Sunday, June 19, 2016

Reading around the world: Bolivia and the impossible questions

My book this week “Whispering in the Giant's Ear” asks one of my fundamental questions about development: how can we improve living standards without environmental degradation? How can we minimize inequality without pushing people down the destructive path of overconsumption laid out by the flailing growth of the West. Some partial answers to these question may lie with indigenous peoples around the world, who often hold a less extractionary view of nature. Crushing poverty suits them no more than anyone else, but as shown in Bolivia, they may not be willing to destroy their forests for a job at Burger King.

The Bolivian forest

Bolivia is a country divided by history and ecology. An indigenous majority historically dominated economically and socially by a white minority descended from Spanish colonists, while the rich natural gas resources of the country are concentrated in a small area leading to fierce battles over how the wealth should be used. And this complicated web of wealth and identity is woven around one of the richest natural resources of our world – the Amazon rainforest. The lungs of our earth and home to 10% of the known species on our planet, this territory is a contested ground between loggers, ranchers, conservationists, and indigenous people for whom the forest is a last refuge of a dissipating way of life. William Powers lived in Bolivia a Development officer working in a Amazon-based advocacy organization focused on environmental protection and equipping the local people with the tools to protect their lands. His self-critical take on development and struggles with the ethics of compromise resonated deeply with me (do you take money for Environmental protection from BP to polish their corporate image? How can you help people without eroding their autonomy? Do you help build the paths of globalization to isolated people to increase their yearly income?) though like any good observer of the world, he left me with more questions than answers.

The Bolivian landscape is one of incredible diversity. As well as rainforests, there are vast and beautiful salt flats. 

In some ways the indigenous people he set out to help wanted the impossible: equitable distribution of natural resource wealth, and jobs without environmental degradation. This is a paradox in standard development discourse, but Powers questions the assumption that has long directed our steps towards poverty reduction: that Environmental protection is a 'full stomach problem'. That you have to bring people out of poverty before seeking to protect the world they inhabit. If this is so, he asks, why does Bolivia as one of the poorest countries in the world have some of the most progressive logging laws? From his friends in the indigenous community he learned that people and nature do not have to be competing forces – that people can find value in something beyond dollars. That livelihoods can be made among the trees, not on top of their graves. Of course, it is reductive to describe indigenous people as angels – there were many motivations for protecting land rights, not all of them environmentally minded. He struggled to leave the saints of his movement room to be human. But ultimately, it seems, he learned the power of people who learn their own influence. He lived in Bolivia while indigenous protests paralyzed the country behind road blocks, while people kept up to the protests despite bullets raining from helicopters, when finally they deposed the white kleptocracy which had held a stranglehold over the country for generations. Now, Bolivia has its first indigenous leader, Evo Morales. He too is human, not a saint, but his assent to the presidency represents a shift in Bolivia's history. That at last the indigenous people may again hold sway over the land that was once theirs. For all of our sakes, I hope they keep it.

Indigenous people's protests. 

Evo Morales, the first Indigenous president of Bolivia

For more thinking: 

For anyone interested in South America, Indigenous people's rights, or simply good cinema I thoroughly recommend 'Even the Rain', a deeply self-reflexive 'movie within a movie' set in Bolivia during indigenous uprising over the unfettered spread of profiteering capitalism in their country. It asks tremendously important questions about white saviorism and responsibility, as well as being just a fantastic film in general.

Reading about Bolivia paired well with the last book I finished, “This Changes Everything” Naomi Klein's magnum opus on capitalism and climate change. She, too, focuses on indigenous people's rights as key to protecting the environment. I think this book should be required reading for everyone who participates in the capitalist system, as it is raises important issues about how our economic system interacts with our environmental ones and our role in saving or destroying our world. 

And as always, BBC provides a more decent overview than I for the curious: