Bolivia’s 2019 presidential elections will set the course of this biologically astounding country for years to come. In a paper published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, Bolivian and European scientists analyse the impact of previous policies on the country’s protected areas. They suggest future policy directions, and call for nature to be a key topic of debate in the upcoming presidential campaign.
Bolivia is one of the few biologically ‘megadiverse’ countries on Earth. It stretches from the Andes mountains to the Amazon rainforest, and is home to jaguars, flamingos, and sloths. But over the last decade, Bolivia’s nature has suffered some dramatic losses. Fossil fuel extraction, farming expansion, and road development put Bolivia’s nature and the millions of people who depend on it at risk.
The team assessed environmental policy and practice over the 13 year administration of current President Evo Morales. They highlight some groundbreaking policies, such as the recognition of the rights of nature in the ‘Rights of Mother Earth’ law. Yet these policies have not always translated into practice. In the past decade drilling for oil and gas has begun in national parks, there have been roads built through Indigenous territories, and also massive rainforest destruction. Further, policies have affected Indigenous Peoples’ rights, as there are no longer rigorous rules to consult the communities affected when large infrastructure or development projects are planned.
Alfredo Romero-Muñoz is the Bolivian researcher, currently based at Humboldt University of Berlin, who led the study. He says that ‘nature is even more key to our nation’s well-being than the economy. We need nature for everything from freshwater, to crops, to fishing. Damaging natural areas will threaten not only Bolivia’s astonishing wildlife, but the livelihoods of millions of peoples that depend on it, knowingly or not. For instance, rain across extensive parts of the country depends on the breathing of the Amazon rainforest. Beyond a certain level of deforestation, there will not be enough rain for crops to grow.’
The scientists suggest ways to balance human wellbeing and nature conservation in the country. This includes a ban on building, drilling, and mining projects in areas protected for nature. They also suggest science-based and truly participatory land-use planning to decide where to farm or build to ensure minimal damage. Further, they say the country should start to wean itself off using fossil fuels, megadams, and biofuels for energy, and invest instead in solar and wind. The Andes mountains alone receive so much solar radiation that, theoretically, they could power the entire world.
The scientists say that environmental issues should be an important topic of debate in the upcoming elections, especially as over 73 percent of Bolivians say the environment is a bigger priority than economic growth. They want the media to ask more questions on how the different presidential candidates plan to meet the needs of nature and people, and say that candidates should publish clear environmental policies in their manifestos. Romero-Muñoz emphasizes that ‘the time to save Bolivia’s nature is now. Whichever candidate wins, they must match fine words about protecting Mother Earth with meaningful action.’