Bolivian President Evo Morales has become a fixture at global climate talks, arguing passionately for preserving the world’s forests and demanding strict cuts in rich countries’ greenhouse gas emissions.
“The planet is mortally wounded. We feel its convulsions. If we don’t do something we’ll be responsible for genocide,” he said in Cancun, Mexico, in December last year.
Morales regularly blames capitalism for environmental destruction.
At home, however, this fervent oratorical defender of Pachamama, ‘Mother Earth’ in his native Aymara, is seen by many as downright eco-unfriendly.
Environmentalists and indigenous groups accuse him of hypocrisy for promoting natural gas and oil exploration in virgin forests of this landlocked South American nation that ranks eighth globally in tropical forests. Critics say he’s also turned a deaf ear to complaints about contamination of drinking water and crops from mining. Many are also angry over his support for a law designed to expand the use of genetically modified crops.
“Morales isn’t a defender of Mother Earth. His rhetoric is empty,” said Rafael Quispe, leader of the main indigenous organization in Bolivia’s highlands, Conamaq.
The president insists the projects are needed to lift Bolivians from poverty and provide energy and food security.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the dispute is that Morales is losing some of his support from indigenous groups who initially heartily backed him as the first indigenous president of a nation where more than three in five people are natives.
The groups’ most ardent objection is to a proposed highway connecting Brazil with Pacific ports in Chile and Peru, which they say will mostly benefit Brazilian commercial interests such as logging exporters. It is being built with a US$415 million loan from Brazil’s national development bank, and a Brazilian company, OAS, has the green light to begin toppling trees. The road will plow through a 12,000km2 nature preserve.
Edwin Alvarado, spokesman for Bolivia’s Environmental Defense League, or LIDEMA, calls the highway a pretext for eventual oil exploration in the rainforest.
The 300km highway would link Bolivia’s western highlands with the Amazon through the pristine Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park, where 15,000 natives live off hunting, fishing, gathering native fruits and subsistence farming. It is home to endangered fresh-water dolphins and blue macaws.
The road would erase more than 6,000km2 of rainforest over two decades, environmentalists say.
To prevent the road from being built, the Yuracare, Chiman and Trinitaria peoples who live in the park are prepared to use “bows and arrows” against any interlopers, says Pedro Moye, a leader of the CIDOB association of indigenous peoples of eastern Bolivia, which says it represents 800,000 of Bolivia’s 10 million people.
Under the 2009 Constitution championed by Morales, the country’s indigenous groups must be consulted in advance about any projects that might affect their traditional lands. The law does not give them veto power.
In this case, the government says it discussed the road with local indigenous officials, though Moye says the proper authorities, tribal assemblies, were not consulted.
Morales has been unyielding.
“Whether you like it or not, we are going to build this road,” he said in June at a gathering of the project’s backers outside Cochabamba.