The discovery of vast new natural gas deposits in Bolivia’s Chaco region raises the political stakes in the country just as it is about to form a Ministry of Mother Earth to give nature legal rights. Bolivia’s new law seeks to guarantee the right to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance and restoration.
President Evo Morales announced yesterday that the reserves found by French energy giant Total in the Aquio field raise the country’s overall gas potential by 30% to 13 trillion cubic metres. Gas is Bolivia’s most valuable commodity and its chief export, bringing in over $1 billion over the last year.
The finding comes at a crucial time for Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. The party, whose full name is Movement for Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, has been in power since 2006. Morales’ second term of office, despite a massive majority in the 2009 general election, has proved much more difficult than foreseen, as Adrian Pearce, editor of a new book about Bolivia told an audience at London University’s Senate House last night.
Latin American researchers from London and Oxford universities, joined by Dr Pilar Domingo from the Overseas Development Institute, analysed the complex tensions running through the small, poor but highly revolutionary Latin American country. James Dunkerley, author of Bolivia and the Power of History in the Present, read out choice quotes published by Wikipedia, showing US state hostility to the Morales government.
Adrian Pearce outlined the demographic factors behind the rise of MAS in what remains one of the poorest countries of Latin America. Recent years have seen population growth, increasing mobility in rural areas, improvements in education and health, and a rising tide of Mestizo (people of mixed cultural descent) and indigenous nationalism.
Morales’ popularity has rested on the relationship between MAS and the powerful social movements in Bolivia which include the peasant unions, indigenous organisations and the landless movement allied to co-operative miners and neighbourhood organisations, manufacturing workers, teachers’ and pensioners’ unions. Recent reforms have reduced the influence of these movements on the party as it has made deals with global corporations to exploit mineral and gas rights.
The MAS party’s massive electoral majority in the last elections had raised extremely high expectations which turned to shock when vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera announced an 80% increase in petrol prices last December. In the past MAS has taken advantage of the economic factors to alleviate hardship and inequality, John Crabtree of Oxford university explained that opposition from social movements was growing to the government’s wages policy at a time of rising food price inflation.
The newly discovered gas reserves heighten the significance of the Mother Earth Law now being debated in the Bolivian parliament. A new Ministry of Mother Earth is to be formed, writes Nick Buxton of Just International:
“The law would give nature legal rights, specifically the rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration and… mandates a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia's economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature… rather than the current focus on producing more goods and stimulating consumption.”
But, as Buxton writes, there is also strong awareness among Bolivia’s social movements that the existence of a new law will not suffice to prompt “real change in environmental practices”.
Raul Prada, advisor to the Unity Pact which unites the country’s social movements, has said, “Our ecological and social crisis is not just a problem for Bolivia or Ecuador: it is a problem for all of us”. He is absolutely right. The success of Bolivia’s heroic struggle for an ecologically and socially sustainable future depends not only on Morales and the MAS party, nor on the masses of Bolivia, but on the ending of corporate, capitalist dominion throughout the planet.
A World to Win secretary