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Last month, the Bolivian government passed a controversial environmental law that has been received with scepticism from opposite sides of the Andean country’s society.
The Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarollo para Vivir Bien was promulgated by President Evo Morales on 15th October after several years of debate and modifications. “This law is about how to live in harmony, balance, and complementarity with nature, without which there is no life or humanity,” said Morales during his speech at a special event organised at the presidential palace in La Paz. Morales’ words are at the core of the concept of Vivir Bien or ‘Good Living’ that the law prescribes, and which is central to indigenous world vision.
In its opening article the law states its objective is to “establish the vision and foundations of integral development in harmony with Mother Earth and Good Living.” The concept of ‘integral development’ involves the implementation of measures to reinforce and create material and spiritual conditions that will better living conditions for Bolivians. ‘Integral’ means that these measures will take into account spiritual, environmental, and cultural issues in addition to economic and structural factors.
In practical terms, one of the main aims of the law is to break up the latifundios (large estates) in which the ownership of most of Bolivia’s land is concentrated. These latifundios tend to prioritise their choice of crops in function of market prices rather than the products needed to feed the local population. According to the law, these lands will then be “redistributed fairly, giving priority to landless women, indigenous peasants, intercultural and afro-Bolivian communities,” in order to “eliminate the concentration of ownership in hands of large landowners and companies and allow a larger and fairer access to its benefits”.
The text also deals extensively with the regulation of foreign investment and exploitation of Bolivian land. Despite Morales’ renationalisation of several large mining and oil companies, the sector is still dominated by foreign corporations. These regulations make companies more legally liable in the case of damage, voluntary or not, to the environment, and reinforce the law put in place by Morales two years ago that granted rights to Pachamama or Mother Earth as a legal entity. Since the reform was put in place, Pachamama has been granted a number of fundamental rights in the same name as Bolivian nationals. Among these are a right to life, to diversity, to clean water and air, and to live free of pollution.
The new law adds weight to the rights granted by the 2010 law by reinforcing sanctions in cases of their violation. In particular, those responsible of damaging Pachamama will have to guarantee the rehabilitation of the areas affected. They will also be subject to strict legal sanctions that will not be eligible for pardons and will be particularly steep in cases of recidivism.
Among other measures dictated by the law is the creation of a National Climate Justice Fund whose main objectives are to create policies, projects, and strategies related to reducing and coping with climate change. Bolivia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world and as such it is one of the most affected by climate change. It also has one of the worst poverty rates in South America and its people are already feeling the negative effects of climate change.
According to an Oxfam report, the main impacts of climate change in the country are “less food security; glacial retreat affecting water availability; more frequent and intense ‘natural’ disasters; an increase in mosquito-borne diseases; and more forest fires”.
The new law is far from being well received by all of Bolivian society. In particular, agricultural companies have voiced their discontent at the new law’s limitation in the use of transgenic seeds for their crops.
“It is impossible to return to traditional technology,” sentenced Demetrio Pérez, the president of the National Association of Oilseeds and Wheat Producers (Anapo). Pérez said that producers would lose all competitiveness in a market where “99% of crops are transgenic”.
Although reticence to such laws is to be expected from commercial and export organisations, dissent has also been brewing among less obvious sectors of Bolivian society.
Despite its focus on improving living conditions for indigenous people, Bolivia’s indigenous community has not welcomed the new law unanimously. Several organisations, including the Confederation of Indigenous Bolivian Women Farmers (Cnmciob), and the Intercultural Unionist Confederation of Bolivia (Csib) approved the measure. However, two large indigenous rights groups involved in the early stages of the writing of the law, the Confederation of Indigenous People of Bolivia (Cidob) and the Qollasuyo Ayllus and Markas Council (Conamaq) have come out against its promulgation.
In a joint statement, leaders of the two organisations said they had been excluded of the debates on the final version of the text and that the government had not taken into account their proposals. They added that the law could not be qualified as Pachamama’s because the government “ignores its concepts and those of Good Living” and that the law inscribed itself in the “standard development” model that they have always fought against. The law is the result of discussions that spanned several years and a first part of it was completed and approved by the Bolivian parliament as early as 2010, under the name Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra.
Cidob has been in conflict with Morales’ government since it announced the building of a road through the Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). The authorisation for the construction of the road was granted under law 222 approved by Morales’ government earlier this year. Under law 222 indigenous inhabitants must be consulted on projects that affect their territories but Cidob claims a number of tribes were not consulted and has called for law 222 to be repealed because of its inefficiency.
The Environmental Issue in Latin America
Bolivia’s new environmental law is part of a larger movement growing in Latin America, the most bio-diverse region in the world, concerned with the protection of the environment. Despite having little historical responsibility in terms of gas emissions and environmental damage, a number of new, often revolutionary, initiatives have been implemented in the region. Last year Ecuador put forward the first ecological project in which it gathered money to not exploit the oil reserves it discovered under Yasuní, its largest national park.
Yasuní is one of the most bio-diverse locations on the planet and has been designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere World Reserve. Last week President Correa presented the Yasuní-ITT initiative (for Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini, the name of the oil field in the park) in Spain during his official European visit.
This initiative consists in asking investors and companies to pay US$3,600m so that Ecuador does not exploit the approximately 846m barrels of crude oil that lay under the Amazonian park’s forest. At the core of this revolutionary idea is the principle that companies and people should pay to prevent the environmental damage they may cause, rather than trying to compensate once the damage has been done. Earlier this month Ivonne Baki, one of the main figures behind the Yasuní-ITT initiative said that US$200m dollars had already been promised to the project. Although the target is still far, Baki says she is encouraged by the raising buzz around the project and by initiatives taken by some companies creating special “Yasuní” branded products, the sale of which will directly benefit the Yasuní-ITT initiative.
Elsewhere on the continent, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently vetoed large parts of a new environmental law that would have otherwise given more flexibility to loggers to continue exploiting the Amazonian rainforest. The so-called ‘Forest Code’ determines the percentage of forest that must remain intact, and holds the owners of the land responsible for it. It also establishes the time frame in which the parts that have been illegally destroyed should be restored. Environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, said the president had vetoed “every aspect that could lead to social or environmental imbalance”. However, many Brazilian environmentalists have criticised Rousseff’s veto as insufficient, and the Brazil Committee, an organisation regrouping over 200 ‘green’ NGOs, has come out strongly against the president’s handling of the issue.
Although the multiplication of this type of initiatives and the rise in awareness on environmental issues in the region are positive signs, there is a long way before they become the top item on governments’ agendas both in Latin America and worldwide. A huge step would also be taken if Latin American countries could find some form of joint environmental structure with real clout. But with climate change causing losses of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in crops, livestock, and housing, in one of the poorest countries in the world, for Bolivians making it a priority will never come too early.
Click here to find out what Argentines think about this kind of environmental initiatives in the continent.