In Bolivia, environment-related contradictions abound: shrinking glaciers threaten the water supply of the booming capital city, La Paz, while unusually heavy rainfall triggers deadly landslides. The government is seeking to develop a strategic reserve of metals that could make Bolivia the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” while politicians promote legal rights for “Mother Earth” and an end to capitalism.
This year has been particularly turbulent. In La Paz, landslides destroyed at least 400 homes and left 5,000 homeless. While the rain has been overwhelming at times, it has also been unreliable – an effect of the alternating climate phenomena La Niña and El Niño, experts say, which have grown more frequent in recent years and cause great variability in weather patterns. Bolivia has endured nine major droughts and 25 floods in the past three decades, a challenge for any country but particularly so for one of the poorest, least developed, and fastest growing (with a total fertility rate over three) in Latin America.
Environmental Justice or Radicalism?
Environmentalism has become a major force in national politics in part as a response to the climatic challenges faced by Bolivia. A new law seeks to grant the environment the same legal rights as citizens, including the right to clean air and water and the right to be free of pollution. (Voters in Ecuador approved a similar measure in 2008.) The law is seen as a return of respect to Pachamama, a much revered spiritual entity (akin to Mother Earth) for Bolivia’s indigenous population, who account for around 62 percent of the total population.
Though groundbreaking in its scope, the new law may prove difficult to enforce, given its lack of precedent and the lucrative business interests at stake (oil, gas, and mineral extraction accounted for 70 percent of Bolivia’s exports in 2010).
On the global stage, President Morales has issued perhaps the most aggressive calls yet for industrial countries to do more about climate change and compensate those countries that are already experiencing the effects. Bolivia refused to sign both the Copenhagen and Cancun climate agreements on grounds that the agreements were too weak. In Cancun, Morales gave a blistering speech:
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!Bolivia’s stance has alienated potential allies: In 2010, the United States denied Bolivia climate aid funds worth $3 million because of its failure to sign the Copenhagen Accord.
Going… Going… Gone
Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier – estimated to be 18,000 years old – is today only a small patch of ice, the victim of rising temperatures from climate change, scientists say. Glaciologists suggest that temperatures have been steadily rising in Bolivia for the past 60 years and will continue to rise perhaps a further 3.5-4˚C over the next century – a change that would turn much of the country into desert.
Other Andean glaciers face a similar fate, according to the World Bank, which estimates that the loss of these glaciers threatens the water supply of some 30 million people and La Paz in particular, which, some experts say, could become one of the world’s first capitals to run out of water. The populations of La Paz and neighboring El Alto have been steadily growing – from less than 900,000 in 1950 to more than 2 million in 2011 – as more and more Bolivians are moving from the countryside to the city, putting pressure on an already dwindling water supply.
If the water scarcity situation continues to worsen, residents of the La Paz metropolitan area may migrate to other areas of the country, most likely eastward toward Bolivia’s largest and most prosperous city, Santa Cruz. Such migration, however, has the potential to inflame existing tensions between the western (indigenous) and eastern (mestizo) portions of the country.
Rising Prices, Rising Tension
The temperature is not the only thing on the rise in Bolivia; the price of food, too, is increasing. According to the World Food Program, since 2010, the price of pinto beans has risen 179 percent; flour, 44 percent; and rice, 33 percent. Shortages of sugar and other basic foodstuffs have been reported as well, leading to protests.
In early February, the BBC reported President Evo Morales was forced to abandon his plans to give a public speech after a group of protestors started throwing dynamite. A week later, nation-wide demonstrations paralyzed several cities, according to AFP, closing schools and disrupting services.
The Saudi Arabia of Lithium?
One way out for Bolivia’s economic woes might be its still nascent mineral extraction sector. Bolivia possesses an estimated 50 percent of the world’s lithium deposits (nine million tons, according to the U.S. Geological Survey), most of which is locked beneath the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. The size of these reserves has prompted some to dub Bolivia a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium” – a title, it should be noted, that has also been bestowed upon Chile and Afghanistan.
Demand for lithium, which is used most notably in cell phones and electric car batteries, is expected to dramatically increase in the next 10 years as countries seek to lower their dependence on fossil fuels. Yet, some analysts have wondered if Bolivia’s lithium is needed, given the quality and current level of production of lithium from neighboring Chile and Argentina.
Others have questioned whether Bolivia has the necessary infrastructure to industrialize the extraction process or the ability to get its product to market, though Bolivia recently signed an agreement with neighboring Peru for port access. In an extensive report for The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright writes that “before Bolivia can hope to exploit a twenty-first century fuel, it must first develop the rudiments of a twentieth-century economy.” To this end, the Bolivian government last year announced a partnership with Iran to develop its lithium reserves – a surprising move, given Morales’ historical disdain for foreign investment.
Nexus of Climate, Security, Culture, and Development
The Uyuni salt flats are both a potent economic opportunity and one of the country’s most unspoiled natural wonders. How will Bolivia – a country of natural bounty and unique indigenous tradition – balance the need for development with its stated commitment to environmental principles?
Large-scale extraction may be worth the environmental cost, a La Paz economist told The Daily Mail: “We are one of the poorest countries on Earth with appalling life-expectancy rates. This is no time to be hard-headed. Without development our people will suffer. Getting bogged down in principles and politics doesn’t put food in people’s mouths.”
“The process that we are faced with internally is a difficult one. It’s no cup of tea. There are sectors and players at odds in this more environmentalist vision,” said Carlos Fuentes, a Bolivian government official, to The Latin American News Dispatch.
Sources: American University, BBC News, Bloomberg, Change.org, Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Mail, Democracy Now, Green Change, The Guardian, Instituto Nacional de Estadística de Bolivia, IPS News, Latin America News Dispatch, MercoPress, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Population Reference Bureau, PreventionWeb, Reliefweb, Reuters, SAGE, Tierramerica, USAID, U.S. Geological Survey, UNICEF, Upsidedownworld, Wired UK, The World Bank, Yahoo, Yes! Magazine.
Photo credit: “la paz,” courtesy of flickr user timsnell and “Isla Incahuasi – Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia,” courtesy of flickr user kk+.