As Bolivia’s first indigenous President, Evo Morales has moved environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and indigenous rights to the forefront of the political agenda, acting as the self-proclaimed tribune of both the rural indigenous poor and “Pachamama”, or Mother Earth. However, now more than halfway through his second term, cracks have begun to show in Morales’ championing of environmental concerns. This apparent failure has been attributed to cynical political manoeuvring, corruption, or simple naiveté, but it may be symptomatic of a more profound dilemma in both Bolivia and the wider developing world. When industrialisation can improve wealth and welfare provisions so rapidly, is it really a betrayal if leaders choose people over planet?

Radical Activist, Radical President

Morales’ political history suggests he has typically seen the two as inextricable, cutting his teeth as a leader during the Cochabamba water riots in 2000 and the unrest over the private, foreign control of Bolivian gas reserves in 2005. Both these movements held the view that Bolivia’s natural resources and her indigenous poor were being exploited as part of the same agenda, and that neither the indigenous population nor the environment would be respected while the other was not. It is this background that has informed many of Morales’ more radical environmental stances as President; lobbying for a U.N. declaration of the rights of Mother Earth, and consistently taking more developed nations to task for their carbon emissions and exploitation of resources. It is also this legacy which is now inspiring accusations of betrayal.

Nationalised Pollution

Despite his rhetoric, many have accused Morales of ignoring his environmental commitments, if not reneging on them entirely. He nationalised Bolivia’s hydrocarbon industries upon becoming President, a profitable decision which has allowed huge improvement in welfare provisions, but his administration has not limited extraction or the environmental damage that goes with it. He champions the use of the country’s vast natural supplies of lithium as a way of both reducing dependency on fossil fuels and bolstering Bolivia’s economy and international standing, but the process of lithium extraction may ultimately create as much pollution as that of hydrocarbon.

Development and Destruction

Most controversial, however, were his 2011 plans to build a highway through the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory. The government claimed this would lead to greater development and infrastructure in the rainforest, thus improving the lives of the inhabitants, but faced fierce and eventually successful resistance as the area’s indigenous peoples fought against the destruction of their land. This issue more than any other harmed Morales’ posturing as an environmental champion and showed for the first time a divergence between what the indigenous populations wanted for themselves and what Morales wanted for them.

Idealist or Realist

Is Morales, therefore, a traitor or a pragmatist? It is undeniable that the poorest, in Bolivia and across the globe, are hit hardest by climate change, despite contributing practically nothing to the problem, and this tenet underpins many environmentalist movements in the developing world. It is also undeniable that destroying the natural environment will be catastrophic for all humanity, regardless of nationality or social class. Nevertheless, in countries such as Bolivia, where so many live in abject poverty, rapid industrialisation and the economic boost it provides can prove extremely tempting for even the most environmentally conscious leader. Morales’ political history suggests good intentions when an agitator and not a legislator but perhaps now he has been forced to prioritise the needs of real Bolivians over those of their Mother Earth. Only time will tell how many other leaders will find themselves in the same position.

About the Author
Claire Green is a Spanish student at the University of Glasgow. She is involved with a variety of feminist and socialist political campaigns, and regularly writes on these issues.

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