Earth to Evo Morales

LA PAZ – “Mother Earth is not for sale,” the Bolivian representative told last year’s United Nations climate-change conference in Doha. But environmental policy in Bolivia itself undermines the government’s efforts to assert moral superiority over other countries.

The Bolivian authorities’ radical stance in defense of the environment, which rejects market instruments to conserve forests and vulnerable areas, as well as commitments to reduce carbon emissions, is based on the view that capitalism, not specific technologies or weak regulatory mechanisms, is the fundamental cause of environmental destruction. That seemingly principled stand tends to place other countries in an awkward position. Indeed, Bolivian President Evo Morales led the effort to have the United Nations change the name of Earth Day to “International Mother Earth Day.”

But the success that can be attained through such political symbolism tends to be ephemeral, especially when the government promoting it has so much difficulty translating it into effective environmental policies in an area where it has direct responsibility: the Bolivian Amazon.

The contrast is remarkable. In the past 17 months, the Morales government has been confronted with two protest marches by indigenous peoples defending their right to be consulted on the construction of a highway that will join the cities of Cochabamba and Trinidad. The highway, with financial backing from the Brazilian government and companies, will divide the protesters’ territory, which is a protected national park (the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, or TIPNIS). Moreover, notwithstanding the green radicalism that it showcased in Doha, the government launched the project without an engineering design or environmental-impact studies – not to mention the indigenous peoples’ agreement.