Since Evo Morales – the first Indigenous president to rule a majority Indigenous country – took office in 2006, there have been major changes to the government operation of Bolivia, including an overhaul of the constitution in 2009. However, his efforts to help Indigenous and impoverished communities by increasing access to food and land for more citizens have lost him the support of many, due to his promotion of large-scale agriculture corporations.
A recent agricultural summit brought together representatives of all corners of the agriculture process: growers, producers and funders – those who stand by traditional ways and those who favor continued use of genetically-modified argriculture (more commonly known as GMOs). Together, these constituents engaged in heated debates about land occupation, use and GMOs.
This was in the run up to a government and agricultural producers’ re-launch of the agricultural sector for the state of Santa Cruz (which is geographically the largest state, and the one most affected by deforestation). However, interestingly enough, environmental NGOs and those Indigenous groups who, because of their opposition to Morales’ policies, have lost favor with him were absent from the summit.
Morales’s mixed environmental record is also reflected in the actions of Bolivia’s indigenous people. They are often painted as stewards of the Earth, having fought alongside environmental activists to protect rainforests, halt construction of mega-dams, and enshrine strict legal protections for the environment. However, at the agricultural summit small-scale indigenous farmers often joined large landholders — who still comprise by far the largest threat to Bolivia’s forest — in arguing for looser environmental regulations.
“[Some] sectors of small producers… want an expedited expansion of the agricultural frontier, they want to change the Forest Law… They [even] want genetically modified seeds,” said Gonzalo Colque, the director of The Land Foundation, a Bolivian NGO dedicated to supporting small producers.
It’s important to notice who received an invitation from the Morales government to attend the agricultural summit – or any important national conversation – and who did not get a place at the table, since attendees’ views largely shape the outcome of the discussions.
A report by the Land Foundation argues that small-farmers and indigenous people were not adequately represented at the conference. “In the planning stage of the agricultural summit, the indigenous and peasant sector was absent,” it said. Ultimately, peasant and indigenous groups were allowed to send 25 representatives; medium-producers sent another 25; and agro-industrial groups sent 50.
At the heart of this debate is deforestation and the severe impact it has on all living species in the forests and rivers in Bolivia. Currently at risk are endangered species like the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), spectacled bear (remarctos ornatus) and jaguar (panthera onca), and delicate ecosystems such as the Chiquitano Dry Forests, and the Gran Chaco, each home to hundreds of plant, insect and bird species.
You can read the full article on this debate and its impacts over at Mongabay.