As Bolivia Burns, State Policy Fuels the Fire

The environmental catastrophe that the people of Bolivia are living–as fires continue to destroy millions of hectares of forest in the east of the country–is a painful consequence of the impacts of an economic model built on voracious extractivism, a model that continues to expand. The government has promoted an expansion of agricultural production without carrying out land reform, increasing pressure on park lands, protected areas and Indigenous territories. Today, it is these areas that are on fire, and not the lands of the landholding elite.

Bolivia’s Chiquitano dry forest in flames, September 2019. Image by FCBC.

The expansion of extractivism in present-day Bolivia is explicit, especially when compared to other moments in time, because of the open alliances that the government of Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) have made with agribusiness plantation owners. This is the same elite group that, not so many years ago, formed the Media Luna block in eastern Bolivia, in alliance against Morales’ government.

The environmental catastrophe that we are living today is not an anomaly but rather represents a continuation of neoliberal policies put into place since the 1980s. In the current electoral context, these policies have led to nearly two million hectares of forests to light ablaze, putting human and non-human life at risk.

It is important to understand the fires in Bolivia as a continuation of the historical policies of the Bolivian state, and not just as the result of the actions of the current government. This allows us to understand how it came to be that Evo Morales, Carlos Mesa and Óscar Ortíz, the three main presidential candidates in October’s presidential elections, represent three distinct but complementary visions of state policy.

Former President and now candidate Carlos Mesa proposed this extractive model (with little success) during the neoliberal push many years ago; the progressivism of Evo Morales efficiently operationalized the extractive model; and the oligarchic and landholding elite of Bolivia’s east, represented in Óscar Ortíz, has been one of the main beneficiaries of the extractive model, as have transnational, US, Brazilian, Chinese and European capitalists.

If the long history of what we know today as Bolivia has turned around extractivism (first through mining and then hydrocarbons), it was neoliberalism that, in the 1990s and the 2000s, attempted to intensify and diversify the extractive model. This gave a stronger push to transnational capital and strengthened the agroindustrial sector, especially in Bolivia’s eastern region.

Former Presidents Carlos Mesa and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada shared a deep commitment to neoliberal development, as evidenced through Mesa’s support for oil companies over the national interest during his mandate. But the expansion of neoliberalism in Bolivia soon reached a limit. That limit was created by social organizing, which between 2000 and 2005 spilled into the streets and put a brake on state policies.

Contrary to expectations, after the MAS won national elections in 2006, this brake began to lift. The government distanced itself from movements and the demands of those whose struggles brought Morales to the presidency. Little by little, the MAS began to make agreements with transnational capital and the landholding oligarchy. The Morales government transformed the demands of elite sectors into the basis for their own agenda, in doing so they took the reigns of extractivist state policy.

The key condition required to jumpstart the extractivist agenda was to do what previous neoliberals couldn’t: to calm the organized social forces that were mobilized in struggle. Through subordination or through repression, the Morales government undid processes of resistance and began to oversee the agenda of big capital, which they continue to do through to today.

With regards extractivism, the data is arresting. I’d like to share three examples here:

  • In 2007 there were 3 million hectares of land destined to oil and gas exploration and exploitation, today there’s 24 million hectares dedicated to the same. These permits impact half of Bolivia’s 22 protected areas.
  • In 2005, the production of genetically modified soya, which was initiated during Mesa’s government, was approximately 20% of total soya production, today it is nearly 99%.
  • Deforestation, which is directly linked to the fires that continue to burn today, has continued, and by 2017 approximately 1.5 million hectares illegally slashed and burned. These clearings were then legalized through Law 337 in 2013. Bolivia’s deforestation rate is 12 times the world average, which situates Bolivia (before the fires) as the country with the fourth highest per capita deforestation rate in the world.

The longstanding problem of the plantation system in eastern Bolivia, which remains structurally untouched, is another key issue that needs to be addressed in order to understand the country today. The Bolivian state, in its different governmental variations (nationalist revolutionary, neoliberal or MASist) has guaranteed large landholdings. This guarantee is also included in the 2009 Constitution. In Bolivia today, 3.9% of landowners control 79.4% of arable land.

It is crucial that we deepen the ways in which we comprehend what is taking place in Bolivia, not only with regards to the fires but also with regards to capitalist expansion. It’s not just about badly designed policies, opportunistic laws, recent alliances or abstract capitalism. Rather, its about the organization of a political and economic power that has been capable of blunting the force of social struggle and resistance. Beyond representation and discourse, whether expressed by Morales, Mesa or Ortíz, this political and economic power promotes the consolidation of an economic model built on dispossession, which is continuous with the political history of state domination.

The organization of political and economic power in Bolivia has been made invisible in the context of the campaigns for October’s elections, in this context we see each candidate pointing a finger at the others. The violence carried out by nationalistic, fascist organizations, such as the recent arson attack on the MAS headquarters in Santa Cruz, in eastern Bolivia, polarize and further fragment resistance. These types of actions lead discussion and debate to become sterile in a way that is functional to political and economic power.

If we can see things from a more informed perspective, and we are moved by dignified rage, we can see that our energy need not go towards campaigning for electoral adjustments of those who govern and operate state policies. Rather, this energy must go the (re)organization of our autonomous forces and our own alliances in concrete, daily life. Only these forces are capable of putting limits on the politics of dispossession. In Bolivia today, territorial and feminist struggles, which are produced and reproduced on the margins of electoral politics and which hold life at their center, are those that are the furthest along this path.

This article was originally published on Zur, and was updated and translated by Toward Freedom in dialogue with the author.

Author Bio

Huáscar Salazar Lohman is a Bolivian economist who writes on community struggles in Bolivia.