The Bolivian Amazon, off the agenda in the presidential election

Bolivia will elect a president this Sunday amid concerns about forest fires in the Amazon and the expansion of agribusiness
<p>Evo Morales is striving to earn his second presidential term. (Image: <a href="">Evo Morales.</a>)</p>

Evo Morales is striving to earn his second presidential term. (Image: Evo Morales.)

“The country is doing well, but we need five more years to strengthen our economic model, our industrialisation and our energy autonomy.”

After 13 years of government, President Evo Morales asked this in a campaign ad, as he pursued votes for this Sunday’s presidential election in Bolivia.

If his wish is fulfilled and he wins the presidency again, the Amazon could be the big loser thanks to the economic weight of a model that privileges the export of raw materials like soybeans and meat. Economic and environmental researchers fear that uncontrolled expansion of these products will increase deforestation.

There are two popular opposition candidates running against Morales: former president Carlos Mesa of the Comunidad Ciudadana (Community Citizen) political alliance and current Senator Óscar Ortiz of the Bolivia Dice No (Bolivia Says No) alliance. Both have economic models that are not substantially different from that of Morales’ incumbent party Movement Al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism) in terms of development, according to a comparative analysis of their manifestos carried out by the Solón Foundation.

They have not ruled out projects that could, without careful planning and supervision, accelerate the expansion of the agricultural frontier, agree four researchers interviewed by Diálogo Chino. Nor have they discounted high-impact megaprojects like large dams, according to the researchers.

Forgotten Amazon

“The Amazon has no candidate in these elections. That’s how I see it, after analysing the three government programs. And it has no candidate, because nobody (Morales, Mesa or Ortiz) wants to face the soybean agroindustrial sector. You can make speeches about Mother Earth, but you need to identify the problem and the problem in this case is surrounded by a lot of economic and political power,” says Pablo Solón Romero, director of the Solón Foundation, an NGO dedicated to environmental and human rights issues. 

The Bolivian economy depends heavily on natural gas, whose export price has been falling at the same rate as the international oil price, and whose production volumes have also fallen. In light of this, the Morales government has been betting on new sectors to bring in income for the state.


wildfires burned in Bolivia in the month of August

The problem is that its main commitment – the growth of agribusiness and its exports – has been accompanied by an extension of the agricultural frontier and, therefore, an increase in deforestation.

In 2018, Morales began to boost the cultivation of genetically modified soybeans for biofuel. This is expected to expand the land used for agriculture by 250,000 hectares. In turn, as Diálogo Chino was told, there is concern that rising meat exports – which this year begun to reach China – will also generate an additional expansion.

“This demand for raw materials is pushing the government towards the Amazon. It seeks to expand the agricultural frontier to irrational levels,” says Roger Cortez Hurtado, researcher and professor of political science and economics at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. “Bolivia already has a very large area for agriculture and livestock – 3.7 million hectares – and it only managed to export a maximum of a billion dollars; while Holland with 900,000 hectares exports 80 billion dollars.”

To this low agricultural yield is now added the production of transgenic crops usually accompanied by pesticides containing harmful chemicals, two phenomena that are at the centre of the so-called “Santa Cruz model” of production the government is promoting, says Cortez. “Morales, Mesa and Ortiz have praised the Santa Cruz model openly,” he says.

Like Pablo Solón, Cortez says opposition candidates have not declared their positions on the risks of the country’s strategic ecosystems. “Coalitions like Mesa have a more friendly discourse, in general terms, with nature, but have not addressed any of these issues in particular, except for some assurances in the case of fires in Chiquitania,” he says.

Carlos Mesa
Ex-president Carlos Mesa is one of the candidates polling well against Morales. (Image: Carlos Mesa.)

“Capitalism has arrived at the final frontiers [the Amazon] and very quickly. It is not just an issue in Bolivia but all Latin America. Yet it is different to the past, the speed with which capital is absolutely filling everything with extractive policies that do not respect indigenous rights, nor the ecological capacity, of the region. You can highlight Bolsonaro (the Brazilian president), but this is happening in Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia,” says Silvia Molina, a researcher at the Centre for Studies on Labour and Agrarian Development (Cedla).

Other researchers such as Marco Gandarillas, from the Documentation and Information Centre (Cedib), are concerned about the effect of a series of standards approved by Morales that may damage the Bolivian Amazon, including a law authorising the clearance of up to 20 hectares, and a decree that gives the green light to “controlled burning” and the extension of the agricultural frontier in the Amazonian department of Beni.

Many fear that Morales will not accept any result other than his re-election. In 2016, he held a referendum in which the Bolivian people voted “no” to the possibility of him running for president again. But for political analysts like Gandarillas, the president has the support of the electoral institutions, the constitutional court and the entire government apparatus.

The environment in government programmes

The Solón Foundation, which analysed the proposed policies of the three presidential frontrunners, concluded they are insufficient to deal with the crisis that Bolivia experienced this year, with the burning of more than four million hectares of grasslands and forests in Chiquitania.

“The Movement for Socialism (MAS), the governing party, maintains a rhetoric related to Mother Earth but lacks concrete proposals to avoid the negative impacts of different extractive policies like mining, hydrocarbons, agro-industries, and others,” they stated in their publication “Nature on the agenda of political parties”.

Something similar could happen with former president Carlos Mesa, who, they argue, “questions extractivism and talks about respecting the regenerative capacity of ecosystems, but it is easy to speak out on key issues like mega-hydroelectric, transgenic, nuclear energy or biofuels.”

Meanwhile, opposition senator Oscar Ortiz, they say, pays least attention to environmental issues and openly proposes “the extractivist-exporter model of the East” for the rest of the country. “He plans to export the Santa Cruz agricultural model to the rest of the country. He’s proposing to export it to the Amazon. An export model based on the extraction of certain resources like soybeans, transferred to the Amazon. He openly says this is the alternative,” says Pablo Solón.

In general, for the former diplomat, the three candidates fail to take positions on how that economic model can be reconciled with care of the ecosystems that provide Bolivians with valuable environmental services such as water and climate regulation.

As Diálogo Chino reported, the projection of the livestock sector is to move from 10 million cattle to 17 million in 10 years, which would mean moving from using 13 million hectares for cattle breeding to 20 million. That has raised the alarm among scientists, given that livestock is already responsible for 60% of global deforestation, according to a study by the Friends of Nature foundation.

The fires worry Bolivians

One thing seems to have changed. Despite sustained pressure from economic sectors to expand the agricultural frontier at the expense of forests in Bolivia and Brazil, but also in other countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia, environmentalists feel that the angry reactions of citizens to the images of jungles burning this year has been very encouraging.

“For me, the only thing that gives some hope is that there has been a wide reaction from civil society during the burning. I believe the only way to stop this catastrophe is if there is a reaction from civil society,” says Solón, referring to a bleak landscape for forests globally amid government policies that do not favour their conservation.

Solón refers to the citizen movement that convened in town halls, a citizen participation mechanism put forward by the constitution, in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and La Paz. More than one million people were estimated to have attended in the capital on 4 October.

In the three councils, attendees demanded the repeal of the two rulings of Evo Morales authorising burning and expansion of the agricultural frontier, in addition to insisting that the result of the 2016 referendum be respected – that the current president not be allowed another term.

“What was not expected were fires of this magnitude. That has changed the terms a bit and what is going to be addressed going forward depends on society. It can be channelled into government surveillance whatever it is,” says Silvia Molina.

Whoever wins the elections this Sunday, greater citizen oversight could mean that social pressure forces them to promote an economic model that continues to take advantage of the export boom, but not at the expense of the Bolivian Amazon.

As researcher Roger Cortez says: “The hope for the Amazon lies in self-defence. It depends on the ability of citizens to react.”