What we can learn from Bolivia about sustainability and equality

Bolivia Sustainable Future

Originally published by Contributoria on 1st June 2014.

The profit motive which underscores the neoliberal paradigm is one of the greatest sources of both environmental degradation and spiralling economic inequality, which has resulted in the richest 200 individuals having more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. That last statistic alone should consign neoliberalism’s ‘trickle-down theory’ to the dustbin of history. Its other great tenet, infinite growth, can be refuted with the simple common-sense fact that we live on a finite planet with dwindling resources. In March of this year, the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC)released its most damning and stark report yet. The authors paint a bleak outlook for the future, with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri warning that “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by climate change”. In order to tackle the interrelated problems of climate change, sustainability and inequality, what is required is not simply material innovations but a wholesale paradigm shift.

South America, so rapaciously ravaged by the strictures of neoliberalism, is at the forefront of this shift. At the turn of the millennium in Bolivia, a wave of popular protests led by grassroots democratic groups successfully ousted foreign water companies. They were protesting against a typical neoliberal structural adjustment policy, whereby institutions like the World Bank and IMF pressure developing nations into selling off their assets to foreign investment at bargain-basement prices. In this case it was the water supply, which quickly became so prohibitively expensive that poorer sections of Bolivian society could not access water. It proved to be the catalyst for Evo Morales’s political career, culminating in his historic election as President in 2006, becoming the first democratically-elected indigenous president in Latin America since 1858.

Since coming to power, Morales has achieved the enviable feat of reducing inequality whilst securing economic growth: Bolivia’s poverty rate fell by 26% between 2005-2011, yet growth has been averaging more than 4% a year since 2007, nearly hitting 7% in the last year. GDP per capita has more than doubled during Morale’s presidency, even though the gap between richest and poorest has been significantly reduced. The richest 10% of Bolivia’s population earned a staggering 96 times more than the poorest 10% in 1997, but by 2011 this had been reduced to 36 times more. Whilst this has been far from a green revolution, with growth and income redistribution heavily reliant on the extraction of Bolivia’s natural resources, Morales’s long-term vision is centred around the notion of Suma Qamaña, or “living well”.

This concept is not merely about material prosperity, rather it encompasses equilibrium between people and nature, a holistic wellness; to live well but not at the expense of others or the environment. It is enshrined in the new Bolivian constitution and can be seen in direct opposition to the neoliberal concept of progress, which amounts to unfettered exploitation of populations and resources for the good of a transnational elite. As Morales puts it: “We don’t believe in the linear, cumulative conception of progress and of an unlimited development at the cost of other people and of nature. To live well is to think not only in terms of per capita income, but of cultural identity, community, harmony among ourselves and with Mother Earth.”

As part of the wider constitutional aims of Suma Qamaña, Bolivia took the unprecedented step of recognising the environment as a legal actor, with legally enforceable rights equal to humans, in their Law of Mother Earth. The law grants Mother Earth, her constituent life systems, including human communities specific rights, including: the right to life; freedom from genetic alteration; the right to clean air and water; the right to equilibrium (continuation of cycles and vital processes); the right to restoration for life systems affected by human activities; and freedom from pollution and contamination. The law is backed up by a new Ministry of Mother Earth, overseen by an ombudsman. Exactly what powers these new bodies will have and in which circumstances they can be applied still remains to be seen, however.

Knowing better than most the devastating effects climate change can have, Bolivia is not content with passing a few domestic laws. Morales has been an outspoken critic of the richest nations’ emissions, calling for cuts of 50% rather than the measly few offered up by the worst offenders. He has highlighted the global economic system as the biggest driver of climate change, saying in a speech “Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet… While the United States and the European Union allocate $4100 billion to save the bankers from a financial crisis that they themselves have caused, programs on climate change get 313 times less”. As new chair of the G77 + China, a loose coalition of developing nations, Morales has pledged to put “Food security, poverty reduction and creating sustainable ways to protect the Earth,” at the top of the agenda and is planning a summit in Santa Cruz this June – marking the group’s 50th anniversary – where such issues will be discussed.

In sharp contrast to Bolivia’s new constitution, the system of common law practised in the UK, US, Canada and Australia (amongst others), affords nature and the environment very little legal protection from the insatiable appetites of polluting corporations. Common law is geared towards protecting the private rights of individuals, meaning nature and the environment generally only have legal rights where they are tied into private interests. Alarmingly, corporations are treated as legal individuals, meaning they are afforded many of the rights that were initially only intended for people, and yet, because they are an organisation the options for legal recourse are minimal, restricted to fines and sanctions. At the same time, senior corporate figures are legally required to pursue the greatest profits for their corporation, even at the expense of the environment or the public good.

Whilst Suma Qamaña and the Law of Mother Earth are heavily influenced by the Andean spiritual worldview centred around the earth deity, Pachamama, their principles still seem eminently exportable. One doesn’t have to believe in a deity to cherish nature and the environment, and enshrining their protection into the political and legal systems makes intrinsic sense from both a survival and sustainability perspective.

But it’s not as simple as other countries just emulating a single law, if we are to achieve the wholesale paradigm shift needed we must also take heed of how Bolivia got to this point: true democratisation, led by the subjugated indigenous population, with meaningful participation by the majority, who are aware of the issues and actually shape the political agenda; rather than just crossing a box on election day and retreating for another five years. This is reflected in the contrasting voter turnout between Bolivia and the UK, with the former’s last general election turnout at 94.5%, compared to just 65.1% in the UK.

Perhaps it’s a hangover from the white man’s burden that our leaders would be loathed to follow the example of the indigenous peoples of an ‘underdeveloped’ nation, or perhaps it has something to do with all the vested corporate interests that incestuously infest our democratic processes. Either way, it seems it’s now the indigenous peoples’ burden to make us see another more sustainable and equal way is possible.

Photo by Szymon Kochanski used under Creative Commons License.


One response to “What we can learn from Bolivia about sustainability and equality

  1. I read your microfinance piece, which I thought was stellar, and then this piece. I am no expert on Bolivia, but go there periodically. However, there is a link between your two articles that you might find intriguing. Morales is clamping down severely on usury. Microfinance interest rates are due to be capped at 11.5%, which would make Bolivia the cheapest country on earth for the poor. This is sending shock-waves around the entire microfinance community, with investors panicking about declining margins. The counter-argument to preventing usury is simple: reduce profit margins and the banks will leave and credit will dry up. Access to credit is bordering on a human-right for many, thus interest rate caps are inherrently evil… so the argument goes. I concede that 11.5% might be a little extreme, but Ecuador has demonstrated that a cap of 30% does not destroy the microfinance sector as the investors claim. But it raises the question of why Mexico refuses to regulate interest rates, or any of the microfinance sector. Mexico boasts many of the most profitable microfinance banks, the highest levels of over-indebtedness, high default rates and interest rates often approaching 200% per year. It is now on the brink of collapse.

    The most astonishing aspect to this is the lack of learning. Like lemmings we go over the same cliffs over and over again. Bolivia’s microfinance sector has already collapsed once. In fact it was one of the first nationwide microfinance collapses. Now it may be the first country to actually learn from prior mistakes and take pre-emptive action to prevent another debt-fuelled period of hardship. In the meantime Morales will be vilified by the “social impact investment” community, precisely for trying to avoid a crisis!

    Bolivia reference (in Spanish):

    Mexico reference to looming collapse:

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