Bolivia’s climate pledge triples down on fossil fuels, megadams

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Last month, Bolivia submitted its pledge (English|Spanish) on addressing climate change to the UN FCCC, the body charged with overseeing global negotiations to prevent dangerous global warming. While much of the document is addressed towards global issues, the quantitative details show just how committed the Evo Morales government is to accelerated, and environmentally destructive, development.

The document follows  ambitious government announcements this year about expanding agribusiness, gas and oil exports, and electricity generation. I isolated the electricity numbers, with help filling in the details from this October 2015 report covering the Ministry of Energy and Hydrocarbons.

As you can see from the graph above, there are two big stories to be told about Bolivia’s electricity production plans. First, over the next five years, the country plans to massively expand its domestic burning of natural gas, more than tripling the 947 megawatts (MW) supplied by gas in 2013. Second, in a series of larger-scale projects, the country plans to bring 9,450 MW of hydroelectric power on line by 2025. This enormous expansion would require megadams at Rositas, El Bala, Miguillas, Río Grande, and Cachuela Esperanza (to name just a few of the sixteen proposed). These dams are likely to have severely damaging environmental consequences, particularly since some are located in fragile or protected natural areas. A third story is just as important: the government predicts that domestic power demand will only reach 3,000 MW in 2025, meaning that the vast bulk of the new electricity is intended for foreign consumers, mostly in Brazil and Argentina.

Bolivia’s climate pledge or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution manages to misrepresent this shift as a green move in two ways. First, it deals only in percentages: “Increased participation of renewable energy to 79% by 2030 from 39% in 2010.” In fact, the smaller percentage of nonrenewable energy reflects a massive increase. Second, it counts large-scale hydroelectricity as renewable and the carbon emissions numbers seems to treat these dams as zero emissions, despite the fact that entire biomass flooded by new dams is gradually converted into methane and released to the atmosphere.

Other unlikely claims are advanced in the area of land use change and forestry, including a unexplained promise to reduce illegal deforestation to zero, and to somehow reforest 4.5 million hectares of the country. These pledges coexist with a government plan to expand agricultural land by 10 million hectares over the coming decade, with the most coveted land for planting located squarely in the Amazon rainforest.

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NYC lecture, October 26: Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics

On Monday, October 26, I’ll be giving a talk on “Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics,” hosted by the Department of Anthropology at Queens College-CUNY. The talk will be in the President’s Conference Room 2 at the Rosenthal Library (campus map) at 12:15pm. If you’re in New York City or someplace nearby, please join me.


This paper explores the radical political values that circulate and develop across Bolivia’s dense and nimble forms of activism, with a focus on the increasingly indigenous metropolis. Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical organizational structure and a countervailing ethic that subordinates leaders to the grassroots bases from which they emerge. This worldview separates an enduring, morally legitimate world of community organization (“the organic”) from a corrupted world of political parties, staffed by self-advancing, individualist politicians who engage in transactional, corrupt practices (“the political”). Inside the organic domain, unions and other mass organizations replicate and extend the ayllu, an Andean structure for community self-management of the lands inherited from ancestral spirits. They valorize ethical principles of complementarity, solidarity, anti-individualism, and obligatory participation, blending ethical and political life.

Conversely, other organizations structure themselves horizontally, without a formal hierarchy or official leadership. People join these efforts voluntarily and individually without a joint decision of the others with whom they live or work; the organization is defined by ideological and social affinity, its common purpose. They achieve their political effects by networking: that is, by interacting with a far larger numbers of people than just its membership, through public spectacles, training, writing, and open gatherings. While less internationally visible, these nimble activists participate in the global circulation of practices of decentralized decision making, ideas like the de-commodification of water, and transnational movement networks.

Rather than mutually opposed poles, organic grassroots and participatory network organizations interchange ideas and collaborate in common efforts. A former Marxist union militant in the mines explains, “Solidarity is what is called ayni, right?,” offering a translation between languages for political visioning. Across town, an urban anarchafeminist collective embraces an indigenous identity while pointing out patriarchal attitudes within both revolutionary movements and traditional communities. For at least a generation, Bolivian activists have conceptualized radical political values as of form of decolonization, as a return to ways of living that are inherently opposed to the colonial and capitalist state. At the same time, liberatory political praxis involves the incorporation of new ideas, in silent contradiction to rhetoric of cultural revival. Drawing on multiple experiences, I describe both the recovery and the innovation of ways of doing politics.

On Allegra: Can a gas pipeline heal Bolivia’s wounded geo-body?

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.41.42 PMMy latest essay on Bolivia was published by Allegra Laboratory. It looks at the deeply felt woundedness around Bolivia’s loss of coastal territory to Chile, and the surprising notion that exporting natural gas from a Peruvian port could heal that wound.

Allegra is a fascinating site dedicated to the anthropology of politics, law, and art. You can read about them here, and check out their Academic Slow Food Manifesto on the same page.

Lliquimuni drillsite arises out of a cleared area in a cloud-shrouded forest

Lliquimuni: The petroleum threat in Bolivia’s northern Amazon

The Lliquimuni oil block could be the beginning of oil extraction in the northern Bolivian Amazon. This video, circulated by Alerta Amazónica, surveys the environmental dangers that accompany the project:

That beginning could come sooner than expected. On June 22, the Bolivian–Venezuelan consortium Petroandina announced “encouraging results” partway through the exploratory drilling at well LQC-X1. Company representatives expect to deliver a full report on the test well, which is operated by in  September.

Seismic studies carried out from 2008 to 2010 provided an estimate of 50 million barrels of oil in the area. Already last December, President Evo Morales was naming the underground oil reserves as reason enough to develop a large-scale petroleum industry presence in the northern part of La Paz department, a forested and mountainous area that lies to the north of the capital city of the same name.
“One the study is done, then comes the exploitation. I have said, if we find oil in La Paz, it will be our obligation to install a refinery here in the north of La Paz. Una vez hecho el estudio, perforación, vendrá la explotación. Yo lo decía, si encontramos petróleo en La Paz, será nuestra obligación instalar una refinería acá en el Norte de La Paz.
LQC-X1, the current center of exploration is near the community of Inicua, in Alto Beni municipality, part of Caranavi province (the municipality of Teoponte, in Larecaja province is nearby, and a border conflict driven by possible royalties was already active in 2014). Creating even this bit of petroleum infrastructure required something of an epic effort, perhaps inspiring the cinematic soundtrack for a promotional video from Petroandina. (You can see the government-owned oil company’s rather more heroic view of the project in the first two videos shown here.) Building either a refinery or oil pipelines out of the region would be a far greater challenge, which is perhaps the greatest factor holding back the transformation of the northern Bolivia rainforest into an oil-producing region.
Cropped cover of Eduardo Gudynas' book _Extractivismos_

Bolivia in the age of extractivism (a field report)

This is Bolivia 2015.

Unprecedented ambition is transforming the landscape into a source of new exports, an ambition that is measured more in dizzying numbers than individual projects. A feasibility study begins for a dam, El Bala, that would submerge the heart of Madidi National Park to produce 1600 to 4800 MW of electricity, but in announcing the contract, President Evo Morales speaks of a potential 48,000 MW of new projects across the country. Government aspirations for energy production also include setting aside US$2 billion for a nuclear power plant in Viacha, a still-hypothetical prospect that would place the vast El Alto–La Paz metropolis at risk in the event of a major accident. When exploratory drilling in the Lliquimuni petroleum block in the northern Bolivian Amazon is inaugurated, Morales proposes building an improbable but possible oil refinery to commoditize oil from a cluster of oil fields underneath the rainforest. At an agricultural policy forum, co-hosted by the government, the peasant confederation CSUTCB, and big agribusiness (the Chamber of Agriculture of the East), the government proposes quintupling the land under cultivation in the next decades, mostly by expanding mechanized monoculture. While the peasants are partners in the summit, it is the Chamber who drafts the legislation that follows. Speaking to the European Union, the president vows that global South governments “will not be park rangers” on behalf of the global North. He returns home to sign a decree authorizing oil and gas extraction in National Parks as a national strategic priority. In public speeches, Morales has also pledged that NGOs and foundations that stand in the way of using Bolivia’s natural resources face expulsion from the country.

This was the country I visited for the past three weeks. I’m at a point of inflection in my research agenda from studying how movements build power and exert pressure to looking at the how conflicts between indigenous peoples and extractive industries will evolve under the Plurinational State. In part because of the power built by indigenous movements, Bolivia is a place where indigenous territories and rights have some of the most extensive protections in written law. Those legal commitments contradict equally formal commitments by the government to fulfill oil, mining, and logging contracts, and the government’s drive for new revenues to fund its anti-poverty social agenda. Conceptualized from afar, this should be a complex story of uncertainty and contradiction, of the indigenous state official who is pulled in two directions, of hard choices and ambivalences. But as the list of extractivist plans makes clear, the government of the Plurinational State is anything but ambivalent on this issue.Read More »