Article published in Nature Ecology and Evolution (3,2019) sheds light to the upcoming changes in environmental governance in Bolivia. Once hailed as the vanguard of the environmental movement of the Global South, Bolivia is facing a presidential election this month (October 20th, 2019). According to the group of scholars, the elections will be a pivotal event as the country’s environmental leadership has been at stake for some while. The article discusses urgent challenges and opportunities for reconciling conservation and societal needs in the mega-diverse country. The article evaluates Bolivia’s environmental policies since the current president Evo Morales administration took office in 2006.
Environmental governance in Bolivia
Bolivia, bridging Amazonia and the Andes, harbors astonishing biodiversity and ecosystems of outstanding global conservation concern. In the past decade, Bolivia has been a pioneer in environmental policy-making by legally encoding the rights of nature and proposing alternatives moving away from market-based environmental policy instruments. Bolivia’s demands for strong and equitable action to mitigate climate change have been decisive in shaping international environmental agreements, such as the Paris Climate Agreement.
This leadership has been largely ushered in by current President Evo Morales, viewed in the beginning of his presidency as a champion for nature and indigenous rights, both within Bolivia but also on a global scale. However, as the article shows, Morales’s environmental policies have since taken a turn to the opposite direction. For many years Morales’ government has focused more and more on developing extraction and infrastructure in Bolivia’s wilderness areas, including within its protected area network.
The majority of national protected areas in Bolivia are directly or indirectly threatened by the rapid expansion of commodity frontiers (Fig. 2). In 2015, despite massive public outcry, the Morales’ government issued a decree enabling hydrocarbon exploration inside Bolivia’s protected areas. Currently, 11 of the 22 national protected areas overlap with gas and oil blocks, which cover at least 17% of Bolivia’s protected surface. In addition, the country’s tropical glaciers (which supply water to several main cities) and rainforests are highly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. The country’s freshwater and terrestrial biodiversity is further threatened by the proliferation of dams, primarily intended to export energy to neighboring Brazil.
Morales-led Bolivia has prioritized road development to promote national integration and facilitate market access for rural producers. Unfortunately, unprecedented road expansion is opening extensive areas of high biodiversity value to agricultural expansion, deforestation and overexploitation.
In addition to threats to the integrity of protected areas, agricultural expansion is causing massive biodiversity loss and eroding protected area connectivity. In 2014, the Bolivian government announced plans to expand the country’s agricultural surface nearly 4-fold from 3.5 to 13 million hectares in the next decade, which will triple crop and meat outputs. The aforementioned actions have risked the country’s position as a global environmental leader but also the security and status of the country’s indigenous population and the rights of nature, the researchers argue.
Upcoming elections and the future of environmental policies in Bolivia
According to the article, after 13 years of conflicting policies, the political discourse and presidential elections on this weeks Sunday (October 20th) could set the environmental agenda for years to come. Among the eight authorized presidential candidates, several polls suggest that there are two clear front-runners: Carlos Mesa, (center-right) an ex-president who served in 2003-2005 and the current president Evo Morales (left).
Between the two, Mesa has stated that the environment will be one of the four pillars of his government if he is elected. His introductory manifesto emphasizes a diversified local economy that is socially and environmentally responsible, and which moves away from extractivism. In comparison, the Morales administration plan for 2020–2025 focuses on economic growth, agricultural expansion and financing development through the ‘nationalization, industrialization and commercialization of natural resources in harmony and balance with Mother Earth’. It states the importance of sustainable use of nature without resorting to market-based mechanisms, and mentions that the protected area network will be consolidated.
According to the researchers, the upcoming elections in Bolivia also have a high global significance, as the country has previously offered benchmark-examples of inclusive environmental governance, which respects cultural plurality and nature’s rights. The article ends in high hopes for the post-2019 Bolivian administration to honor its international commitment towards the Earth and return the country to the vanguard of the environmental movement of the Global South.
About the researchers:
Alfredo Romero-Muñoz, Geography Department, Humboldt-University Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS), Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Mónica Moraes R., Herbario Nacional de Bolivia, Instituto de Ecología, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, La Paz, Bolivia
Daniel M. Larrea-Alcázar, Herbario Nacional de Bolivia, Instituto de Ecología, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, La Paz, Bolivia
Claire F. R. Wordley, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK