Bolivia will head to the polls on October 20 to elect its next president. Recent polls indicate the incumbent leftist president Evo Morales has a substantial lead over his closest opponent, right wing Carlos Mesa and his Citizen Community (Comunidad Ciudadana) party.
As the first indigenous president in Latin America, Morales was elected in 2005 representing his social movement-backed party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Since then, he has made powerful statements on the global stage in favour of redistribution of wealth, the recognition of indigenous rights and protection of the environment. In 2010, Morales introduced the Rights of Mother Earth law, which recognises the Earth as a political subject enshrined with a right to life.
Morales’ status as environmental champion has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, owing to his handling of fires that have swept across Chiquitania, a biodiverse dry forest region, bordering the Amazon. According to figures from Santa Cruz department, four million hectares have been burnt, with catastrophic damage and loss of life to fauna.
With elections imminent, protests in October reportedly attracted up to a million people in the eastern lowland city of Santa Cruz. Protests also took place in the cities of Cochabamba and La Paz.
Some on anglophone social media were swift to describe the protests in Santa Cruz as a mass environmentalist movement. Others excitedly proclaimed Santa Cruz to be the “frontlines” of climate resistance in the Global South.
While the protests in Santa Cruz do relate in part to the forest fires, they are far from manifestations of grassroots environmentalism. In fact, the protests are linked to a longer and more fractious history of land distribution and regional power dynamics in Bolivia.
Alongside the departments of Pando, Beni and Tarija, Santa Cruz is part of the “Media Luna” region, the nexus of regional-class antagonism to Morales and the MAS. In 2008, Santa Cruz attempted to hold a referendum for independence.
In cultural and political terms, this wealthy export region could hardly be situated further from the highland, Aymara-Quechua political support base of Morales. Santa Cruz is the centre of large-scale agribusiness, cultivating wheat, soya, beef and other produce for domestic and export markets.
The Morales’ election signalled a reorientation of power away from the east and towards the indigenous movements in the highlands and valleys, displacing the preeminent position of Santa Cruz elites in national institutions and resource management.
These elites have historically rejected Morales’ syndicalist, anti-neoliberal and indigenous politics and remain marginalised by the Andean flavour of the MAS and the trade union movement. Two key anti-MAS organisations are the Pro Comité Santa Cruz and the Camera Agropecuario del Oriente (CAO), both dominated by the agribusiness elites.
The opposition is also played out in ethnic terms. Since the 1990s, indigenous movements in Bolivia and across Latin America have coalesced around opposition to neoliberal policies favourable to big business. Culturally, Morales’ core of support in the Aymara and Quechua-speaking regions runs counter to the white and mestizo (mixed race) identity of the Santa Cruz elites.
Backlash against the Chiquitania fires, evident in the latest protests, must therefore be understood as relating to a policy of land and resource distribution that conflicts with the interests of Media Luna elites.
Morales has overseen the distribution of land in Santa Cruz to individuals and indigenous collectives as part of a long-term policy of land reform across Bolivia. As Federico Fuentes points out on his blog Bolivia Rising, Santa Cruz is dominated by major latifundistas (wealthy landholders). About 5 five million hectares of its most fertile agricultural land remains in the hands of large landowners, much of it accumulated during dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.
According to figures from the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA) in 2013, peasants and indigenous communities held 36 million hectares of titled land, more than double the amount they controlled in 1992. Significantly, the majority of recent land titling concerns land in the eastern lowlands.
This is significant because the major cause of the fires, as critics point out, is the slash and burn policy adopted by local farmers. Many of these farmers, known pejoratively as collas, or colonos (settlers), have arrived in recent years from the highlands where fertile land is in shorter supply.
As small landholders with limited resources, they employ slash and burn techniques to clear land, a policy that in July was promoted by the government. Slash and burn (known as chaqueo) is a routine agricultural tool long deployed by subsistence farmers in Bolivia and around the world. The consensus seems to be that especially high temperatures this year meant that the fires spread too rapidly and spiralled out of control.
In the wake of the fires, it is right that the policy of slash and burn should now be urgently reconsidered. But this should not obscure the reality that the MAS policy of land distribution and titling in Bolivia, which aims to empower indigenous groups and peasants at the expense of large landowners, is central to Santa Cruz opposition mobilisation.
Crucially, the opposition is careful to avoid outright rejection of land reform, indigenous rights or wealth distribution. It instead opts for the emotive language of “ecocide” and weaponises a discourse of human rights to cast itself as a besieged minority under an “authoritarian dictatorship”. It employs the hashtag #SOSBolivia to imply helplessness.
Self-proclaimed human rights activist Jhannise Daza and her wholesome sounding NGO, Rios de Pie (Standing Rivers), exemplifies this. But in the case of Daza, as Wyatt Reed reveals in The Grayzone, lurking behind a green-progressive front lies an agenda of right-wing regime change, funded indirectly by United States bodies such as the National Endowment for Democracy.
Why present a protest movement as environmental, when it in fact has little to do with the environment and much more to do with protecting regional class interests? There are several key reasons for this.
It allows the Santa Cruz opposition to co-opt legitimate ecological struggle and deflect charges that they are opposed to the economic and social reforms, which empower poor and indigenous sectors.
It serves to obfuscate the less palatable ideological and class-based motivations within the mobilisation.
It sanitises a movement for the protection of regional big business and free markets that run deeply counter to the grassroots ecological movements they claim to speak for.
Furthermore, as Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg garners increasing attention on the world stage for her courageous calls for global leaders to tackle climate change, it invokes moral credibility.
It is therefore vital that the latest protests should be seen not as an organic manifestation of environmental consciousness, but as the continuation of regional-class antagonisms timed to coincide with a decisive election.
Leader on climate change
The irony is that furore over the forest fires has occluded the reality that Bolivia is in fact a global front-runner in adjusting its economy to deal with climate change.
This September, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, launched its first domestically-produced electric car.
Twenty-seven percent of Bolivia’s energy comes from renewable energy sources, compared with about 14% for Britain and 11% for the US.
Moreover, the wider social successes of Morales’ time in office are unarguable. Over a 14-year tenure, income inequality is down by two-thirds and extreme poverty fell from 38% to 17%. In contrast to many other Latin American countries, such as neighbouring Argentina, the country has enjoyed steady economic growth and monetary stability, while nationalising its major industries.
None of this is to say that Morales should not face criticism on environmental grounds. It is right that Morales is held accountable for his policies on the environment, especially where they fail to match his rhetoric on anti-capitalism and living in harmony with nature (known as buen vivir or good living).
Morales has made concessions to agribusiness and has, at times, run up against the limits of his own discourse on indigenous liberation, such as in the debacle over a proposal to construct a road through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, or TIPNIS.
Moreover, within Santa Cruz and around the country, there is widespread popular anger at Morales’ decision to ignore a 2016 referendum result that rejected the extension of terms that a president is allowed to run.
In defiance of that vote, Morales took the decision to the constitutional court, which is packed with MAS sympathisers. It ruled that he could indeed run for a further term and abolished term limits altogether. This clear stitch-up over the referendum result will not be swallowed by the electorate, and Morales can expect to take a hit in the election results as compared with previous elections.
In a country where popular protest is a feature of everyday life, it is inevitable that a robust indigenous and left movement will hold Morales accountable for political failings on environmental policy.
The reactionary elites who seek to greenwash their opposition to Morales should not be accommodated by western leftists. Expressing solidarity with environmental defenders in Bolivia and across Latin America will not be achieved by amplifying the cynical deployment of green rhetoric by Bolivia’s right-wing opposition forces.
[Abridged from Alborada.]