Bolivia has a myriad of environmental problems; many of which are intrinsically linked to one another. As a brief introduction, we give a rundown of some of the major issues facing Bolivia:
Deforestation is a critical threat to the health of Bolivia's environment and its biodiversity. Approximately 45% of Bolivia’s 1 098 000 hectares is forestland, covering and lying in the departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and the tropical parts of Cochabamba and La Paz. During the 1980s about 810 000 hectares were lost to deforestation each year. Between 1990 and 1995, nearly 3 million hectares of forest were lost. Bolivia's forests are cleared primarily for cropland, for livestock grazing, and for tropical timber, which is harvested for export. The small minority of Bolivia's population which resides in the huge lowland rainforests depend on agriculture and the raising of livestock for their livelihood. Methods such as overgrazing and the use of traditional farming techniques such as ‘slash and burn’ agriculture (which have been tempting to these low-subsistence peoples) have led not only to deforestation, but also to soil erosion and a consequent loss of soil fertility (see below). International demand for tropical timber and the incentive it provides to exporters has been an economic factor pushing along the process. Attempts by the government in the past to encourage settlement of these under-populated rainforest areas exacerbated the problem.
The loss of forests can be directly linked to the loss of animal and plant species, the accumulation of greenhouse gases and indirectly to soil erosion, sedimentation of lakes and lagoons, and climate change.
Some attempts have been made to improve matters. In theory at least, Bolivia protects a proportion of its land area in parks or other reserves. It was also the first country to enter into a ‘debt for nature’ swap, an agreement which allows developing countries to pay off national debt through nature conservation. Bolivia's agreement covered some 810 000 hectares, principally rainforest.
Soil Erosion and Soil Degradation
Erosion by wind, water and gravity is a natural process that occurs in all ecosystems. A threat to the environmental balance occurs when the rate of soil formation is outpaced by the rate of erosion. Activities such as farming, deforestation and grazing livestock can upset the land’s natural equilibrium and accelerate the rate of soil loss in this way, as well as affecting the fertility of the remaining soil.
The problem of soil erosion in the Bolivian highlands dates back to the 16th Century, when colonists imposed a taxation system upon indigenous farmers whereby revenues were collected and paid in the form of grasses and shrubs. The loss of this vegetation began a process of erosion of fertile topsoil that continues to the present day. Bolivia is especially vulnerable to soil erosion because of the steep mountainous nature of the land. Without vegetation to slow run-off, absorb excess water, and hold the soil together, large amounts of fertile topsoil continue to be lost to erosion. More recent causes of soil erosion have been overgrazing, poor cultivation methods (including ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture), and mining. Population pressure is also a contributing factors, the substantial number of Bolivians who live in the highlands are by necessity using the same limited supplies of wood for cooking and clearing the same fragile land for agricultural farming.
Solutions, as ever, are evasive when there appears to be a stark choice of economics versus environment, but alternative methods of cultivating the land exist, the employment of which would produce a significant improvement.
Loss of biodiversity
Bolivia is considered by scientists to be a country of ‘mega-diversity’ in terms of the number of species it hosts. Many of these species, especially in the forests and wetlands, are threatened and in risk of disappearing due to a number of factors: demographic pressure, deforestation, burning, contamination, biodiversity use above its productive capacity, illegal hunting and the replacement of local species with foreign varieties. A specific example of the latter would be the diminution of fish species. High economic value non-native fish species such as the ubiquitous trout were introduced into Lake Titicaca around 1930. Since then, some native species of fish such as karachi and boga have decreased to the point of becoming endangered species.
Bolivia is party to a number of international treaties on biodiversity aimed at halting this decline.
Availability of water and industrial pollution of water supplies
Much of Bolivia’s water supply is derived from sources which are polluted. Organic and bacteriological contamination is caused by human activity, in particular urban waste and mining. Poor waste disposal is the main cause of water contamination in towns and cities, particularly where waste is dumped into rivers, the water from which is used downstream for agriculture, etc. Heavy metal contamination is common in mining regions such as Oruro.
Given the pollution of water supplies, careful water preparation is an absolute must, (although in the case of metal pollution, for example, even this will not guard against all ill effects). This is especially so in regions of high altitude where water must be boiled for at least 15 minutes to kill the waterborne bacteria which is a common cause of diarrhoea and the root of other, more serious, health problems. Poverty is a pressing factor here as cooking gas is expensive and mothers usually have large families, no household water connection, electricity or heat. The inevitable result is a high incidence of preventable infant death and health consequences for the whole population, disproportionately affecting the most impoverished sections of society who do not have the means or the education to guard against the ill-effects of water pollution.
In terms of supply, Bolivia has had increased water and sanitation coverage in recent years, with around 70% of households having potable water connections. This figure, however, remains some way off the target of 95% coverage set by the government.
Privatisation of water offers one means of improving matters. It is argued that with their international experience, multinationals provide better value for money than public utilities, using water more effectively and paying better salaries to their employees than the state. However, privatisation is highly contentious in Bolivia because, despite the obvious advantages of foreign investment in improving water supply (for example by the building of dams), one of the outcomes for the consumer has been a rise in the cost of water. This has in some cases made water too expensive for the poorest people to afford. Unsurprisingly, attempts to privatise water supplies have led to popular protests, most notably and most violently in Cochabamba in 2000 where privatisation led to the tripling of water prices. In January of this year, organisers of mass demonstrations in El Alto against President Mesa’s government rejected the involvement of a French water company in the supply of their water. In both cases the government was forced into a compromise of its plans. Presently however, there does not appear to be any viable alternative strategy for improving water supply and quality.
Bolivia is considered by experts to lack expertise in water legislation and this, along with a failure to consult local people about the involvement of international water companies, has blocked progress. The situation remains poor.
To the future
Appreciation of the significance of environmental matters has increased in Bolivia in recent years, with members of congress and indigenous groups finally taking serious note of ‘green’ issues. Amongst the public, however, knowledge and understanding of the issues is muted and much more could be done to improve awareness. Bolivia has made steady progress in recent years to incorporate sustainable development principles into its policies and programs, in an attempt to reverse the degradation and loss of environmental resources. But what may be discussed and incorporated into law is not always reflected in the situation on the ground. Bolivia faces a major challenge in strengthening public institutions involved in environmental monitoring, and in increasing environmental awareness in the general public.