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Earth to Evo Morales

“Mother Earth is not for sale,” the Bolivian representative told last year’s United Nations climate-change conference in Doha. But environmental policy in Bolivia itself undermines the government’s efforts to assert moral superiority over other countries.

The Bolivian authorities’ radical stance in defense of the environment, which rejects market instruments to conserve forests and vulnerable areas, as well as commitments to reduce carbon emissions, is based on the view that capitalism, not specific technologies or weak regulatory mechanisms, is the fundamental cause of environmental destruction. That seemingly principled stand tends to place other countries in an awkward position. Indeed, Bolivian President Evo Morales led the effort to have the United Nations change the name of Earth Day to “International Mother Earth Day.”

But the success that can be attained through such political symbolism tends to be ephemeral, especially when the government promoting it has so much difficulty translating it into effective environmental policies in an area where it has direct responsibility: the Bolivian Amazon.

The contrast is remarkable. In the past 17 months, the Morales government has been confronted with two protest marches by indigenous peoples defending their right to be consulted on the construction of a highway that will join the cities of Cochabamba and Trinidad. The highway, with financial backing from the Brazilian government and companies, will divide the protesters’ territory, which is a protected national park (the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, or TIPNIS). Moreover, notwithstanding the green radicalism that it showcased in Doha, the government launched the project without an engineering design or environmental-impact studies – not to mention the indigenous peoples’ agreement.

The Isiboro-Sécure Park was created in 1965 in order to protect the area against the threat represented by the highway that was then being built to join the Andes region with the Bolivian tropics. In 1990, the park was also recognized as the territory of the Moxeño, Yuracaré, and Tsimané peoples, whose survival was threatened. By 2011, these indigenous groups already had a collective property deed for the territory, signed by Morales and in accordance with all valid legislation.

So, for these groups – and for all citizens who worry about climate change – it was inconceivable that a government promoting the most radical environmentalism would plan and implement the highway project. Indeed, as Morales himself put it, the project would be completed “whatever the cost.”

The indigenous groups affected by the project were unable to address the authorities directly; so, hoping to be heard, they initiated a 600-kilometer (373-mile) march, taking more than two months to reach the capital, La Paz. Along the way, the marchers suffered violent attacks by the police and groups close to the government, but they gained broad support from the urban population, thus forcing Morales to declare the park untouchable.

Before the indigenous groups returned home, however, they received the news that Morales had initiated a campaign to renege on his promise and proceed with the highway’s construction. They then attempted a second march, but it failed to have the intended impact, because the government opted for a rigged referendum that allowed it to continue construction (though now without Brazilian backing).

With the problem unresolved, and its alliances with indigenous groups, environmentalists, and human-rights activists in tatters, Morales’s government went to the Doha conference. But the stance that it adopted there seems to have less to do with fighting climate change more effectively than it does with strengthening its bargaining position on its own demands. But those demands – such as the right to develop and compensation for damage and losses caused by climate disasters – jeopardize even the limited progress achieved in recent years.

Political speeches and the agreements that result from them can be important, but they would be more effective if they were backed by credible action. Unfortunately, credible action is not the Morales government’s strong suit.

Roberto Laserna is an economist at CERES, a private research center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and President of Fundacion Milenio, a think tank in La Paz.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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