“I am the spokesman for the indigenous and peasant peoples who live in harmony with Mother Earth.”
– Bolivian President Evo Morales
Many environmentalists were no doubt thrilled and inspired this week by the declarations of Bolivia’s President at the Copenhagen summit. Amidst diplomatic dithering by the world’s wealthy nations over doing anything real about the global climate change their people’s have caused, the leaders of the impoverished nations most directly impacted spoke in a different voice. Symbolic among them was the indigenous man who is President of the most indigenous nation in the Americas.
In a post summit interview on Democracy Now, Morales declared:
The earth is our life. Nature is our home, our house. If the mother is recognized as Mother Earth, it’s something that can’t be sold, it’s something that can’t be—it can’t be violated, something sacred. This is nature. This is planet earth. And that’s why I’ve come here, to defend the rights of Mother Earth, to defend the rights to life, to defend humanity and saving Mother Earth.
From afar observers might imagine that Bolivia is an environmental paradise, a haven for indigenous values about the relationship between humans and the land, the air and the water.
Oh, if it were only so.
To be clear, for 500 years Bolivia has been on the blunt receiving end of the practices of foreigners that have badly degraded this diverse patch of earth. It was the Spanish empire that gutted the silver mountain of Potosi, not Bolivians. It is the reckless environmental practices of the wealthy north that is melting the country’s fragile glaciers today.
But that said, it also true that Bolivia has more than its share of environmental calamities that are home grown as well. President Morales did not create these problems, but they are his now to address:
Garbage, Garbage Everywhere
The Dump that Destroys the Earth
The city of Cochabamba has many environmental problems to solve, but a particular one that is long overdue for action is the K’ara K’ara municipal dump in the impoverished southern zone of the city of Cochabamba. It is a mountain of garbage where the nearby residents have neither adequate water nor sewage. In operation for more than thirty years the dump receives 400 tons a day of unsorted garbage. The 5,000 people who live nearby consume groundwater polluted by its chemicals, they inhale the gases and putrid odors that the garbage emits into the air, and they are targets for the insects and disease that come as well.
Although a 2001 environmental audit recommended its closing to address the huge impact it has on public health, the local authorities have not been able to find a place to locate a new dump built with the needed safety protections. Yet even if a new site were opened today, the communities around he dump will continue to suffer such extreme contamination that only a concerted and expensive program lasting a decade could begin to mitigate the effects.
[Written by Aldo Orellana]
The City of Garbage
Looking out my third-floor window, I see beautiful mountains beginning to turn green with the spring rains, a variety of green trees, a garden with roses, a banana tree and a bougainvillea vine. I also see trash, lots of trash. There is a discarded tire in the canal, a pile of dirty rags ground into the dirt road, plastic bottles, empty juice bags, candy wrappers, a discarded shoe without laces, an empty take-out food container and a yellow comb.
My neighborhood is not unique. Household trash can be found on the streets and sidewalks throughout the city of Cochabamba. Litter is dropped by pedestrians and from the windows of cars and busses. Signs on busses direct passenger to please “throw your garbage out the windows.”
Alongside this purposeful or accidental littering, a dedicated population sweeps their storefronts and sidewalks every morning and carries their household garbage to designated dumpsters, where they are available. However, it is impossible to protect the rivers and waterways from the garbage that is either blown or dumped in. Why is there so much litter on the streets of Cochabamba? We can’t pretend that there is a simple answer- certainly there are cultural, economic and consumption patterns involved- but it is difficult not to interpret it as a disregard for or neglect of the earth.
[Written by Kris Hannigan-Luther]
In the Countryside, Where Garbage Reins
It breaks my heart, such abuse of the earth amidst such beauty. In the mornings just after dawn I take a long walk through the countryside outskirts of Tiquipaya with my two dogs. And every day there is another new pile of discarded garbage. Two bags of discarded plaster now sit astride a small canal where green and white lilies try to grow. The water canal that snakes its way through farms and fields is jammed stuck with a discarded pile that includes a tire, two huge plastic bags of trash and an assortment of building materials that seem to be leaking chemicals. Then last week a pile of plastic bags and bottles that would fill the bed of a small pick-up truck (and probably did) is now strewn across an open field next to the soccer court where the neighborhood children pass these days of summer vacation.
It isn’t hard to understand why Tiquipaya – this town that declares itself an ecological zone – has become more of a spread out dump. The city (run by Morales’ MAS party for many years) has no real program to collect the garbage generated by its residents. A single garbage truck does make a weekly route along the few main roads, but that is of little significance to the many families who live far from these roads. There are no trash receptacles anywhere nearby. So the fields and water canals take their place.
The Murder of Trees
Deforestation, the murder of trees, is a major cause of global warming. If you want a planet with a global respiratory illness, cut down its lungs – it isn’t rocket science. And Bolivia is certainly doing its fair share of the cutting.
The main street that connects the town of Tiquipaya and the city of Cochabamba is called Avenida Ecologica, Ecology Avenue. My friend Ismael pointed out the irony one morning when we were driving along it together. The road is lined with one massive lot after another full of equally massive felled trees. Most of these come from the Chapare region 100 miles away. A few may have been cut under s
ome sort of permit. Most are just the corpses produced by one illegal raid after another on some of the earth’s oldest living things.
Locally, the story is the same. Just in the last year I have watched four small nearby groves, numbering 50 trees or more, turned into wastelands of abandoned stumps. Here in Tiquipaya most of these are eucalyptus trees, which most environmentalists will point out, are not native to the area and are notorious suckers of water underground. While that may be true, to kill them all will simply convert Tiquipaya into another Quillocollo, an urbanized mass where trees are a memory not a fact of life.
Why are the trees being killed and carted away? It’s the same phenomena that the country’s president warned about in Copenhagen, the trading in of nature for money. The people who live here and cut these trees may not profit as handsomely as Shell or Chevron, but the principle is the same.
Bulldozing through a Rare Refuge for Wildlife
Not long ago the Bolivian government declared that animals are also part of the world of nature it seeks to protect by banning the use of animals in circuses in Bolivia. However, one of the most important animals refuges in the country, Parque Machia just outside of Villa Tunari in he Chapare, is under threat by government plans to build a road through it heart.
The so-called “Monkey Park” is well known to Bolivian and foreign visitors alike. My family and I just made a return visit there in November. Small black monkeys, most liberated from abused lives in the city, will crawl into your lap and onto your head (and put a hand into your pocket and steal its contents, if you aren’t attentive). The park is also home to a host of other animal species, including pumas and an endangered Spectacled Bear. Jane Goodall recently visited the park to lend her support for its continued existence.
But local officials (another community run by MAS) have failed to complete any reasonable environmental assessment of the road’s impact and seem committed to bulldozing right through the park. Here’s a report from volunteers at Parque Machia.
Degrading the Earth to Capture its Mineral Wealth
The harshest and most long-term threat to Bolivia’s environment has been the relentless pursuit of its vast natural resources. From silver and tin in the past, to gas and iron today, the quest for riches under the earth has come at an enormous environmental cost. If it is not careful, the country’s new quest to leach out its abundant lithium reserves will be just the newest tragic chapter.
While this exploitation at the earth’s expense is a long legacy in Bolivia, even the country’s new regime is subject to the same course. As our colleague Linda Farthing wrote recently in NACLA: