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The Politics of Climate Change

3 July 2019
This evening we had the privilege of meeting with Rafael Puente, an historian and former high-ranking government official whose criticisms of the current administration are well known in Bolivia. As he was speaking about the causes of climate change in Bolivia, it occurred to me how much all of this can be attributed to the forces of economic globalization that have been rapidly accelerating since the 1990s. Bolivia, of course, has been exploited by foreign powers for its natural resources ever since the Spanish conquest of South America in the sixteenth century, when the famed mines at Potosí flooded European markets with precious metals and fueled the development of global capitalism. Bolivia has suffered the ecological consequences of mining ever since, as evidenced in the drying up of Lake Popo, whose bed has been contaminated by toxic materials. But perhaps the bigger culprit is the production of natural gas and other hydrocarbons, which plays an increasingly large role in Bolivia’s economy. Despite Evo Morales’ promises to support environmental rights, his administration has proven dedicated to natural resource extraction at enormous environmental costs and for the benefit of largely foreign owned companies.

No one has felt the effects of these policies more keenly than Bolivia’s 34 recognized indigenous groups, whose societies historically have been by and large agricultural. Many of them feel betrayed by what they see as broken promises on the part of the government and entirely eclipsed by the new economy. Younger generations are fleeing to the cities to work in retail, transportation, and service sectors, leaving an aging population behind in the countryside.

Both the intensification of resource extraction and the decline in agricultural production together are conspiring to decrease Bolivia’s economic independence within the world system. For example, in 2005, President Morales announced the goal of securing food sovereignty for Bolivia, making the country entirely self-sufficient in feeding its population. This goal could actually be achieved, given the wide variety of ecosystems within the country. But Bolivia has actually become more dependent than ever on other countries for food, and now even imports potatoes from neighboring Peru. In addition, as a condition of the contracts that the Bolivian government has signed with Chinese companies to build dams and extract resources, unemployment has increased due to the use of imported labor.

While it is too soon to predict the outcome of the presidential election later this year, these issues will undoubtedly figure heavily in the decisions of many voters.