagine the conflict this created between us environmentalists and the local community.”

Castro recalls the response to her calls for closing Potosí’s ore-concentrating plants in 2005. “Within days, cooperative miners kidnapped me and other authorities, forcing us to back down. So we had to change tack. We instituted water-collection projects and installed a pilot water-treatment plant in Sotomayor, but unfortunately it is not yet operational because of ongoing disagreements with the community.”

*

Bolivia has been accurately described as having abstract laws and concrete violations in every area.11 “We have plenty of good rules,” says Alturruza of the environment ministry. “We just can’t get people to follow them. For too long the wealthy just used the laws to their own advantage, so as far as the poor are concerned, why should they obey them? As well, we just have never had real enforcement capacity, so impunity for crimes large and small is widespread.”

Long histories of contraband flooding across the country’s five borders, combined with the mushrooming of the informal economy to encompass almost 70% of the urban population during 20 years of neoliberalism, together with the illegal production of coca leaf, coca paste, and cocaine, have only reinforced tendencies to ignore the law.12 “In particular, instituting environmental controls in small-scale mining carried out by cooperatives is almost impossible,” explains Alacalá. “We just don’t have enough resources, and often when we try, we find a confrontation with angry miners on our hands.”

One of Bolivia’s biggest problems with illegal extraction is found in the rich northeastern forests, laden with precious species from mahogany to tropical cedar. “Uncontrolled forestry is almost impossible to prevent,” Alacalá laments. “Much of this occurs in one of the country’s 22 protected areas that have limited road access. Loggers illegally chop down trees within the reserves and then float them down river to process them. They don’t even use the entire tree.”

A different type of environmental problem is found in several of the eastern protected areas in recent years: the proliferation of mobile coca-paste factories. “In the Chapare, east of Cochabamba, alone we are finding eight to 10 factories a day, six days a week,” explains Major Julio Velásquez, the anti-drug police’s local operation commander. “These factories need large amounts of water and dump the chemicals they use directly into streams, destroying aquatic life and poisoning crops, animals, and people who use the water downstream.”

One potential avenue for extending respect for environmental laws is in community-based enforcement, known in Bolivia as “social control,” a notion that stems from social and economic arrangements deeply embedded in rural Andean communities. Similar to the Morales government’s efforts to reduce the quantity of coca diverted to paste and cocaine production by involving local unions in control efforts, the hope is that strengthening environmental stewardship at the local level will yield positive results.

In the department of Chuquisaca, local efforts build on local control to combat rampant soil erosion due to intensive land use. ASE’s Apolonia Rodríguez, a 20-year veteran of Bolivia’s environmental movement, emphasizes the situation’s gravity. “We have an accelerated process of desertification under way,” she says, “with as much as 50% of the land severely deforested and eroded.” But she expresses optimism about possible alternatives, noting that in the central area of Chuquisaca, some municipalities have successfully instituted social control that requires replanting and community approval to fell trees, and has mandated fines for those who fail to comply. Government spokespeople Alturruza and Alcalá, meanwhile, are cautiously optimistic about community control, identifying the process as only just beginning and still relatively weak.

Social control has functioned best in rural communities with homogenous indigenous populations. Several of these communities, sometimes with the support of urban NGOs, have protested local environmental degradation. Many environmentalists consider the Regional Coordinator for the Desaguadero River and Uru Uru and Poopó Lakes Watershed, formed by 80 communities in 2006 with the support of Lidema member organization CEPA, based in Oruro, the strongest such effort. Lake Poopó, south of Oruro, is one of the country’s most polluted lakes after centuries of mining. The Regional Coordinator has demanded that the government halt ongoing contamination of the lake and implement some 50 remediation projects.13

On the other side of the country, tensions have arisen between Bolivia’s third-largest ethnic group, the Guaraní, and the MAS government over the monitoring of natural gas operations. Teofílio Murillo, a representative from the Association of Guarani Peoples Itika Guasu (APG) to the government’s recently established Social Environmental Monitoring Committee, expresses frustration.

“For the last 10 years the hydrocarbons companies have come onto our lands without respecting or consulting us,” Murillo says. “When we have done monitoring on our own in the past, our reports and our complaints were just ignored.”14

Itika guasu, from the name of Murillo’s organization, means “big river” in Guaraní and refers to the mining-polluted Río Pilcomayo, damaging the considerable number of Guaraní settlements located along its banks. The APG was originally formed in the 1990s to protest the contamination of the Pilcomayo.

Guaraní disgruntlement has not yet led to any kind of rupture with the government, however: In June, CIDOB, which represents almost all the eastern indigenous groups, including the Guaraní, announced its support for Morales’s reelection in the upcoming December presidential contest.15

*

Marco Octavio Ribera of Lidema has dedicated 30 years to environmental issues both within and without the government. Sitting in his tiny La Paz office, crammed with books, maps, and charts, he says the struggles led by communities around Poopó and by the Guaraní convince him that grassroots environmental actions are taking root in Bolivia’s regions.

“It’s not a movement as such,” he explains, “but it has a vision that is much broader and more concrete than what you see among people in the city.”

In rural northern Chuquisaca, doctoral researcher Karen Marie Lennon found that rural indigenous people are greatly concerned about local environmental problems. “While they have many good ideas for addressing them,” Lennon says, “they don’t seem to know how to go about it largely due to a lack of resources and/or political support.”

Perhaps the greatest future environmental challenge that Ribera and other environmentalists see ahead stems from the massive Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), signed in 2000 by 12 mostly conservative leaders, including Bolivia’s then vice president, Jorge Quiroga. The initiative, promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank, the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), and the Plata River Basin Financial Development Fund (FONPLATA), involves more than 500 projects in transportation, communications, and energy at a cost of $69 billion.16

Rather astoundingly, the Morales government has not revisited the question of IIRSA, which will reshape the interior of South America, bringing roads, dams, and development that will inevitably threaten the environment and indigenous peoples. In November, Bolivia’s principal indigenous organizations joined their counterparts in Peru, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador to demand great transparency and the adoption of stronger social and environmental controls.17

Just as surprising, the Morales government has also announced plans to reactivate the Balas dam project, promoted by the World Bank. Widely condemned by environmentalists for its technical, economic, and environmental unviability, the dam would flood part of Parque Madidi, a protected area and biodiversity hot spot encompassing the country’s richest forests.18 As well, the giant Mutún iron ore mine east of Santa Cruz, close to the border with Brazil, was approved by the Morales government in 2007, with construction slated to begin in the second half of 2009. It is “the big problem to come,” according to ASE’s Rodríguez.

Finally, extractive agriculture, which permanently impoverishes the natural-resource base, has come to Bolivia in the form of agro-industrial soy production, as it has in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Since 1985, the area of land devoted to soy production near the city of Santa Cruz has increased from 168,000 acres to almost 2 million acres, while pesticide use has mushroomed from 188 tons in 1985 to 12,000 tons in 2008.19 Soy mono-production provokes deforestation, destroys fragile tropical soil structures, and leads to eventual desertification.20 Nonetheless, the industry shows no signs of slowing.

Discussion about what the current MAS government can and will accomplish in terms of these projects tends to be highly polarized. But almost every observer, both within and outside the government, agrees about what went on before the MAS assumed power in 2006. Rodríguez is forthright.

“For government after government, sustainable development and environmental protection have been nothing more than a slogan,” she insists. “We are the 10th most bio-diverse country in the world, but we are being devastated by uncontrolled forestry, mining, and hydrocarbon extraction, and ever expanding soy cultivation.” Like most of her colleagues in the environmental movement, she decries the perspective both within and outside the current government “that prioritizes economic growth over everything else.”

In contrast, Environment and Water Ministry spokespeople Altuzarra and Alcalá, both of whom served in previous environment ministries, insist that it is a great time to be working on these issues.

“For the first time we have an environmentally committed government,” Alcalá asserts.

Lidema’s Ribera isn’t convinced, but tries hard to put a positive spin on the Morales government’s efforts.

“Have we seen the changes needed? Not yet—but my emphasis is on ‘yet’ because we still hope that the government will make its rhetoric a reality,” he says. He adds that the environmental licensing processes required for initiating extractive industries remain a problem, since “no matter how many errors and omissions there are in the environmental impact reports, the government will always grant the license.”

But he admits that the process is still better during previous governments, when “the whole thing was a joke.” Alcalá insists that the 299 environmental licenses boasted of on a government website “are subject to active monitoring for the first time because we have far more technical staff to conduct follow-up than ever before.”21 He acknowledges, however, that the challenge remains “to make sure that all, absolutely all, concessions are carried out within the law.”

For Alberto Borda, planning director in the Ministry of Planning and Development, the constraints are largely organizational.

“Our challenge is to create a really functional Ministry of the Environment,” Borda says. “Until the beginning of this year, we had environmental issues scattered across three ministries which made for an incoherent system. Unfortunately, when we tried to fix this, turf wars erupted between the ministries.”

As a result, the problem was only partially resolved. But to Teresa Flores of the environmental organization Prodena and a columnist for the La Paz daily La Prensa, the problem runs far deeper.

“Current government policy is full of contradictions,” she says. “Just look at the National Development Plan, and even the new Constitution passed at the beginning of this year. In some parts of both, a strong ‘development at whatever cost’ orientation predominates, and in others there is more emphasis on protecting the environment. We are deeply conflicted about these issues as a country.”

According to Flores, much of the Latin American left, including the Morales government, justifies “indiscriminate exploitation” by arguing that “northern countries only want us to conserve our natural resources in order to hinder our development so we won’t compete with them, and our resources will be available for their future use.”

Within the government, Lidema’s Ribera maintains, there are programs and an active discourse on the environment. “But they are like lambs in a wolf’s lair,” he says. “They just don’t have much influence. Where the power lies is with the ministries focused on extraction. And within these ministries, the environment usually isn’t even considered.”

This predominance of economic over environmental concerns makes both healing Bolivia’s environmental wounds and preventing future destruction an exceptionally difficult proposition. No past government has ever resolved this dilemma, nor even seriously considered it. Given this history, and despite the pressures from its support base, if the Morales government can move beyond rhetoric to significant action in favor of the environment, it will be an impressive accomplishment indeed.


Linda Farthing is a writer, educator and activist. She has written and edited books and articles on Mexico, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia, worked as field producer for documentary films in Colombia and Bolivia, and administered college semester abroad programs throughout the Americas.


1. Lidema, Estado Ambiental de Bolivia 2007–2008 (La Paz, 2008), 259.

2. “Declaración universal de los derechos de la Madre Tierra,” Página Ambiental 1, no. 1 (newsletter, Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Agua, June–August 2009): 12.

3. “Alcaldía licita embovedado y canalización de los ríos Choqueyapu y Huañajahuira,” La Prensa (La Paz), December 23, 2008.

4. “Aguas del Choqueyapu promueven una muerte lenta en la población,” El Diario (La Paz), October 16, 2008.

5. Sandra Andrade, “El Lago Sagrado recuperara vida, con la descontaminación de la bahía de Kohana,” Página Ambiental 1, no. 1 (Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Agua, June–August 2009): 11–12.

6. Christina Haglund, “A River Runs Black: Enron and Shell Spread Destruction Across Bolivia’s Highlands,” in Jim Shultz and Melissa Crane Draper, eds., Dignity and Defiance: Stories From Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (University of California Press, 2009), 77–114.

7. Rob Edwards, “Toxic Sludge Flows Through the Andes,” New Scientist, no. 2057 (November 23, 1996).

8. Andrés Solíz Rada, “Impunidad de la Comsur por la contaminación del Pilcomayo,” BolPress.com, December 9, 2003.

9. Leonora Castro, “Remediación para la contaminación minera de las aguas del Río Pilcomayo,” presentation to the Bolivian Studies Association conference “Bolivia Ecológica: Amenazas y Oportunidades,” Sucre, June 27, 2009.

10. Ibid.

11. Mario Arrieta, “Derechos abstractos, violaciones concretas,” ProCampo, no. 75 (November–December 1996): 9–11.

12. For more on this, see Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 2006).

13. “En Oruro exigen 50 proyectos contra la contaminación minera,” El Diario, June 6, 2009.

14. “Pueblos indígenas, originarios y comunidades campesinas vigilarán a las petroleras,” BolPress.com, July 10, 2008.

15. Henrry Ugarte A., “La CIDOB aprobó las lineas políticas en respaldo al MAS,” El Deber (Santa Cruz), June 18, 2009.

16. “IIRSA en Números” (December 2008), fact sheet available at iirsa.org.

17. “Propuesta Indígena Andina sobre la IIRSA,” BolPress.com, November 11, 2008.

18. Teresa Flores and Carmen Capriles, Prodena, “Carta al Presidente de la República sobre el Bala,” November 5, 2007.

19. Apolonia Rodríguez, “Informe de Estado Ambiental 2007–2008: Un análisis critico de la situacion del país,” presentation to the Bolivian Studies Association, environment panel, Sucre, June 27, 2009.

20. Forest Working Group, “Relation Between Expansion of Soy Plantations and Deforestation,” Friends of the Earth–Brazilian Amazonia (São Paulo, 2005).

21. Vice Ministry of the Environment, Biodiversity, and Climate Change, Página Ambiental 1, no.1 (June–August 2009): 2.

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