‘Development – for Whom?’: Economic development and minority rights in Bolivia and beyond.

Valerie GiesenBy Valerie Giesen

Private sector investment in infrastructure and extractive projects such as mining are often perceived as opportunities by national governments. For instance, African governments have welcomed the large-scale involvement of Chinese and Indian firms in infrastructure and mining projects as an economic advantage, which allows governments to improve their competitiveness abroad and increase employment at home. However, these projects tend to affect local populations unevenly, confronting governments with the dilemma of weighing the benefits and disadvantages of economic development in emotionally charged environments. Just last week Ricardo Morel Berendson wrote about the difficulties of building an inclusive mining model in Peru.

An example of the tensions between development goals, which made it into the international headlines in 2011, was the Bolivian government’s plan to build a 182-mile highway, parts of which were to cut through a national park in the Bolivian part of the Amazon basin. Up to this point, the government under Evo Morales had presented itself as a radical defender of indigenous ecological rights on the global stage and had gone beyond external demands on developing countries to preserve their natural environment as a safeguard against climate change. For instance, in 2010, Bolivia was the only country to refuse the outcome of the United Nations (UN) climate summit in Cancún; Its ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon, argued that the voluntary agreements proposed at Cancún would not be sufficient to bring global warming under control, accusing the international community of acting irresponsibly.

In July 2011, the government’s ‘green’ discourse was undercut by its desire to improve domestic economic growth, when Bolivia’s participation in a continent-wide Brazil-led infrastructure plan was announced. Funded largely by the  Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), the US$420 million project included plans for a highway which would connect Brazil with Pacific ports in Chile and Peru and improve Bolivia’s ability to transport goods regionally. 32 miles of the highway would cut through the ‘Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park’, known by its Spanish acronym Tipnis. Tipnis is located in the Amazon basin and covers about 5,300 square miles, making the reserve five times the size of Luxemburg. It is inhabited by the indigenous Tsimanes, Yuracarés, and Mojeño-Trinitarios, who subsist on the forest.

The case – sadly – highlights the dilemmas and Faustian bargains that developing countries face when attempting to meet the demands of the world market. The Bolivian government argued that the country was in dire need of infrastructural improvement to integrate geographically remote areas and facilitate trade and commerce. The highway was planned to connect the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia’s centre and Trinidad, the capital of Bolivia’s Amazonian region of Beni. However, the initiative sparked controversy throughout the region and attracted international media attention as the reserve’s inhabitants claimed the project would seriously damage the Amazonian ecosystem. The Tipnis protesters feared the project would open the forest to illegal logging and settlement which – they argued – would impact them disproportionately and endanger their livelihoods. Furthermore, Tipnis inhabitants have been resisting the spread of agriculture and Coca cultivation to the forest for decades. While the residents of Tipnis set out on a two months march from their homes to the capital La Paz,  there were also counter-demonstrations from advocates of the highway’s construction, which revealed the country’s social and economic fault lines.

The case illustrates the challenges posed to democratic governments confronted with the uneven impact of the costs of economic development. Morales’ government was caught between demands for improving the country’s economic infrastructure and securing the rights of a minority population which defines development in starkly different terms – all of this in the context of the government’s self-professed dedication to substantive environmental protection.

On the one hand, Bolivia’s economic situation is dire compared to its South American neighbours, as well as internationally: According to the World Bank, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) averaged $2,374 per person in the period from 2008 to 2012, while neighbouring Peru reached an average per capita GDP of $6,018 and the United Kingdom’s per capita GDP averaged $38,974. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Bolivia has higher transportation costs than in other countries in the region because the poorest country of South America lacks infrastructure, has a low population density in rural areas, and a geographically dispersed economic base. The road’s advocates argued that Bolivia needs to improve its poor infrastructure and pointed out that the highway would connect formerly remote communities with Pacific ports in Chile. Within Bolivia, for instance, the highway would have connected the Bolivian towns of Villa Tunari in the Cochabamba department and San Ignacio de Moxos in the Beni department. San Ignacio de Moxos, which is located only 88 kilometers west of the department capital, Trinidad, is accessible via aerotaxi and by road. However, according to a tourist information website, the dirt road is usually impassable during the rainy season, when it becomes impossible to cross the three rivers which separate San Ignacio de Moxos from the outside world. In light of the similar problems that communities in the area face, protesters marched from their respective villages in Beni towards the capital La Paz. Even after the construction of the controversial highway was halted, there were protests in favor of the project in La Paz, such as in January 2012.

On the other hand, it is a truism that corporate enterprises can have a negative impact on local populations and the environment, which are not included in the calculation of profits. Even a cursory look at recent cases of forced displacement highlights that, often, the gains of large economic enterprises go to international actors while local actors are disproportionately affected by the corresponding costs. In a 2012 report, for instance, Minority Rights Group International (MRGI) reported numerous cases in which communities were forced to leave their land to make space for extractive projects, such as mining and logging. These included the 2009 eviction of the Ipili people from their land in the highlands of Papua New Guinea for a gold mine run by the Canada-based Barrick Gold Corporation. Similarly, local indigenous Suku Anak Dalam were evicted from their settlements on the island of Sumatra by the staff of a palm oil plantation, controlled by the Singapore-based Wilmar Group in August 2011.

As estimates based on UN data project, the world’s population is set to grow to over nine billion by 2050, thus the energy, minerals, and food supplies needed for it are ever-increasing. This has consequences for the distribution of land: drawing on World Bank data, MRGI estimates that more than 56 million hectares of farmland worldwide were leased to foreign investors in 2009 alone, and over 227 million hectares of land – an area the size of Western Europe – has been sold or leased since 2001. It seems clear that this has been largely driven by foreign governments’ need to secure food and bio-fuel sources, and by private investors.

With these figures in mind, it becomes apparent that national governments will continue to face difficult decisions between the benefits of large-scale projects, often backed by domestic pressure for economic growth on the one hand, and environmental preservation and indigenous land rights on the other. These figures highlight what was at stake in the Tipnis controversy and add another layer to the troublesome question: ‘Development – for whom?’

In Bolivia, the protest movement of Tipnis inhabitants managed to make their voices heard. In the fall of 2011, Evo Morales suspended work on the controversial highway and in 2012 annulled its contract with the Brazilian company OAS for the rest of the highway. However, the Tipnis protest is one of a tiny few stories in which those communities who bear the brunt of national developmental plans manage to win a voice in the decision-making. It remains to be seen whether the Bolivian government’s efforts to include Tipnis inhabitants in the consultation on the region’s development will lead to more inclusive decision-making and might even become a model for achieving economic development without disproportionate disadvantages for minority populations in the future.

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Valerie Giesen is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

For Your Reference:

Americas Quarterly 2012, ‘Brazil Displeased at Bolivian Decision to Revoke to Revoke Highway Contract’
<Americas Quarterly http://americasquarterly.org/taxonomy/term/3126>

BBC News 2013, ‘Bolivia March Revives Tipnis Amazon Road Dispute’

Calla, R 2011, ‘TIPNIS y Amazonia: Contradicciones en la Agenda Ecológica de Bolivia’, Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe, Vol. 91 2012

Friedman-Rudovsky, N  ‘Documentary Yale Environment 360: Bolivia’s Battle Over a Road and a Way of Life’

Inter-American Development Bank, 2011 ‘ Bolivia will improve its transportation system with IDB support’ 

Lagerkvist, J 2009 ‘Chinese eyes on Africa: Authoritarian flexibility versus democratic governance’, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Vol. 27

Minority Rights Group International, 2012, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012.  Available for download from <http://www.minorityrights.org/?lid=11374>

Minority Rights Group International, 2012, Corporate Responsibility to Respect the Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.
Available for download from <http://www.minorityrights.org/?lid=11516>

Solon, P 2011, ‘Why Bolivia Stood Alone in Opposing the Cancún Climate Agreement’

Worldometers, Statistics based on UN estimates <http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/>



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