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While facing an election next year, Bolivian President Evo Morales is thinking about his legacy. As the strong front-runner in national politics, his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, feels confident it will be in power for a long time to come. This self-confidence is driving the drafting of a 2025 Patriotic Agenda. Alongside the formal process, the president has spoken off the cuff of his desires for the future. And like any dreams, they provide an insight into the mind and orientation of the dreamer. In his oratory, Morales long seemed to equally embrace two visions: sovereignty through claiming natural resources for the nation and reorientation of society towards ecological harmony with Mother Earth. Now, however, he has discarded the Pachamama-centered rethinking of exploitation and dreams of technologies long criticized for their environmental destructiveness.

At the end of October, Morales declared nuclear power to be a long-term goal of the Bolivian state. Speaking at a government-organized summit called Hydrocarbon Sovereignty by 2025, he revealed that he had asked the governments of Argentina and France for assistance in launching a Bolivian nuclear power program. “We are going to advance, dear students,* we are not far off, we have the raw materials. It is a political decision that has to be made. [Vamos a avanzar queridos estudiantes, no estamos lejos, tenemos materia prima (el óxido de uranio es la principal materia prima utilizada en los procesos radioactivos), es una decisión política que hay que tomar.]” Soon after, he called it a dream: “Bolivia has all the conditions to exploit this form of energy, there are raw materials and studies, and I want you to know that alongside our brother Vice President, I am already dreaming of having atomic energy, and we are not so far from it. [Bolivia tiene todas las condiciones para explotar esa energía, hay materia prima, hay estudios y quiero que sepan que con nuestro hermano vicepresidente ya soñamos contar con energía nuclear atómica y no estamos tan lejos.]” (El País) By the middle of November, Morales had convened thirty scientists to sketch out a Nuclear Energy Commission.

In fact, the road to nuclear energy is a very long one. France has clarified that it has done no more than listen to Bolivia’s aspirations. The Argentine cooperation so far consists of scholarships for students of nuclear medicine. The country lacks both adequately trained scientific and technical personnel and the necessary infrastructure. Bolivia’s uranium remains in the ground. The complex network of processing facilities, construction capacity, and minimal safeguards would have to be built from the bottom up. Luis Romero, director of the Bolivian Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (Instituto Boliviano de Ciencia y Tecnología Nuclear; IBTEN) estimates the process could take thirty years. Meanwhile, solar power is practical over 97% of the tropical country’s surface and renewable generation could overcome the country’s biggest energy limitation: the lack of reliable electrical connections to vast rural areas.

Meanwhile, Bolivia is set have its first communication satellite this month. Named Túpac Katari, after the late eighteenth-century indigenous rebel, it will be launched by China and controlled from Bolivia. Its transmission capabilities will save the country tens of millions of dollars a year in expenditures. Like the Hydrocarbon forum, this launch has set the Bolivian president to dreaming “of the next one”:

Some developed countries seem to have a x-ray image of our territory. They know what we have but they never tell us. And why shouldn’t we be able to have a prospecting satellite to know what we have in this Mother Earth who give us so many resources? [Algunos países desarrollados parece que hacen como una radiografía a nuestro territorio. Saben qué tenemos, pero nunca nos informan. ¿Y por qué nosotros no podemos tener un satélite de prospección para saber qué tenemos en esta madre tierra que nos da tantos recursos?] (infolatam)

While satellite imagery can be used to assess surface minerals, this x-ray idea is a fantasy.** What’s revealing about it, however, is the idea of making the entire country’s minerals, oil, and gas immediately visible to the state. Today’s Evo Morales still dreams of Mother Earth, but she always gives up her resources for the good of the economy. Those who put protecting their ancestral lands on the agenda have a different vision of territory, in which the right to preserve environmental integrity sometimes conflicts with accelerating extraction.

* The event highlighted the French oil giant Total’s awarding scholarships to future petroleum engineers.

** Much, if not all, of the NASA data is freely available.

Bolivia, the country that became synonymous with indigenous and environmental rights on the global diplomatic stage, is about to approve a Mother Earth Law that lacks the blessing of the country’s leading indigenous organizations and undermines indigenous communities’ rights to prior consultation. Thursday (August 23), the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu (CONAMAQ) publicly walked out of the Chamber of Deputies’ drafting session on the “Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well” (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien).  CONAMAQ Spokesman David Crispin explained the walk out: “We in CONAMAQ dave decided to withdraw from the drafting because we do not want to be complicit, alongside the Plurinational Assembly, in building a Law of Integral Development that will damage the Pachamama/Mother Earth. nosotros del CONAMAQ hemos decidido retirarnos del tratamiento porque no queremos ser cómplices, juntamente con la Asamblea Plurinacional, en construir una Ley de Desarrollo Integral que va dañar a la Pachamama” The government had already broken off contact with the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the government-backed alternate leadership of the organization does not appear to be involved in the drafting process.

Readers of the English-language press may be thoroughly confused at this point. Doesn’t Bolivia already have a Mother Earth law, the strongest in the world? Many in the international environmental community know that Bolivia that introduced the concept of the Rights of Mother Earth to the world, hosted a global conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth [past coverage: 1|2|3] in April 2010, and passed the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth [Wikipedia] in December 2010.

What is less widely known is that the law that was passed was only a rough statement of principles—a declaratory “short law”—with no legal force behind it. Even the short law featured just 10 of the 12 principles worked out by the grassroots organizations in Bolivia’s Pact of Unity: right of indigenous people’s to freely consent to or reject megaprojects on their lands was cut at the last minute. In April 2011, Senator Julio Salazar (MAS) who is in charge of the law’s progress, declared, “Our indigenous brothers cannot block taking advantage of natural resources.”

Bus ad at Cochabamba Climate Summit'

“We, the peoples, are the voice of Mother Earth” reads a bus placard at the Cochabamba eco-summit, sponsored by the state-owned gas company YPFB.

Salazar’s position, embraced by the Evo Morales government as a whole, has been influential over the past two years. As highlighted by the TIPNIS controversy, the Bolivian government has prioritized national economic development over local indigenous choices; publicly vowed to ignore local opposition to transport, hydrocarbon, and mining projects; and backtracked from guarantees of indigenous rights to free, prior, and informed consent regarding projects on their territories. Alongside other left governments in the region, these policies tie continued mining, drilling, and pumping of natural resources to greater social spending, a combination called “neo-extractivism.” The transformation of the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth into a Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development reflects all of these trends.

The draft law (complete text), already fully approved by the Bolivian Senate, declares a governmental obligation to “Promote the industrialization of the components of Mother Earth,” while surrounding this objective with extensive promises about respecting the rights and development of indigenous nations and peoples, safety monitoring, clean technologies, and so on. In short, “Integral Development” in the proposed Bolivian law is about conditioning industrial extraction on environmental compliance (the environmental policy framework embraced throughout the West, from the Clean Air Act to the World Bank), not about rethinking the extractive model.

In a letter to Rebecca Delgado, the President of Chamber of Deputies, CONAMAQ argues:

The draft only keeps “Living Well as an alternative civilizational horizon to capitalism” and “Equilibrium with Mother Earth” by way of proclamation (i.e., propaganda). The Draft Law does not propose a change in the structural basis of the capitalist system, nor reconfiguration of the nation-state.

El proyecto solo conserva el “Vivir Bien como horizonte civilizatorio alternativo al Capitalismo” y el “Equilibrio con la Madre Tierra” de manera enunciativa (propaganda). El Proyecto de ley no propone un cambio de las bases estructurales del sistema Capitalista, ni una reconfiguración del Estado nación.

In CONAMAQ’s analysis, “‘Integral Development’ is introduced as a framework of processes and rights” that conflict with one another. The rights of Mother Earth, rights of indigenous peoples, rights of peasants, right to development, and the right to escape from poverty are all intermixed. CONAMAQ argues the law “incorporates the ‘right to development and the right to esacape from poverty’ so as to justify a developmentalist, extractive, and industrializing vision. [Incorpora el “derecho al desarrollo y el derecho a salir de la pobreza” para justificar un visión desarrollista, extractiva e industrializadora]” In my analysis (and here I’ll put my environmental policy degree on the line), combining these rights into a single mix will allow future Bolivian governments to decide on which right gets prioritized. Under the aegis of “integral development,” governments can decide to value oil revenues spent on antipoverty programs over an indigenous people’s rights to refuse drilling on their territory. (And the public statements of the Morales government make it clear they have every intent to make just that choice.)

The proposed law is also weaker than its well-known (but inoperative) predecessor on three key points:

  • Legally enforceable rights of the Earth and “life systems” — These rights are first the responsibility of the government itself, although “affected persons and collectivities” may intervene in court as well. However, these rights are limited to “the framework of Integral Development for Living Well,” limiting any ecological rights independent of the overall economic plan. In cases where a government agency and a private entity both step in to defend these rights, the case will be consolidated, perhaps making it difficult for independent critics to gain the ear of the courts. (It’s worth noting that the  original law was weaker than realized. The concept “life systems” that include human societies and ecosystems in a single interwoven package sounds intellectually innovative, but makes ecosystem protection much more complicated than a straightforward law like the US’s Endangered Species Act.)
  • Mother Earth Defender’s Office unspecified — Both the new law and the December 2010 call for the creation of a Defensoría de la Madre Tierra, equivalent in rank to the Human Rights Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo, often called the Human Rights Ombudsman). However, other than a one-year deadline, no specifics are included in the new law.
  • Indigenous free, prior, and informed consent— As expected, the new law does not explicitly recognize indigenous communities’ right to approve or reject projects on their territories, as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Bolivia incorporated into its national laws. The term ”free, prior, and informed consultation” does appear in a subordinate clause:“Generation of the necessary conditions for the use and appropriation of the components of Mother Earth in the framework of sustainable life systems which integrally develop the social, ecological, cultural and economic aspects of the Bolivian people, taking into account the knowledge of each indigenous, native, peasant, intercultural, and Afro-Bolivian nation and people, in the framework of free, prior, and informed consultation. Generación de condiciones necesarias para el uso y aprovechamiento de los componentes de la Madre Tierra en el marco de sistemas de vida sustentables que desarrollen integralmente los aspectos sociales, ecológicos, culturales y económicos del pueblo boliviano tomando en cuenta los saberes y conocimientos de cada nación y pueblo indígena originario campesino, comunidad intercultural y afro boliviana, en el marco de la consulta previa, libre e informada.

This verbiage makes indigenous consultation into just another phase of the approval process for “using and appropriating Mother Earth.” The protections for indigenous rights and the idea of a new relationship with the Earth and its ecosystems have been shelved for now in the Bolivian legislature.

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