Bolivia leads climate change fight

October 19, 2014
Bolivians celebrate the re-election of President Evo Morales with more than 60% of the vote on October 12. The Morales governmen

Bolivian President Evo Morales was re-elected for his third term on October 12 with more than 60% of the vote.

The “process of change” that the Morales government leads ― its “democratic and cultural revolution” as Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera terms it ― is still in its early stages. But it has already attracted considerable interest ― and some controversy ― internationally, not least because of its role as a leading critic of global climate change, which it attributes to the effects and the logic inherent to the capitalist mode of production.

Below, Richard Fidler looks at some ways Bolivia seems to go “beyond capitalism”. It is abridged from a longer presentation, the full version of which can be read at Fidler's blog Life on The Left.


On a global scale, Bolivia is punching way above its size in drawing attention to the climate crisis and formulating answers to it ― within the limits of its situation as a small landlocked country in South America.

Its government is moving to implement its proposals through developing an “economic, social and communitarian productive model”. This seeks to take immediate steps towards dismantling the dependent legacy of colonialism, neo-colonialism and capitalism, while pointing toward what it terms “the socialist horizon”.

When the United Nations 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen ended without any commitment by major powers to cut emissions, Morales 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 Summit

The conference, in Cochabamba in April 2010, 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 anti-capitalist “People's Agreement” that called, in part, for stabilising the rise of temperature to 1 degree Celsius 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.”

It also called on developed countries to allocate 6% of their GDP to fighting climate change so as to repay some of their climate debt from their emissions.

These proposals have been ignored by the United Nations in subsequent climate conferences. But Bolivia has pursued its international campaign.
In December 2012, the government organised a mass gathering at the legendary Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. The event attracted some 40 indigenous groups from five continents.

Ahead of the event, public and internet forums were organised to stimulate debate on such topics as climate change and lessons from indigenous knowledge on how to live in harmony with Nature.

Speaking at the event, Morales offered “Ten Commandments to confront capitalism and construct the culture of life”.

This year, Bolivia is chairing the G77+China group of 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 Morales' 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.

Capitalist crises

The conference adopted an “Anti-Imperialist Political Thesis” aimed at pointing the way towards a socialist world.

It says we are faced with a global structural crisis affecting all aspects of nature and human life. The climate crisis is “the crystallisation of all these crises … We are in a stage of capitalism where everything is commodified, 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 privatisation of nature. It points to the rising competition for control of scarce natural resources, a key ingredient in the imperialist war drive.

The statement notes that locally-based resistance movements are fighting the capitalist system. 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.”

No other government worldwide is doing more to spread this ecosocialist message. But there is a common perception ― especially tamong many global justice advocates in the North ― that Bolivia's government violates this message in its own development strategy.

A common criticism is that not only has it not broken with capitalism, but it has not broken decisively with the “extractivist” legacy of colonialism and capitalism.

This refers to the fact that Bolivia's economy is still highly dependent on large-scale removal (“extraction”) and export of unprocessed raw materials.

New Economic Model

Three months after taking office in 2006, the Morales government “nationalised” Bolivia's main natural resource, its extensive hydrocarbon deposits. The state asserted ownership of gas and mineral deposits and renegotiated contracts with 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 rise in its share.

The rise in state revenue has facilitated a sharp drop in public debt. Less dependent on foreign loans, the government has been able to expand its nationalisation program into such areas as telecommunications, electricity and water. This ensures more Bolivians have access to these basic services.

Significant steps have been taken toward industrialising and diversifying the economy. Under the government's gas industrialisation plan, Bolivia has already begun exporting 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 now allocated to subsidising the cost of imported processed gas can be redeployed. And higher returns from processed gas exports mean Bolivia can, over time, look to generating more wealth from less gas extraction.

More state revenues have lead to a seven-fold rise in social and productive spending since 2005, when Morales was first elected. Social programs have been dramatically expanded; today one in three Bolivians benefits directly from government social security payments.

Poverty has been cut from 60.6% of the population in 2005 to 43.5% in 2012. Income disparities have been lowered. Modest, but important, gains for one of Latin America's poorest countries. There is good reason to expect more radical social reforms in the near future.

Purchasing power is up more than 40% since Morales took office. This has aided growth in the manufacturing sector, contributed to a cut in unemployment (Bolivia has the lowest rate in South America) and a rise in the percentage of workers employed in the formal economy.

The government has undertaken some important initiatives to lessen Bolivia's extractivist dependency and point the country in a post-capitalist direction.

It has created small state-owned enterprises in which local producers and communities have a say in how they are run; allocated more than 35 million hectares of land as “communitarian” property or indigenous territories; and strengthened communitarian agriculture practices through preferential access to equipment, supplies, no-interest loans and state-subsidised 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.

Deepening the process

Alfredo Rada, Bolivia's deputy minister for social movements and civil society, wrote an article in August entitled “Deeping the process of change on the basis of the social movements”.

Rada draws attention to the recent reconstitution of what he terms the “Revolutionary Social Bloc” of the major trade unions, campesino and indigenous groups, as well as neighborhood councils and urban school boards, micro-enterprises and members of cooperatives.

This bloc or alliance is known as the National Coordination for Change (CONALCAM).

“The regained protagonism of workers and social movements,” Rada writes, “inevitably tends to strengthen … ideological tendencies within the process of change.”

“If the social movements keep the political and programmatic initiative,” Rada wrote, “they will become the principal factor in democratic governability in the medium term, an indispensable factor in the management of the process ...

“Now is the time to bring together the revolutionaries around clear ideas, organise them in close relation to the social movements and strengthen the MAS as the political instrument of those movements.”

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. Rather, 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 — have remained prosperous nevertheless. However, Canada, one of the G7 leading imperialist powers, is one of the most environmentally damaging extractivists in the world. It 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.

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