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The Extraction-Based Model and Conflict over Natural Resources in Bolivia

At the Third Meeting of the School for Environmental Leaders in Potosí, leaders and representatives of the communities affected by environmental pollution met to discuss environmental problems in Bolivia. The conclusions from this meeting contrast the discourse of Evo Morales’ government regarding the rights of Mother Earth with the reality that the Bolivian economy hinges on the “commodity export” model.

Since 2006, the government has become a more significant protagonist in the economy, reasserting control over natural resources. However, consistent with regional trends, the economic development model is increasingly based on extracting non-renewable natural resources. In 2012, throughout Latin America, 43% of public funds were invested in commodities. Mining and hydrocarbon extraction has increased in recent years all over the region.


Rising prices and demand for agricultural commodities on international markets have boosted demand for land. In the integrated region of Santa Cruz, the value of land has multiplied fivefold from 2005 to 2012. The main reason is the soy industry boom. This has affected not only land buying but also other ways of accessing land, such as leasing, which is prohibited by the constitution, and other new modes such as partnerships in which one party provides the land and the other the labour and capital.

The 2025 Bicentennial Patriotic Agenda states that “it is our challenge to construct a plural, diversified economy that recovers, strengthens and promotes all our potential, initiatives and capacities, and fully respects the rights of Mother Earth.” These challenges are reflected in the goal of expanding the agricultural frontier from three million hectares currently under cultivation to thirteen million by 2025 to guarantee the people’s food security.

With this vision the government is implementing a resettlement programe and taking small farmers from the mountains to woodlands in the Amazon and Chiquitanía regions of Bolivia. There is also “spontaneous” migration by small farmers occupying land, not been supported by the government, which is creating conflicts between lowlands indigenous people and small farmers from the Andean region of the country.


Mining in Bolivia has grown in recent years and is also shifting towards large areas in the Amazon region and in the Chiquitanía east of Santa Cruz. Over 9000 mining concessions began operations before 2009, and in 2010 the national government legalized them. Of these mining concessions, by 2008 only six had their environmental impact studies duly approved. Additionally, there is extensive illegal mining, above all so-called cooperative mining and also mining by families or small groups.

These operations, many illegal, are in indigenous territories, in protected areas and the Amazonian region, which are public lands. Illegal mining is done from barges that dredge river bottoms to remove alluvial gold. Soaring gold prices on the international market have drawn dozens of families, so there are partnerships between local groups and dredge owners.                                                                                                                                                                                       
Conflict generation because of this extractive activity has not been studied despite the heavy impact on institutional and social de-structuring. Mining operations overlap farmers’ rights, who are directly affected by mining pollution, loss of soil, water sources, productive systems, their health, and by the physical occupation of their lands and resulting changes to their ways of life.


In 2005, Bolivia enacted a new law on hydrocarbons, levying fresh taxes on oil companies and making prior, informed consultation with indigenous peoples mandatory when concessions affect their land or territories. In 2006 the government nationalized hydrocarbons, obliging oil companies to negotiate new contracts with the state.

In 2010 the hydrocarbon frontier began to expand, achieving more oil and gas production, thus underpinning the national government’s economic programme. In May 2012, the government announced planned exploration and extraction of hydrocarbon resources from national parks. In June 2013, the Bolivia Documentation and Information Center (CEDIB) said that the government of President Evo Morales expanded the hydrocarbon frontier from 2.8 million hectares in 2007 to 24 million hectares in 2012.
Much of the expansion of petroleum activities is happening in protected areas and indigenous territories. The only protection and safeguard available to the indigenous peoples is to enforce prior, well-informed consultation. However, there are companies that refuse to comply with this constitutional obligation.

Defending Mother Earth

The Bolivian government’s discourse aggressively defends Mother Earth and “living well”. The Law 300 Framework Law of Mother Earth and Holistic Development for Living Well (2012) proposes to eliminate the concentration of land ownership by agricultural and other companies and prohibits the production, use and marketing of genetically modified seeds on national territory. Other salient points include creating the System Ombudsman Function, a Climate Justice Fund, establishing that government land must be distributed with preference for women and indigenous peoples and ordering regulation of foreign ownership and use of Mother Earth.

When enacting the law, President Morales said it would enable utilization of natural resources without causing harm to the environment. Vice President Álvaro García-Linera has said: “If we have to produce, we have to produce; if we have to remove some ore, we have to do it; but we must strike a balance between meeting our needs and caring for Mother Earth”.

[…] “Climate change” has placed all of humankind at a great crossroads: continuing on the pathway of capitalism and death, or taking the route toward harmony with Nature and respect for life […],  President Morales wrote, in his letter to the Poznan Summit (November 2008). What we see is that good intentions and speeches by the government of Bolivia have not been enough to curb extraction-based economic dynamics. The struggle for control of land and natural resources is increasing conflicts in the rural world. Therefore, the communities at the Third Meeting of the School of Environmental Leaders called for reinforcing the fight to make a broad, legitimate, proactive socio-environmental movement to defend Mother Earth, the environment and water.