Environmentalism of the Global South: The Bolivian Example

Evo MoralesWestern media outlets, from the Guardian to the Financial Times, and even the supposedly progressive Novara Media have joined in attacks on the world-leading, progressive environmental record of Evo Morales’ leftist government in Bolivia. This is part of a convenient and deliberate strategy to divert pressure and attention from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who is widely known to have encouraged aggressive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.  Others have exposed how the US State Department is more than generous in doling out funding to the slick NGOs pushing this line.

In reality, Bolivia has done more than any other country to combat the fires raging across the Amazon and beyond. Moreover, Morales has been at the forefront of articulating an environmentalism of the global south and demanding rapid global action to tackle disastrous climate change. Morales has put forward a doctrine that recognises the need for a new model of global sustainable economic development, which also recognises Western capitalism as the main culprit historically of environmental disaster.

“We have two paths: either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives. Of course, brothers and sisters, we are here for life, for humanity and for the rights of Mother Earth. Long live the rights of Mother Earth! Death to capitalism!” was Morales’ cry at the People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, held after the failures of the 2010 Copenhagen Climate Summit.

The most important element of Bolivia’s approach on the environment is the concept of climate debt. The idea was finessed during the Cochabamba summit after being debated with thousands of delegates from social movements all around the world. The idea is that the West has an obligation to fund sustainable development in the countries that were looted to fuel the industry and contamination of the imperialist core.

Some richer countries have provided some funding pay towards this end but it is totally inadequate. Morales has pointed out that what has been offered so far often accounts for less than 1% of most what Western countries spend on their military. Morales said that the climate debt must be front and centre of what Western countries do to tackle climate change (alongside rapidly decarbonising their own economies) – and  that it should also go beyond traditional foreign aid, often itself a mechanism for reinforcing relationships of dependency. The Cochabamba summit concluded that it should also take the form of ‘technology transfers’, whereby some of the clean energy technologies held by richer, developed countries should be transferred to the global south, so that the developing world has the tools to forge its own path to sustainable development, rather than relying on foreign grants for small initiatives that are not enough to usher the total transformation to a green future that is urgently needed.

Evo Morales’ demand of wealthy countries is an ambitious one but it hasn’t been an excuse for not taking immediate action domestically to green Bolivia’s economy. Bolivia is a leader in renewable energy. In 2016, it spent more than any other country in the world on renewables as a percentage of its GDP. 2016 wasn’t the end of renewables investment, since then the country has built 4 solar plants, 4 wind farms and 2 biomass plants. Together they’ll add 210 MW to the electricity system. The aim is to generate 74% of internal energy consumption from renewable sources within the next 6 years. Rather than small and tokenistic gestures such as plastic straw bans, Bolivia has been leading the way in focusing on the more important issue of sustainable development, and building clean energy has been a priority.

It’s also worth noting that these huge investments would never have been possible in the neoliberal period prior to Morales, when half the state budget was made up of loans from predatory Western institutions that are controlled by the US like the IMF. Now under Morales, strategic industries are nationalised and integrated into an economic plan – the profits from which are invested into the wider economy. It’s this economic model that has allowed Bolivia to become the fastest growing economy in the region, and has given the state revenue with which to invest in sustainable development.

Morales’ focus on development stands in opposition to the politics of some brands of environmentalism in the West. Some environmentalists enjoy the living standards of an industrialised economy, but scoff at the developmentalist policies of progressive governments in the global south who are focused on both ending poverty as well building a sustainable future. Presumably the ‘Third World’ should continue living as ‘noble savages’, without the highways or public services that economic development can pay for. Western campaign groups like Extinction Rebellion and Avaaz have been on the frontlines of portraying Morales as an enemy of the environment, for his ‘crimes’ of lifting the country out of forced underdevelopment and extreme poverty.

It’s much of the same discourse that blames Chinese industrialisation for climate change, as if those in East Asia don’t have to the right to enjoy European levels of infrastructure and skilled manufacturing jobs. All whilst ignoring the fact that China is the world’s leader in renewable energy investment, and whose achievements in improving air quality should be a model to Western cities, most of whom have entirely unsafe levels of pollution.

In Bolivia itself, there is also an array of supposedly local NGOs who form part of the alliance that opposes the right of Bolivians to use their state to develop and industrialise their natural resources.

The high point for this was the famous ‘TIPNIS’ conflict – when the government wanted to build a road connecting formerly isolated communities in one part of the Amazon. Every Western outlet and environmental NGO joined in the chorus of condemnation. All worked to amplify the voice of small factions within the indigenous movement, ignoring the fact that the three largest indigenous organisations all supported the road, and mobilized repeatedly for it. Obscured too were the reasons that campesino groups supported it. A large number of forgotten communities would for the first time have access to schools, hospitals and markets for their crops. It’s a colonialist myth that indigenous people all wish to live in splendid isolation, without the basic necessities of life that Westerners take for granted.

Even the woke establishment in Western academia was mobilized. Papers with titles such as “An Intersectional Analysis of Environmental Struggles in Bolivia under the Government of Evo Morales” formed the basis of so-called ‘leftist critiques’ of Bolivia’s revolutionary transformations.

The role these NGOs played in dividing the indigenous movements was particularly pernicious. Indigenous coca grower Feliciano Mamani said at the time “NGOs and other interests that come for our natural resources, control indigenous people through money… wherever there are natural resources there are hundreds of NGOs confusing indigenous peoples and making false declarations….”

A failure to understand that economic growth led by multinational corporations, is fundamentally different to economic growth for the common good led by a popular government, then all kinds of confused conclusions will follow.

Bolivia’s approach to environmentalism is clear:  firstly, mobilize for reparations through payment of the climate debt owed to the global south and secondly, economic planning to achieve rapid development, the profits of which can be reinvested into the on-going transition to renewable energy.

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