Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Bolivian Environment

Linda Farthing has an excellent article on the environmental challenges Bolivia faces. A lot of the nation's history can be summed up by extractive industry and the problems therein.

When Evo Morales was elected, giving indigenous people the first leader who cared about them in the nation's history, there was hope that he would pay some attention to environmental issues. But the problem is vast. Farthing points out many important issues. First, how do you tell people not to pollute or deforest lands when they are so incredibly poor? Second, the entire history of the country has been defined by wealthy people ignoring the law for their own benefit. Not surprisingly, that's seeped down to the poor. Third, Bolivia's only economic resources are extractive in nature--mining, natural gas, cocaine. Fourth, American demand for cocaine while at the same time trying to eradicate it has led to mobile processing labs that pollute like crazy without any supervision at all. Fifth, Bolivia's people understandably are demanding development projects that help them.

What to do? Latin American leftist leaders have traditionally organized around issues of land reform and resource redistribution. But as I've pointed out repeatedly, this is usually a disaster for the environment while not really making people any wealthier. Still, how can I as a privileged first-world environmentalist tell the deeply impoverished people of Bolivia that they can't have what I have? To do so would be environmental imperialism. Yet, I also feel pretty strongly that these development projects aren't going to help people live more comfortable lives.