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Environment continues to suffer
Juan Nicastro
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Old economic models continue to plague Bolivia, despite president�s discourse.

President Evo Morales cruised to a reelection victory in December on the same lofty social and environmental promises that brought him to office four years earlier. But for an economy whose income is largely based on the extraction of natural resources, some activists fear it´s all talk. "We´ve changed the discourse, but not the model," said environmental activist Marco Ribera Arismendi, who has worked for ecological issues in Latin America for three decades.

"We had great hopes in this government to solve or make a change on these issues," added Ribera Arismendi, a member of the Environment Defense League, one of Bolivia´s largest environment organizations. He argues that hopes have waned among his colleagues, who monitor social-environment problems in Bolivia, which he says are caused by extractive industry models from abroad.

Little space for criticism
Bolivia´s dependence of oil and gas extraction, iron and lithium mining, and the advance of large-scale infrastructure projects have worried campesino and indigenous communities.

But their complaints and insistence that this style of development is incompatible with indigenous communities´ cosmovision of living in harmony with nature, often fall on deaf ears.

Jenny Gruenberger, the Environment Defense League´s director, hopes the new constitution that calls for indigenous autonomy will help preserve the environment.

"Defense of cultural diversity goes hand-in-hand with defense of biological diversity," she said.

She says that Morales does back environmental issues, but that the rest of Bolivia has to catch up.

"It´s very valuable that our president has a strong pro-ecological discourse," she said. "But the reality inside the country is still not up to the level of that discourse, perhaps because there are other priorities. But what we say is that if we don´t take measures now, soon it will be too late."

From the southern Tarija department, community teacher William Ávalos worries that Morales´ words will remain as only that.

Morales "stresses the Andean cosmovision that says we are not matter, but energy, that needs to be in balance with the environment, with nature," said Ávalos.

"But he´s only presenting it as discourse," he added. "In practice, there are still many problems. For example, the country´s economy support is gas, and if we keep extracting gas, I´d say that they are damaging [the environment]. I´ve spoken with indigenous peoples who have said: ´they´re talking out gas [from under us] and they´re promising us houses. But we want to be compensated for what they´re taking away; we want land.´"

Ávalos says that while an environmental conscience is growing in Bolivia, the trend has not caught on in the powerful so-called "half-moon" region, the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, where most of the country´s natural resources are concentrated, included natural gas.

In Tarija, Caraparí, the gas capital, should be a model city, with services, schools, hospitals ... Evo has said this. But you go to Caraparí and there´s none of that. Just a cloud of dust. And they keep extracting gas. So, I don´t know if the ecologically-friendly vision works in that way."

Extractive industries rule
Despite the 2006 nationalization of the mining sector, there have been little advances in funneling the money to government coffers. The government has not modified the royalty system that foreign companies must pay to extract minerals, which is still 5 percent the international market price of the material extracted, the same as in most Latin American countries. New large-scale open-pit mining projects continue to spring up, despite potentially detrimental environmental and social impacts.

The cash-strapped government lacks the funds to cover social programs and anti-poverty initiatives, and has announced new oil and natural gas extraction drilling, despite the environmental implications.

Hugo del Granado, who until recently was an executive for the state-run hydrocarbon company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivia, has criticized the government for not investing in the gas sector fast enough.

"We need more infrastructure investment," he said. "We´ve gone from neoliberalism to another extreme: a paralyzing state-controlled monopoly."

He suggested spending less on social programs, including subsidies for households with school-aged children, senior citizens and pregnant women, which he called a "drain" on hydrocarbon earnings.  

"Social and environmental issues do not matter to the government´s hydrocarbons sector," said Ribera Arismendi.
—Latinamerica Press.


Environmentalists criticize dependence on natural resource extraction. (Photo: Juan Nicastro)
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