in Articles, Environment, Indigenous, Latin America and the Caribbean, Mining, Repression, Workers

The Latin American Revolution (Part 24): Morales and Social Movements Continue to Transform Bolivia

By Asad Ismi

The Latin American Revolution would not have been possible without an unprecedented coalescing of political power and social movements. In this series, I have documented the many progressive changes brought by the ten elected left-wing governments in Latin America.  Many of these changes owe their inspiration in part to social organizations. Some of the leaders of this revolution, such as President Evo Morales of Bolivia, arose directly from indigenous and anti-neoliberal movements pushing for an end to elite rule and a real alternative to capitalism.

As Bolivian-Canadian activist Juan Valencia Saravia explains, “the social movements are the backbone support of Morales’ political party known as Movement towards Socialism (MAS).” Saravia worked for seven years as an agronomist for the Centre for Research and Promotion of Farmers (CIPCA) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. “The diverse groups include small farmers, indigenous groups, women’s groups, miners and labour unions. These groups are active supporters of the Morales government. The policies debated in the Bolivian national assembly are consulted on beforehand by Morales with these actors.”

A former coca farmer, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president in a country where 62% of the population is indigenous.  He was elected in 2005, re-elected by a landslide vote in 2009, and will face the ballot box a third time this October. He has little serious competition. Morales is popular, in part, because his government has spent the last nine years redistributing Bolivia’s wealth from its elite and multinational corporations to the country’s indigenous majority. For example, he has overseen the nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves, the second largest in Latin America, which were formerly controlled by foreign companies. He has also nationalized mining companies and Bolivia’s biggest telecommunications corporation, and the government has banned any future privatization of natural resources through a constitutional reform.

The Morales government has used the fivefold increase in revenues generated by energy nationalization to give the Bolivian people free health care and education.  The provision of these services has reduced Bolivia’s infant mortality rate from 52 per 1,000 in 2004 to 32.8 per 1,000 in 2012 according to the United Nations while virtually wiping out illiteracy during the same time.  Morales has also redistributed wealth through land reform and government cash payments to the poor majority.

In a particularly important collaboration between his government and Bolivian social movements in 2011, Morales made Bolivia the first country in the world to give legal rights to Mother Earth equal to the rights of human beings. This was aimed at reducing the harmful effects of climate change and the exploitation of nature, and at improving quality of life for the Bolivian people. “It makes world history. Earth is the mother of all”, said Vice-President Alvaro García Linera at the time. “It establishes a new relationship between humans and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration.”

The legislation, known as The Law of Mother Earth, was driven and partially drafted by the Pacto de Unidad (Unity Pact), a coalition of five Bolivian social movements representing more than three million people and all of Bolivia’s 36 indigenous groups. The bill protects their ways of life and importantly their ways of farming from the negative effects of industry. Undarico Pinto, a leader of the social movement Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, said the legislation “will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional and local levels.”

The law, which passed in October 2012, provides nature with new rights, including to the integrity of life and natural processes, the right not to have cellular structures modified or genetically altered, and the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration. Mother Earth has rights to pure water, clean air, balance, to be free from toxic and radioactive pollution, and not to be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that disrupt the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities. The legislation rejects the Western “development” model in favour of a holistic vision based on the indigenous concept of “Living Well,” which is defined in the proposal for the law as meaning “adopting forms of consumption, behaviour and conduct that are not degrading to nature.” Living well “requires an ethical and spiritual relationship with life [and] proposes the complete fulfillment of life and collective happiness.”

This definition, and the genesis of The Law of Mother Earth, come from the indigenous worldview of ‘Pachamama’ (Mother Earth) as a sacred living being. Rejecting the limitless exploitation of nature, the law calls minerals “blessings” and emphasizes that Mother Earth, “is fertile and the source of life that feeds and cares for all living beings in her womb. She is in permanent balance, harmony and communication with the cosmos.” There is an urgent environmental imperative to the legislation. Bolivia has been significantly impacted by climate change with increasing temperatures and droughts, melting glaciers, flooding, frosts and mudslides. The country’s environment has also been greatly harmed by the mining of tin, silver, gold and other minerals.

Obviously Bolivia cannot battle climate change on its own, so the Morales government continues to draw international attention to the links between capitalism, imperialist resource extraction and the climate crisis.  As the Indigenous Environmental Network said of Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth: “This is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st Century. How do we re-orientate the dominant industrialized societies so that they pursue human well-being in a manner that contributes to the health of our Mother Earth instead of undermining it? In other words – how do we live in harmony with Nature?”

Bolivia’s emergence as a global environmental leader is even more impressive since not only is it the poorest country in South America but its national income is largely derived from oil, gas and mining, which together account for 70 per cent of the country’s exports.  Oil and gas are Bolivia’s biggest export revenue earners while one third of the country’s foreign currency ($500 million a year) comes from mining companies. As Nick Buxton of the Transnational Institute put it in 2011, Bolivia’s economy is the product of a long and painful colonial past.

“Since the discovery of silver by the Spanish in the 16th Century, Bolivia’s history has been tied to ruthless exploitation of its people and its environment in order to transfer wealth to the richest countries,” he wrote in Yes Magazine. “Eduardo Galeano’s famous book Open Veins of Latin America draws largely on the brutal story of how Bolivia’s exploitation fuelled the industrial expansion of Europe.” Eight million indigenous Bolivians were worked to death as slaves by Spanish colonists in the country’s Potosi silver mine alone.

Buxton quoted Raul Prada, an adviser to the Bolivian Unity Pact, who said, “Even with significant pressure from social movements, transitioning to an economy based on the concept of Living Well will not be easy.” Prada continued:

We clearly can’t close mines straight away, but we can develop a model where this economy has less and less weight. It will need policies developed in participation with movements, particularly in areas such as food sovereignty. It will need redirection of investment and policies towards different ecological models of development. It will need the cooperation of the international community to develop regional economies that complement each other.

Thankfully, the concept of “living well” is spreading.  In June, Morales hosted a special summit of the Group of 77 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The Group of 77 is an alliance of developing nations that negotiate collectively at the United Nations. It has since expanded to include 133 countries as well as the Palestinian Authority. The G77 summit closed on June 15 with the adoption of a declaration containing 242 articles and entitled, “For a New World Order for Living Well.” In his opening speech to the summit, Morales called for “a coordinated anti-capitalist response to the combined threats of economic, social and environmental catastrophe now looming as never before.” The summit followed a mass meeting of Bolivian social movements with the presidents of Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

There is more good news in the recent move by the Morales government to restrict mining and protect the environment. After three years of consultations with social movements and other stakeholders, a new mining law was passed on May 3 under which co-operatives can no longer partner with domestic or foreign private companies, an arrangement common to Bolivia’s biggest mines.

Also, private companies can no longer register minerals as property, which will prevent them from claiming mineral rights as collateral for loans, or including resources as assets in stock market filings. Bolivians are allowed to partner with Comibol, the state mining company. The terms of all existing mining contracts that do not meet the new law’s requirements will have to be renegotiated over 18 months. The new law follows the government’s takeover of 70 per cent of all private mining concessions in September 2013.

Saravia explains that the new mining law, “gives more power to the state to control the mining sector.”  Private companies will need to work with Comibol, the state mining company, to get projects going, and it will be under very different conditions.

“Mining is highly polluting and now unlike under neoliberalism, Bolivian environmental laws will regulate mining,” says Saravia. “The government is committed to environmental protection and will ensure this by carrying out environmental assessments of all mining operations in alliance with the local communities that will potentially be affected.”

In his 2011 conversation with the TNI’s Buxton, Prada explained why Bolivia’s struggle for a different way of living should be watched carefully.

“Our ecological and social crisis is not just a problem for Bolivia. It is a problem for all of us,” he said. “We need to pull together peoples, researchers and communities to develop real concrete alternatives so that the dominant systems of exploitation don’t just continue by default. This is not an easy task, but I believe with international solidarity, we can and must succeed.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July-August 2014

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is the author of the anthology The Latin American Revolution, which contains 24 articles on this topic and can be ordered from the CCPA.  He is also author of the radio documentary of the same title which has been aired on 40 radio stations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe reaching 33 million people.