Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bolivia Beacon of Progression for the World

The homepage of Canadian mining company, South American Silver. In 2012 the Bolivian government expropriated South American Silver's Malku Khota mine for operating the mine on Malku Khota lands without permission.
Bolivia under President Morales has one of the most advanced democracies in the world. To illustrate, Bolivia allows non-profit and indigenous groups the same political standing and rights as political parties; Bolivia's broadcast media is divided equally in terms of licenses between the private sector, government, and non-profit and indigenous groups; and Bolivia has caps on broadcast coverage during election periods (which support broad and balanced election coverage) and public electoral finance transparency.

Bolivia's constitution recognizes, implicitly, the importance of the environment and Mother Earth. Excerpt from the opening statement of the 2009 Bolivian Constitution:

"In ancient times mountains were erected, moved rivers, lakes were formed. Our Amazon, our Chaco, the altiplano and our plains and valleys were covered with greenery and flowers. Populate this sacred Mother Earth with different faces, and we knew since the current plurality of all things and our diversity as human beings and cultures. So settle our people, and never understand racism until we suffer from the dismal days of the colony.

The Bolivian people, of varied composition, from the depths of history, inspired by the struggles of the past, the Indian anti-colonial uprising in independence in people's liberation struggles in indigenous marches, social and trade union in Water Wars and October, in the struggles for land and territory, and the memory of our martyrs, we build a new state.

A state based on respect and equality among all, with principles of sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, harmony and equality in the distribution and redistribution of social product, which dominates the search for living well, with respect to the plurality economic, social , legal, political and cultural life of the inhabitants of this land in collective living with access to water, labor, education, health and housing for all...

We, women and men, through the Constituent Assembly and the original power of the people, express our commitment to the unity and integrity of the country.

Fulfilling the mandate of our people, the strength of our Mother Earth and thank God, refound Bolivia..."

Now, Bolivia has the Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well (as of October 15, 2012). The law includes the establishment of basic humanity rights: "right to life, biodiversity, pure water, clean air, and freedom from genetic modification and contamination". Although the law is vague, it does establish basic humanity rights, which can be built upon. Bolivia's challenge is to balance its dependency on extractive industries with minerals and natural gas constituting 70% of its exports and at the same time protecting indigenous rights and the environment.

In contrast, Canada under its conservative government is heading in an opposite direction, as the conservative government recently passed bill C-45 which fast tracks industrial projects at the expense of First Nations rights and the environment; most of Canada's lakes, rivers, and streams are now not protected under Canadian environmental law. In addition, the conservative government is in the process of signing a free trade deal with China, which would allow Chinese companies operating in Canada to circumvent Canadian law including environmental law. There is no mention of humanity rights such as right to pure water, clean air, protected environment etc., in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian Idle No More movement since November, 2012 has spread rapidly across Canada in protest to the Canadian government's neo-liberal policies. In addition, the Canadian federal electoral system only recognizes political parties, has no regulation of media election coverage, and allows minority political parties (through the first-past-the post system) to have a majority of the Canadian parliament.

Related articles and reports:

Bolivia Expropriates Canadian Mine

FDA Report on Bolivia's Electoral System

Bolivia's Law of Mother Earth (in Spanish)

Alain Deneault Interview on the Canadian Mining Industry

Mr. Stephen Garvey, Foundation for Democratic Advancement, Executive Director


Earth First? Bolivia’s Mother Earth Law Meets the Neo-Extractivist Economy

By Emily Achtenberg and Rebel Currents

While the U. S. courts have granted civil rights to corporations, Bolivia has enacted a new law enshrining the legal rights of nature. The “Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well,” promulgated by President Evo Morales on October 15, establishes eleven rights of Mother Earth, including the right to life, biodiversity, pure water, clean air, and freedom from genetic modification and contamination.

The concept of nature as a legal subject—a protagonist with its own interests and rights—is a novel approach in the field of environmental law, offering a potentially revolutionary tool for groups engaged in environmental conflicts. Still, given Bolivia’s structural dependence on extractive industry—with minerals and natural gas constituting 70% of its exports—and the Morales government’s continued reliance on these sectors to generate state revenues for poverty reduction and industrialization, whether the new law will be useful in challenging government-supported development projects remains an open question.

The new Mother Earth law, elaborating on a declaratory “short law” adopted by the Bolivian congress in December 2010, has been a high priority for Bolivia’s indigenous and peasant movements, and results from a commitment made by Morales at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change held in Cochabamba earlier that year. Key provisions include an extension of Bolivia’s agrarian reform program (with women, indigenous peoples, afro-bolivians, and migrant settlers having preference for redistributed lands), establishment of a Mother Earth “Ombudsman” and a Climate Justice Fund, a ban on genetically-modified seeds and crops, and a requirement that all infrastructure and development projects respect the natural environment and provide remediation for any incidental damages.

Taken together, these and other measures are designed to bring about a new model of “integral development” that balances the exploitation of natural resources to meet human needs with environmental protection. The law reflects a fundamental tenet of the Morales government: that it’s possible for the Bolivian state to harness extractive industry, without destroying the environment, for the benefit of impoverished Bolivians, allowing them to “live well” (vivir bien), in equilibrium with nature.

As Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera has emphasized, the Mother Earth law is not designed to hamper resource extraction or industrial development. “If we have to produce, we have to produce,” he stated at the law’s promulgation ceremony. “If we have to extract some mineral, we have to extract it, but finding equilibrium between the satisfaction of needs and protecting Mother Earth.”

Private mining interests in Bolivia view the law as providing a new rationale for the government to expropriate their operations without compensation—as recently occurred with Canadian transnational South American Silver at the Malku Khota mine—and even to demand reparations. As one commentator cautions, “Bolivia is again signaling clear hostility to foreign investment, albeit in a new and intriguing way.”

Soy producers in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands have protested the ban on genetically modified seeds, which would affect 90% of the soybean crop. After minerals and natural gas, soy is Bolivia’s third largest export commodity, generating $800 million last year. More than 70% of the land devoted to soy in the department of Santa Cruz is in the hands of foreign producers, predominantly Brazilians and Mennonites.

The producers argue that the ban will also limit  other crops—such as corn, sugar, and rice—that are planted in rotation with soy, driving up costs and causing possible shortages in the domestic market. Morales has agreed to reconsider the ban, in the interest of ensuring food security and expansion of the agricultural frontier. Although Morales announced a 5-year program in June 2010 to completely eliminate genetically-modified crops, the current “food sovereignty” law bans GMO seeds only for crops indigenous to Bolivia (such as potatoes and quinoa), but allows transgenic varieties for non-native crops, such as cotton, rice, sugar cane, and soy.

From another perspective, the country’s two leading indigenous federations CONAMAQ and CIDOB (representing highland and lowlands indigenous groups, respectively) have disassociated themselves from the Mother Earth law, which they view as betraying the principles of vivir bien and the original declaratory legislation.  The new law, CONAMAQ argues, is about legitimizing the Morales government’s developmentalist agenda, not about rethinking the extractivist model and transitioning towards alternative, more ecological, modes of development. Further, while the law recognizes the right of indigenous groups to free, prior, and informed consultation regarding development projects that affect them, it does not reflect the goal of achieving their consent, as required by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Some environmental critics see the law as rife with vague and contradictory promises, geared both to protecting the environment and to furthering extractivist development. This could set the stage for more divisive conflicts, they warn, as both sets of interests lay claims to the law’s protection.

Whether the new law might provide a useful tool for those engaged in current environmental conflicts with the government, such as indigenous groups resisting the TIPNIS highway in Bolivia’s Amazon region, remains to be seen. Clearly that’s not what the Morales government has in mind. At the promulgation ceremony, Garcia Linera contrasted the Mother Earth law’s new paradigm with the posture advanced by “environmental fundamentalists” in the TIPNIS (indigenous leaders and NGOs), whose efforts to keep the state at bay, he argues, only provide opportunities for “green capitalists” to continue contaminating the environment while TIPNIS inhabitants remain in poverty.

According to Jim Shultz of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, the weaknesses of Bolivia’s legal system will effectively limit the law's reach. “If Mother Earth truly did have legal standing,” he notes, “then the indigenous peoples protesting the government’s plan to construct a highway through the rainforest would certainly be able to use it to challenge that highway. In the end, the pretty words of the law, sadly, have little impact on the ambitious mining and other environmentally destructive activities being carried out across the country.”

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