Why the Media Distorts Bolivia’s Environmental Record

By Federico Fuentes

The Morales government has overseen an astonishing 64 percent reduction in the deforestation rate between 2010 and 2013. When Bolivian President Evo Morales announced in May that his government was allowing oil and gas drilling in national parks, mainstream and progressive media outlets alike were quick to condemn his supposed hypocrisy on environmental issues.

Writing for the Associated Press, Frank Bajak argued that although known internationally for his outspoken campaigning on climate change, at home Morales faces constant criticism from conservationists “who say he puts extraction ahead of clean water and forests.”

Bajak said this contradiction was a result of Morales’ strategy of developing extractive industries as a means for reducing poverty, irrespective of the environmental cost. Along a similar vein, Emily Achtenberg wrote on the NACLA website that Morales’ announcement highlighted a central contradiction his government faces: having relied on oil and gas to finance successful redistributive programs, his government now finds itself “at odds with indigenous, environmental, and other civil society organizations who argue that extractivism destroys nature and communities …”

Oddly however, none of these media outlets have devoted a single article to how the Bolivian government has presided over what is arguably one of the most remarkable environmental achievements in recent years. Deforestation For many years, Bolivia has come under heavy fire for having one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. What’s more, Morales has earned the ire of many environmental NGOs due to his government’s stance of opposing “carbon offset” schemes that seek to pay communities (and NGOs) in the global South to protect forests as a means to compensate for pollution emitted by companies abroad.

Few however have paid attention to figures from both the governmental Forests and Land Authority (ABT) and the independent World Resources Institute that indicate the Morales government has overseen an astonishing 64 percent reduction in the deforestation rate between 2010 and 2013 (Figures for 2014 are not yet available). The impact of this goes beyond the issue of protecting forests.

Firstly, deforestation is perhaps the most important contributing factor to a variety of environmental problems in Bolivia today, such as decreasing water and food supplies and a reduction in biodiversity. Secondly, given the impact deforestation has on the country’s carbon emissions, this achievement may have made a massive contribution to Bolivia’s war on climate change. Citing figures from the World Resource Institute, former Bolivian climate change negotiator turned government critic Pablo Solon wrote “if deforestation has fallen by nearly two-thirds, greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation will have dropped from 8.5 tons to 3 tons of CO2 per capita…. representing a 37 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions with regards to 2010…. and much more if we take 2001 as our base year.”

Government strategy That this downward trend began in 2010 is no coincidence. This was the period when the government effectively came out against carbon offset schemes (which it equated with the privatization of forests and the conversion of indigenous people into park rangers) and began implementing an alternative policy based on striking a balance between the needs of people and the environment. To this end, the government implemented a string of measures such as the establishment of a new state body dedicated to the protection of forest areas (ABT), a dramatic increase in fines for illegal logging, increased planning and collaboration with local farmers regarding the expansion of agriculture, and the handing over of large portions of forest lands to be managed by local indigenous peoples.

Far from a development-at-all cost strategy, the Morales government has consistently sought to strengthen state-building capacities, regulate and restrict capitalist forces and promote peoples’ participation, all while pursuing the ambitious task of breaking the economy’s dependency on extractivism.

While errors and mistakes have been made (unsurprising when one of the poorest nations in the world takes on such a huge challenge), this strategy has consistently counted on the support of the majority of the country’s powerful indigenous, peasant and working-class organizations.

Media All this begs the question:

why have media outlets, seemingly so concerned about Bolivia’s environment, failed to investigate what might be the steepest reduction in greenhouse gas emission per capita of any country in the world?

The answer is that it would expose a contradiction between the media’s oft-repeated line that the Morales government has failed to live up to its ecological rhetoric, and the reality of his governments’ environmental track record.

Pointing to the potential loss of forest resulting from a proposed roadway as proof of the government’s anti-environmentalism isn’t as convincing when put along the government’s actual record of having presided over a two-thirds reduction in deforestation. Moreover, misrepresenting the Morales government’s environmental track record is in many cases part of a conscious attempt to delegitimize and undermine Morales’ position as a leading spokesperson in the fight against climate change.

For some, it is because they disagree with his radical discourse that blames capitalism for the climate crisis we face today. For others, in particular Morales’ NGO critics, it is because they disagree with the policies pursued by the Bolivian government. They believe Morales should instead implement policies they have designed (such as carbon offset schemes or handing over the nation’s resources to particular local communities and NGOs).

Overcoming climate change is going to require an honest and fact-based discussion on possible ways out of the mess we are in. A good starting point would be to have an truthful discussion regarding the reality of Bolivia’s environmental track record, and what lessons we can draw from them.