Will Evo Morales Survive Bolivia’s Fires?

Devastating wildfires in Bolivia may affect Evo Morales's prospects for a fourth presidential term, or curb his governing mandate.   

Emily Achtenberg 10/16/2019

Evo Morales at the OAS Generally Assembly in 2012 (Photo by Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS via Flickr)

On October 20, Bolivian voters will decide whether to reelect President Evo Morales to a controversial fourth term. The stakes are high for Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, the country’s longest-serving head of state after 14 years in office. Morales is also the sole survivor of the original group of Pink Tide leaders who dominated Latin American politics earlier this century.

Morales’s bid for reelection—defying the Bolivian Constitution and the results of a February 21, 2016 popular referendum, which he narrowly lost—has deeply divided the electorate. In a controversial 2017 ruling, the country’s highest court upheld Morales’s “human right” to run again—and voters’ right to reelect him—suspending constitutional term limits indefinitely.  

The opposition to Morales initially coalesced around the 21F Movement, consisting of disillusioned former MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party loyalists, disaffected middle-class voters, and conservative elite sectors that were against Morales from the start. Unable to either halt his candidacy or unite behind a single challenger, this disparate alliance appeared to be running out of steam—until recently.

With no fewer than eight opposition candidates vying for the 21F vote, Morales has used the advantages of incumbency to consolidate his electoral strength. But in the final run-up to the election, the massive wildfires sweeping across eastern Bolivia have unleashed a political firestorm as well, with the potential to alter the electoral landscape.

While the advent of the rainy season has finally extinguished the fires, massive anti-government protests have revived the 21F Movement, calling for a “punishment vote” against Morales and raising the specter that he could be forced into a disadvantageous second-round runoff with his leading opponent, Carlos Mesa.  Could the fires ultimately achieve what the disjointed opposition could not accomplish, and derail Morales’s reelection bid?

The Fires

The wildfires, the worst in Bolivians’ living memory, began in August and spread rapidly through the Chiquitanía, a vast tropical dry forest in the Santa Cruz department, and into the Amazonian region of Beni. According to the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN), by late September the fires had consumed more than 4 million hectares (15,440 square miles) of forest and grasslands, including 1.8 million hectares in protected areas and national parks. The scorched territory is as large as Switzerland, and almost equal in size to the rainforest area burned this year in Brazil, a country eight times larger than Bolivia.

Due to the remoteness of the affected region, only seven people are known to have perished, all in the course of fighting the fires. Other casualties include at least two million wild animals—among them hundreds of endangered jaguars—and 40,000 trees.

An estimated 1,800 Indigenous Chiquitano families—pioneers of successful sustainable forestry management practices—have lost their livelihoods, and now battle smoke-caused illnesses and drinking water shortages. Bolivia, and the world, has lost a key natural barrier against global warming. Ecologists say it will take at least 200 years, if ever, for the Chiquitanía to recover.

Causes of the Fires

Why did the wildfires happen? In Bolivia, the chaqueo—burning of the land to prepare for a new production cycle—is an annual ritual practiced by hundreds of thousands of farmers, typically within manageable limits. The government blames the conflagration on extreme drought, high winds, and some willful acts of sabotage—all factors beyond its control.

But critics from the left and right charge that government policies paved the way for, and directly incentivized, the fires.

In Santa Cruz, heartland of the conservative opposition to Morales, critics focus on the massive public land redistribution that has occurred under the MAS government, allowing resettlement of impoverished peasant farmers from the western highlands. Since 2013, the government has permitted close to 1,000 new settlements in the Chiquitanía, constituting almost two thirds of all authorized settlements on public lands in Bolivia.

This process has been greatly facilitated by a 2015 law quadrupling the amount of land (from 5 to 20 hectares) that peasant communities and small farmers can legally deforest for agriculture and ranching. In July, just a month before the fires spread out of control, Morales issued an executive order legalizing the controlled burning of protected forest lands targeted for the same purposes, in Santa Cruz and Beni.

These regulatory incentives have transformed the chaqueo into a more dramatic event involving the conversion of forest to farmland. Current flexible rules give settlers the right to burn and clear land even before they have completed the titling process.

For anti-MAS cruceños, the government’s land and agricultural policies have spawned an unwelcome invasion by outsiders who are ignorant of local customs and sustainable practices—a critique with racist overtones, linked to long-standing regional and ethnic tensions in Bolivia. The settlements are also resented as an instrument of Morales’s political strategy to channel benefits to his traditional peasant base, and consolidate the MAS party’s growing territorial presence in the eastern lowlands.  

This critique is shared, in part, by lowland Indigenous sectors, who broke with Morales a decade ago over the proposed TIPNIS highway. For these groups, colonization and conversion of forest land to agricultural use represents a direct threat to their livelihoods and communities, which depend on sustainable forestry management. Many suspect that at least some colonizers are serving as fronts or intermediaries for large agribusiness companies and ranchers, to whom they will rent and eventually transfer their parcels.

Still, critics like Pablo Solón, an environmentalist and former UN ambassador for the Morales government, maintain that the role of migrant peasant farmers in Bolivia’s recent fires has been highly exaggerated. In past years, only around 25 percent of the country’s annual deforestation has been attributable to this sector. According to the respected Bolivian NGO Fundación Tierra, only 7 percent of the hectares titled between 2011 and 2018 in the Chiquitanía were granted to peasant communities, as compared to 57 percent to large- and medium- size companies.

Fires burn in the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo by Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama via Flickr)

For most environmentalists and progressive civil society organizations, the underlying causes of the fires can be traced to the activities of agribusiness and cattle-ranching elites who have been the primary beneficiaries of government policies to advance the agricultural frontier. Experts cite at least 10 agricultural laws and executive orders approved by Morales that have adversely impacted Bolivia’s forests and reserves, including—in addition to the two noted above—a series of amnesties for past illegal deforestation and major incentives for biodiesel and ethanol production.

These policies are designed to further the government’s pledge, formalized in the Agenda Patriotica, to triple Bolivia’s agricultural land from 3.5 million to 13 million hectares by 2025. The goal, according to Morales, is to diversity Bolivia’s economy as a “four-legged table,” with agriculture and energy gaining importance as the traditional hydrocarbons and mining sectors decline.

Under this mantra, the government has allied with regional economic elites to convert forested lands into soy plantations, sugar fields, and cattle ranches, as well as some small agricultural settlements, with a focus on the Chiquitanía and Beni. Despite initial promises of food security and sovereignty, Bolivia’s agricultural development is no longer oriented towards domestic food production, but rather towards export crops and biofuel inputs for the internal market (to reduce Bolivia’s dependency on imported fuel), which require major tracts of cleared land.

The consequences can be seen in Bolivia’s rising deforestation rate, which has roughly doubled under Morales (comparing 2016-2018 with 2003-2005). In 2018, Global Forest Watch rated Bolivia as the fifth most deforested country in the world. Studies show that the livestock sector is responsible for 60 percent of Bolivia’s forest loss.

Most products generated by the destruction of Bolivia’s forests are bound for China, now Bolivia’s second largest trading partner after Brazil.  In August, as the Chiquitanía burned, Bolivia dispatched its first-ever shipment of beef (96 tons) to China. Indigenous and environmental protesters disrupted the official celebration of the event.

Fires, of course, are the key drivers of deforestation and the process by which land use transformation is carried out. Studies show that the geography of Bolivia’s recent fires corresponds remarkably to the location of extractive agricultural and ranching corridors identified by ABT (the Bolivian Forest and Land Control Authority) in Santa Cruz and Beni. As Pablo Solón has noted, "we are destroying our forests for the temporary gains on an oligarchy."

For Morales and the MAS, aggressive expansion of the agricultural frontier has also been a key political strategy. It has allowed the government to broaden its traditional base to incorporate significant elements of the powerful lowlands agroindustrial elites, while retaining the support of highland peasants through resettlement opportunities. This has been a critical factor in Morales’s political longevity, as well as a central element of his current reelection strategy—one that was seemingly without risk, until now.

The Government’s Response

In the run-up to the election, analysis of the government’s role in causing the fires has been supplanted by new accusations that Morales mismanaged the crisis.

Initially, Morales appeared slow to react, downplaying the extent of the fires. Subsequently, he declared an “ecological pause,” temporarily suspending land titling and clearing in the affected area, but with inconsistent effect. Some fires reportedly were reignited as soon as firefighters extinguished them.

Morales’s refusal to declare a national emergency, on the ideological grounds of protecting national sovereignty, has been widely disparaged for depriving Bolivia of much-needed international aid. It has also made Morales vulnerable to uncomfortable comparisons with far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—a climate change denier—who has taken a similar stance.  Still, unlike Brazil, Bolivia has accepted aid from more than 20 countries and the EU, in addition to renting a Supertanker Boeing 737 from the U.S., to support the efforts of its hardworking but under-resourced army of conscripted and volunteer firefighters.  

As has been the case in past crises, the Morales government has proved itself largely unable to control the media narrative on its response to the fires. Opposition media reports have been unrelenting in their focus on firefighters’ primitive equipment, lack of transportation to remote hot spots, and resentment for inadequate government support.

State-sponsored TV spots portraying Morales as Bolivia’s firefighter-in-chief, battling flames with a water-filled backpack and hose, have been widely ridiculed on social media. Only with the onset of the rainy season has Morales been let off the hook for failing to squelch the fires.

For Pablo Solón, the issue of mismanagement is more about what the government failed to do to prevent the fires in the first place. Under the circumstances of climate change, he argues, the fires were totally predictable. A government that views itself as the champion of Mother Earth should have taken proactive steps to avoid them.

Impact on the Election

In contrast to Morales’s overwhelming victories in the last three presidential contests—with 54 percent, 64 percent, and 61 percent of the vote, respectively), the upcoming election is expected to be close, in part due to the impact of the fires.

Two recent polls show Morales leading Mesa by 38.8 percent to 28.4 percent, and 36.2 percent to 26.9 percent, respectively. But a margin that has declined since the fires may not be sufficient to give him a first ballot victory. Under Bolivian law, the leading presidential candidate needs 50 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10 point margin over the runner-up, to win the election outright.      

Otherwise, the vote goes to a second-ballot run-off in December between the top two contenders. A second ballot, with the potential to unify the opposition, theoretically gives Mesa a better chance of victory.

Still, a third poll shows Morales defeating Mesa on the first ballot, 40 percent to 22 percent, and also in a hypothetical second round, 47 percent to 39 percent. At least 20 percent of voters are undecided, which could be significant in a close election. The polls also consistently understate the rural peasant vote, which traditionally has gone heavily for Morales.

Supporters listen to Evo Morales speak in Cliza, Bolivia on July 6, 2013. (Photo by Dominic Chavez/World Bank via Flickr)

While the opposition has been reasonably successful in exploiting the disaster to discredit Morales, this does necessarily translate into an opposition victory at the polls. Mesa, a center-right business-friendly former president, has been handicapped by his association with Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada, under whom he served as vice president before Goni’s infamous ouster in a popular insurrection.

Mesa has run a lackluster campaign, attacking Morales’s anti-democratic tendencies but failing to provide an alternative economic or social vision. He has denounced Morales’s land titling and deforestation policies, while fully endorsing the Santa Cruz model of commodity-oriented industrial agriculture that underlies them.

Mesa’s status as a prestigious political outsider, while part of the basis for his initial appeal, has also proved to be a handicap in uniting the fragmented opposition. At times, he and the other opposition candidates have seemed more intent on competing among themselves, than with Morales.

Overall, the biggest obstacle Mesa and the other opposition candidates face is Bolivia’s apparently still-robust economy. With the highest growth rate in Latin America at 4 percent, stable inflation, and sufficient government savings to maintain social investment and spending in the “post-prosperity” era, Bolivia under Morales has been dubbed the “most successful country in the world that calls itself socialist.”

Under Morales, per capita income has tripled, and inequality has been dramatically reduced. The country has rapidly transitioned from poverty to lower middle income status, with a burgeoning indigenous middle class. Morales’s pragmatic economic stewardship and aggressive policies to redistribute the benefits of the commodities boom are widely credited for this success.

To be sure, growing budget deficits linked to declining commodity prices—not to mention the anticipated impact of the fires, which could cut GDP growth by half—suggest that Bolivia’s current prosperity may not be sustainable. Still, public perception of the economy remains favorable. According to a recent survey, close to three out of four Bolivians believe that the economy is as good or better than it was a year ago. Two out of three think their personal situation will be at least as good, or better, next year.

For many in this majority Indigenous country, Morales remains a potent symbol. Millions of Indigenous voters feel empowered by opportunities created by the MAS for racial inclusion and participation in every sphere of government, the economy, and society. Popular cash transfer programs, public works, and government services have reached families and communities in the most remote rural villages. World-class government projects, such as the teleférico connecting El Alto and La Paz and the Tupac Katari satellite bringing the internet to schoolchildren, are a source of great pride to Bolivians.

In short, in exchange for the expectation and hope of continuing economic prosperity, political stability, and racial inclusion, the electorate may be willing to “forgive” Morales at the ballot box for his perceived complicity in the fires, his overriding of the 21F referendum, and other transgressions.

A few other “wild cards” could influence the outcome of the vote.

For example, the youth vote, representing approximately one third of the electorate, is heavily “undecided.” Many young people are passionate about the environment and have been outraged by the Chiquitanía fires. They are strongly influenced by social media, where many have been highly critical of Morales’s role. Although they have never known a president other than Morales, they may be less inclined to vote for the party that now represents continuity, rather than change.

The allegiance of the ascendant popular middle class, beneficiaries of the “Evo-boom,” is also contested in this election. As political analyst Katu Arkonada has noted, these voters, whose newly acquired social and economic status is vulnerable to an economic downturn, view themselves first as citizens and consumers, not as pueblo or militants in defense of the national sovereignty.

Chi Hyun Chung, a conservative evangelical candidate running on a platform of misogyny, homophobia, and appeal to traditional values, is rising rapidly in the polls. He claims that Bolivia’s wildfires are a punishment for the sins of homosexuals. Some observers believe he could siphon critical votes from Morales, given the growing evangelical presence in Quechua and Aymará communities.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential vote, the Bolivian Congress will likely be much more divided than it is at present, with the ruling MAS party holding a two thirds super-majority. Since both the Senate and a portion of the Chamber of Deputies are elected from party lists in proportion to the presidential vote, a close presidential contest could lead to a more mixed form of government, and certainly to a more narrow presidential mandate.  

Safeguarding the Election

In the final days before the vote, tensions are escalating rapidly. A massive outdoor “town council” in La Paz has called for a “trial of responsibility” against Morales for his role in the Chiquitanía disaster, and for civil disobedience to resist an “illegal” fourth term if Morales prevails.

At a similar event in Santa Cruz, protesters pledged to forcibly evict “illegal” settlements and work towards “federalism,” recalling the 2007-2008 autonomy struggles that pitted the eastern lowlands against the new Morales government and brought Bolivia to the brink of civil war. The Santa Cruz assembly also called for a punishment vote against Morales, a declaration of national emergency, and—for the first time—a repeal of all agricultural laws that encourage deforestation.

Opposition forces are promoting a sense of the elections as an apocalyptic event, with a high probability of fraud. Each side has accused the other of seeking to cancel or invalidate the vote.

Such a scenario, however remote, would have disastrous consequences for Bolivian democracy and national sovereignty, especially in light of the recent fires. As Bolivian political philosopher Rafael Bautista has cautioned, it could readily become a pretext for international intervention to pave the way for further exploitation of Bolivia’s forest reserves by transnational capital, under the guise of restoring political stability, with an eye towards countering Chinese influence in the region.

Bolivians have a long tradition of defending their democratic institutions, bad memories of political instability, and a recent history, under Morales, of clean, fair, and transparent elections. Hopefully those traditions will serve them well in safeguarding the October vote and ensuring that it will be respected.

Regardless of the electoral results, a popular mandate to rethink the prevailing agricultural model, in order to avoid the kind of environmental disaster that has helped to provoke the current political crisis, would be a positive outcome.

Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner, a member of NACLA's Editorial Board, and the author of NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments.


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