Pace Undergraduate Student and Faculty Research Program
Dr. Anne Toomey
The Hidden Crisis in Bolivia: How tensions over neo-extractivist policies are affecting biodiversity, conservation, and indigenous livelihoods.”
In Summer of 2019, Dr. Anne Toomey and I conducted research centered around a current crisis affecting indigenous communities and protected areas in the Madidi region of Bolivia. Over twenty indigenous groups in the lowland regions of Bolivia are going to be affected by current proposals by the national government to open indigenous lands and protected areas up to large-scale development, including hydroelectric dams and natural gas extraction. Two of these projects, El Chepete and El Bala, would flood eighteen indigenous communities, and displace over five thousand people living in the region. A new law opened up 11 of 22 protected areas in Bolivia to oil and gas exploration and development proposals. Indigenous groups are mobilizing and protesting against the development projects that would threaten their homes.
The purpose of the research project I conducted with Dr. Anne Toomey this summer was to raise global public awareness of the current social and environmental crisis in Bolivia in order to support the resistance against anti-indigenous and anti-environment government policies that push neo developmentalism over human rights and environmental conservation. The goals of this research were to develop a better understanding of the politics in Bolivia, the crisis itself, and to raise awareness of how indigenous people in Bolivia are being treated in order to emphasize the need for change. In order to accomplish this, Dr. Toomey and I decided that the outcomes of this research project would be a literature review and a website, where it would be easier to obtain concise research questions and increase public awareness of the crisis.
The literature review is centered around six main research questions as follows:
1) ‘What global actors are at large in the current crisis in Bolivia: where indigenous rights and environmental regulations are being stripped in favor of international gas and oil companies having access of land for increased neo developmentalism in the region?’
2) ‘How are indigenous communities in these Amazonian low-lying regions of Bolivia being affected by the policies and laws enacted by President Morales, and how can their voices be amplified in discussions regarding these issues?’
3) ‘How are environmental regulations being impacted by increased neo developmentalism in Bolivia?’
4) ‘What strategies are lowland indigenous communities using to engage in discussions about these issues at regional, national, and international levels?’
5) ‘How is Morales and the Bolivian Government planning to pay for these hydroelectric dams, El Chepete and El Bala and their construction, and where is that funding coming from?’
6) ‘The contradicting statements given about these projects every step of the way causes speculation that this is a means to an end for Morales, whether it be securing voters in the upcoming elections or extending international connections for Bolivia?’
The literature review used published papers and gray papers, as this situation is currently being acted out within Bolivia and it was necessary to have valid updates of events as they unfolded, both in Spanish and English. I created a database with over 70 sources from white and gray literature to aide in the understanding of the crisis, writing the literature review, and developing the website. Of these sources, there are about 35 peer reviewed papers, and 39 articles and gray literature. There is a mixture of both Spanish and English papers both peer reviewed and gray literature. Additionally, Dr. Toomey made a trip to Bolivia to talk to both activists and administrators involved in this issue and conducted informal interviews to better grasp how the events regarding the developments of El Chepete and El Bala were expanding. I held an interview with Dr. Toomey upon her return in order to use her experiences in the literature review’s last sections.
The website is in the final stages of development, hopefully to be completed by the 30th as Dr. Toomey contributes pictures she took in Bolivia. Originally, the goal of the website was to post relevant and credible news updates on the ongoing situation. The idea behind this was to make the information gathered while researching the crisis more accessible to the general public in a cohesive format in one place. In the beginning of the research session, plans for the website involved multiple sections for data, peer-reviewed literature, gray literature, and documentaries in order to have the ability to compile as much information as possible in one place in order to ensure continuously updated information is available to a wider public. However, as the website approaches completion Dr. Toomey and I have decided the sections most useful to us were a ’home’ page, an ‘about’ page (this page encompassed a summary of the issue at hand as well as another section that gave information on contacts obtained in Bolivia who are involved in the website), a ‘news’ page where articles collected while researching, both in English and Spanish, were posted with short summaries and excerpts, and finally a ‘blog’ page where our contacts can post new developments to the crisis as they experience it in Bolivia. Dr. Toomey reached out to her contact who was planning a documentary, but for now that is not a section on our website.
Research Summary and Accomplishments
Over the course of the summer, through my research I found that the rise of neo-developmentalism in Bolivia under President Evo Morales is resulting in the rollback of environmental regulations and protection of natural areas, along with threatening indigenous communities’ rights and homes. Evo Morales has served as President of Bolivia since 2006 and leads the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. Under President Morales, the Ministry of Energy has looked to shift its energy to one hundred percent renewable energy based on hydroelectric and thermoelectric plants by as soon as 2025 (Reano 2018). This is a sizeable feat to work towards to, especially as President Morales continues to push gas and oil extraction within his country by forming contracts with developers and foreign companies. He has opened large parts of protected areas for these developer agents, so it is curious that he is pushing for reuseable energy.
As a result, over seventy-five percent of Madidi National Park has been opened to contractors and development. Currently, two planned hydroelectric dam projects, El Chepete and El Bala, threaten Madidi National Park and surrounding areas. These dams would cost an estimate of six to seven billion (USD), which would make this Bolivia’s first time funneling so much money into one single project (Pasini 2017). These dams would generate electricity for Brazil as an economic boost due to falling prices for hydrocarbons and minerals which Bolivia previously exported (Molina 2016). Madidi spans different types of climates and biospheres, ranging from tropical forests and cloud forests to wetlands and even glaciers (Gorman 2018). A scientific expedition was sent into the park to record the amount of different species currently inhabiting the protected area, called ‘Identidad Madidi’. The expedition lead to the discovery that Madidi is home to 11,395 different species, including almost nine thousand that were discovered in the park and an additional four thousand new species (Gorman 2018). In this expedition, it was also revealed that Madidi National Park contains eleven percent of bird species on Earth (Hill 2015). The hydroelectric dams El Chepete and El Bala would destroy almost eight hundred square kilometers of rainforest (Elwell 2018). They would flood large regions of the park, disrupting keystone ecosystems that house some of the most biodiverse areas on Earth; Madidi is classified as a biodiversity hotspot by the Global 200 Ecoregions Program. Of the over eleven thousand species registered, it was recorded that there were over eight thousand higher plants, over one thousand species of vertebrates, one thousand bird species, 182 mammal species, 192 fish species, eighty-two amphibian species, and ninety-two reptile species (Molina 2016). Due to the fact there is little known about the planned designs and construction for both El Chepete and El Bala, the full scope of the environmental damages to come is unknown. However, disrupting such a balanced ecosystem as the tropical rainforest will have detrimental effects not only in the areas of construction, but miles surrounding it (Molina 2016). This will impact ecotourism, one income that many indigenous communities count on for revenue as endangered and rare species are threatened by displacement and habitat destruction.
Over five thousand people would be forced to relocate with the construction of El Chepete and El Bala, as the areas planned for the dams encompass thirty one peasant and indigenous communities (Molina 2016). The Tacana, Leco, Chiman, Aymara, Quecha, and Uchupiamona indigenous communities are only some of those affected. Although President Morales has advocated that his government endorses indigenous autonomy, it seems his policies that are enacted actually show the opposite, where the areas where this autonomy should be exercised are where Bolivias’ extraction frontier is expanding (Pellegrini 2016). Morales has made public statements where he has condemned the over twenty indigenous communities living in the areas affected by El Chepete and El Bala citing that the benefits to the many from these dams would outweigh the affects on a few thousand people. In Bolivia, the law requires prior informed consent to maintain indigenous autonomy regarding these large-scale projects through the 2009 Bolivian constitution. However, with the case of El Chepete and El Bala, the Bolivian government never arranged a prior consultation for the communities that are going to be affected, which goes against the CPE and ILO Convention 169 (Pasini 2017);(Molina 2016).
The first draft of the literature review encompasses all six research questions stated in the methodology section, as well as an overview of the political state of Bolivia. The website has four sections as well as two subsections. Including Dr. Toomey, myself, and the three contacts in Bolivia, it will have content by five people. Due to this project being centered around an ongoing crisis, the website and paper are not considered complete at this time. New content will be added as the situation unfolds in Bolivia, and Dr. Toomey and I are discussing options of continuing this research in the Spring of 2019 on a credit-based system for my academics.
I enjoyed being a part of the Summer 2019 research session. I think I gained valuable experience in compacting and collecting sources. Additionally, I developed better skills in reading academic literature and improved my Spanish language reading comprehension. Over the course of this project I learned how to communicate effectively regarding academia and I realized the love I have for researching social driven issues.
This summer moved quickly, so it was important for me to be skilled at time management to complete the tasks and outcomes- writing a 15 page paper and developing a website was a large amount of work and I really needed to focus so I stayed on track with deadlines.
I think I gained valuable skills participating in this research session. I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did exploring this issue, and I loved how by the end of this project I feel very confident in my abilities to explain this situation to others. I’m very grateful for this opportunity to help myself grow academically.
Elwell, J. (2018). Chepete and El Bala dams outline evo’s character: he is NOT pro environment NOR indigenous rights! Bolivian Thoughts in an Emerging World
Gorman, J. (2018). “Is This the Most Diverse National Park?” The New York Times.
Hill, D. (2015). Bolivia opens up national parks to oil and gas firms. The Guardian.
Molina, F. (2016). “Plan de construir dos represas en bosque virgen de Bolivia alarma a ambientalistas e indigenas.”
Pasini, M. (2017). In Bolivia, indigenous people rally against megaprojects — and Morales. il manifesto.
Pellegrini, L. (2016). “Resource Nationalism in the
Plurinational State of Bolivia.”
Reano, W. (2018). “Evo contra el pueblo”