Despite being small, landlocked and poor, Bolivia is punching way above its weight in confronting the climate crisis and formulating radical solutions
by Richard Fidler
Life on the Left
Bolivia goes to the polls next Sunday, October 12, in the country’s third national election since the victory of Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) in December 2005 and the second since the adoption of its radically new constitution in 2009. The MAS list, led by President Morales and his Vice-Presidential running mate Álvaro García Linera, is far ahead in the opinion polling over four opposition slates, all to the right of the MAS.
Although Bolivia’s “process of change,” its “democratic and cultural revolution” as García Linera terms it, is still in its early stages, the country’s developmental process has already attracted considerable interest — and some controversy — internationally, not least because of its government’s role as a leading critic of global climate change, which it forthrightly attributes to the effects and the logic inherent to the capitalist mode of production.
Some of the highlights of this approach and how Bolivia is attempting to shape the preconditions to “going beyond capitalism” are discussed in this short presentation that I made at a workshop at the People’s Social Forum in Ottawa, August 22.
We are “ecosocialists” because the climate crisis now bearing down on us is the major issue facing the world’s peoples. It threatens the very survival of human life. It is directly caused by capitalism as a system. The alternative to capitalism is socialism, and our socialism must reflect the centrality of climate crisis in our thinking and actions.
On a global scale, Bolivia is punching way above its size in drawing attention to this crisis and formulating answers to it — within the limits of its situation as a small landlocked country in South America. And its government is moving to implement its proposals through developing an “economic, social and communitarian productive model” that takes immediate steps toward dismantling the dependent legacy of colonialism, neo-colonialism and capitalism while pointing the way toward what it terms “the socialist horizon.”
I will start by highlighting a few notable examples of how Bolivia is contributing to our understanding of climate change and what can be done about it.
When the United Nations 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen ended without any commitment by the major powers to emissions reductions, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales promptly issued a call for a “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth,” to be hosted by Bolivia.
People’s Conference on Climate Change
The conference met in Cochabamba in April 2010. It was attended by more than 30,000 people (one third were foreign visitors from 142 countries and official delegations from 47 states). It adopted a powerful anticapitalist “People’s Agreement” that called, in part, for stabilizing the rise of temperature to 1o C and limiting carbon dioxide emissions to 300 parts per million.
The Cochabamba Agreement also rejected carbon market mechanisms that transfer primary responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to poor countries. It called for integrated management of forests, “without market mechanisms and ensuring the full participation of indigenous peoples and local communities.” And it called on developed countries to allocate 6% of their GDP to fighting climate change, to repay some of their climate debt as a result of their emissions.
These proposals have been ignored by the United Nations in subsequent climate conferences. But Bolivia has pursued its international campaign.
Evo’s Ten Commandments
For example, in 2012 the government organized a mass gathering on December 21, the southern summer solstice, at the legendary Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. The event attracted some 40 indigenous groups from five continents as well as government leaders from other countries. In the days preceding the event, public and internet forums were organized to stimulate public debate on such topics as climate change and lessons from indigenous knowledges on how to live in harmony with Nature. Speaking at the event itself, Evo Morales offered “Ten Commandments to confront capitalism and construct the culture of life.”
This year Bolivia is chairing the G77+China group of what are now 133 countries of the global South. The Morales government has used its position to feature the issues of climate change, sustainable development and “Living Well in harmony with Mother Earth.” These were prominent themes of Evo’s opening speech to the G77 summit in Santa Cruz in mid-June, which directly attributed climate crisis to “the anarchy of capitalist production.”
Two weeks later, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) and the government sponsored an “Anti-Imperialist International Trade Union Conference” in Cochabamba. It was attended by representatives of unions in 22 countries affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), which claims a membership of 86 million in 120 countries.
Climate crisis as ‘crystallization’ of capitalist crises
The conference adopted a remarkable “Anti-Imperialist Political Thesis” aimed at pointing the way toward a socialist world order. We are faced, it says, with a structural crisis of global proportions affecting all aspects of nature and human life — climate, energy, food, water, etc. The climate crisis is “the crystallization of all these crises…. We are in a stage of capitalism where everything is commoditized, including life itself and common goods.”
The statement rejects the concept of a “green economy,” based on such capitalist devices as carbon credits, essentially the privatization of nature. And it points to the rising competition for control of scarce or declining natural resources, a key ingredient in the imperialist war drive.
Fighting the capitalist world system today are locally-based resistance movements, the statement notes. But globally we “have yet to create a united front that could constitute an alternative to capitalism.”
The “basic contradiction of capitalism,” it says, is “the contradiction between the social character of production and the capitalist form of property over the means of production and the appropriation of its results…. An alternative project to confront the crisis of capitalism can only come from the popular sectors and organized labour” — with “socialism as its horizon.”
What the Bolivians are saying, then, is that there is no enduring solution to our mounting environmental disasters and climate crisis short of overcoming capitalism.
Dependency and ‘extractivism’
I maintain that no other government worldwide is doing more to spread this ecosocialist message. However, there is a common perception — especially among many global justice advocates in the North — that Bolivia’s government actually violates these precepts in its own development strategy. A common criticism is that not only has it not broken with capitalism — one well-known critic in these parts claims it is “reconstituting neoliberalism”— but it has not broken decisively with the “extractivist” legacy of colonialism and capitalism, referring to the fact that Bolivia’s economy is still highly dependent on large-scale removal (“extraction”) and export of unprocessed raw materials, not just in traditional extractive industries such as mining and hydrocarbons but through industrial-scale agriculture, forestry and even fishing.
So let’s take a quick look at some features of Bolivia’s incremental development model, bearing in mind of course that this small landlocked country of 10 million cannot be expected to create socialism all on its own, in isolation from the global economy and its neighbouring countries in Latin America.
The new economic model
Three months after taking office, in 2006, the Morales government “nationalized” Bolivia’s main natural resource, its extensive hydrocarbon deposits. The state asserted ownership of gas and mineral deposits and renegotiated contracts with the private companies, including some transnationals, still involved in refining and exporting the product. Thanks to hugely increased royalties and taxes, about 80% of the profits now go to the state, more than a four-fold increase in its share of these revenues.
The vast increase in state revenue as a result of greater control over natural resource wealth has facilitated a sharp drop in public debt. Less dependent on foreign loans, the government has been able to expand its nationalization program into such areas as telecommunications, electricity and water, and ensure that more Bolivians have access to these basic services.
Significant steps have been taken toward industrializing and diversifying the economy. For example, under the government’s gas industrialization plan, Bolivia has already begun to export processed gas and by 2016 will be able to meet its domestic demand for gasoline and liquefied natural gas (LNG). As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars currently allocated to subsidizing the cost of imported processed gas can be redeployed to meeting other needs. And higher returns from processed gas exports mean Bolivia can, over time, look to generating more wealth from relatively less gas extraction.
Increased state revenues have “facilitated a seven-fold increase in social and productive spending by the government since 2005,” writes Federico Fuentes. This in turn “has allowed the government to make some headway in overcoming the social debt it inherited.” Social programs have been dramatically expanded; today one in three Bolivians benefits directly from government social security payments.
Poverty levels have been reduced from 60.6% of the population 2005 to 43.5% in 2012. Income disparities have likewise been reduced.
Modest gains, perhaps, although important in themselves in one of the poorest countries in Latin America. But there is good reason to expect more radical social reforms in the near future, especially if the government manages to go beyond programs directed to particularly disadvantaged groups and to implement projected universal coverage in such fields as health care.
Higher personal incomes, limited industrialization and the growth in the domestic market — purchasing power is up more than 40% since Morales took office — have aided growth in the manufacturing sector, contributed to a decrease in unemployment (Bolivia currently has the lowest rate in South America, 3.2%), and an increase in the percentage of workers employed in the formal economy.
Furthermore, the government has undertaken some important initiatives not only to lessen Bolivia’s extractivist dependency but to point the country in a post-capitalist direction — through creating small state-owned enterprises in which local producers and communities have a say in how they are run; the titling of more than 35 million hectares of land as communitarian property or indigenous territories; and strengthening communitarian agriculture practices through preferential access to equipment, supplies, no-interest loans and state-subsidized markets.
Extracting Bolivia from extractivism, however, is not an easy process. In the short term, the country’s economic development strategy has actually expanded its dependency on the extractive economy. On the plus side, low unemployment, greater social security, higher living standards and a political environment in which the indigenous peoples and languages have been given constitutional recognition, have strengthened the social solidarity of the popular classes, on which the government rests for its support. These are essential steps in any emancipatory project, one that points the way toward that promised “socialist horizon.”
Deepening the process?
And this may be only a beginning, Alfredo Rada writes in a significant article published in early August entitled “Deeping the process of change on the basis of the social movements.” Rada is Bolivia’s Deputy Minister for Social Movements and Civil Society. His department reports directly to the Ministry of the President and to President Evo Morales.
Rada draws attention to the recent reconstitution of what he terms the “Revolutionary Social Bloc” of the major trade unions, campesino and indigenous organizations as well as neighborhood councils and urban school boards, micro-enterprises and members of cooperatives. This bloc or alliance is known as the CONALCAM, the National Coordination for Change.
“The regained protagonism of workers and social movements,” Rada writes, “inevitably tends to strengthen … ideological tendencies within the process of change.” He draws attention to the Cochabamba anti-imperialist trade union meeting in July, supported by the government.
“Here is the vigorous present and promising future of the Bolivian process. In those proposals they defend what has been achieved (which is a lot) and seek to deepen the changes with their own political action based on the social movements.
“But the talk about deepening the process, if it is to achieve greater vitality, must be accompanied by programmatic proposals that point to further strengthening of the state with new nationalizations in strategic sectors of the economy and new industries in petrochemicals, steel, metallurgy and processed foods; to transformation of the capitalist relations of production in the public enterprises; to the strengthening of the social and communitarian sector of the economy through productive projects of an associative nature that generate employment; to the agrarian revolution that eradicates the new forms of latifundism and foreign ownership of the land that have developed in recent years; to food sovereignty, avoiding the new forms of monoculture both in the east (soy) and in the west (quinua) of the country; and to defense of Mother Nature from mining pollution and the severe impact of irrational consumption of natural resources in the cities.
“If the social movements keep the political and programmatic initiative, they will become the principal factor in democratic governability in the medium term, an indispensable factor in the management of the process.
“In light of the probability of a new triumph of Evo Morales against a right wing that is still searching for a compass, our view should go beyond the electoralist calculation. Now is the time to bring together the revolutionaries around clear ideas, organize them in close relation to the social movements and strengthen the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) as the political instrument of those movements.”
Resource dependency is not the cause of underdevelopment
Transnational corporations continue to operate in Bolivia. Extractive industries persist. Bolivia’s economy is still capitalist and resource-dependent. But the initial successes of its new development strategy centered on state investment initiatives demonstrate that it is not resource dependency per se that generates underdevelopment; it is the weak state structures and capacities typically associated with such economies. Countries with stronger state institutions — such as Norway or Canada, both heavily reliant on hydrocarbon exploitation (and mining in Canada’s case) — have remained prosperous nevertheless. However, Canada, one of the G7 leading imperialist powers, is one of the most environmentally damaging extractivists in the world, and is no example for Bolivia.
Bolivia’s MAS government is taking advantage of the favourable opportunity offered by a burgeoning global market for the country’s resources to strengthen state sovereignty and capacities with a view to raising living standards, planning production for national development, and empowering traditionally subaltern classes.
At the same time, it is conscious that imperialism as a world system continues to pose the main threat to all such efforts as well as jeopardizing the environment as never before. That is why it has consistently campaigned to raise public awareness of the need to go “beyond capitalism” as an integral component of instituting “another world” of harmonious co-existence among humans and between humanity and nature.
And that is also why the government has placed so much emphasis on forging broad international alliances with governments and social movements around such issues as climate crisis.
 Linda C. Farthing and Benjamin H. Kohl, Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change (University of Texas Press, 2014), p. 86.
 The Coordinadora Nacional por el Cambio (CONALCAM) is a Bolivian political coordination of social movements aligned with the governing Movement for Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). It was founded on 22 January 2007 during the Constituent Assembly of 2006-2007. CONALCAM mobilizes its member organizations in support of the “process of change.” (Wikipedia)