Bolivia: Reclaiming Natural Resources and Popular Sovereignty

Emily Achtenberg

Arriving at El Alto International Airport, 13,500 feet above sea level, the visitor's view of La Paz is nothing short of spectacular. The world's highest capital city, at 12,000 feet, spreads out in the bowl-shaped canyon below along a central spine of gleaming modern high-rise buildings. On the rim, the teeming indigenous city of El Alto--one of the fastest-growing in Latin America, soon to surpass La Paz in population--sprawls across the Altiplano. The entire scene is ringed by towering, snow-capped mountains, including the majestic triple-peaked Illimani.

Connecting La Paz with El Alto (and much of the rest of Bolivia) are one major and two smaller roads snaking down the hillside. It was here in 2003-2005 that thousands of indigenous campesinos (peasant farmers), cocaleros (coca growers), workers, and members of urban neighborhood organizations staged repeated and massive roadblocks, demonstrations, and marches that effectively ended 20 years of neoliberal government, culminating in December 2005 with the election of Evo Morales as the nation's first indigenous president. In this creative use of their geography to lay siege to La Paz from above, the modern social movements recalled a tactic used by their ancestors as far back as 1781, when Tupac Katari led a massive Indian rebellion cutting off access to the capital for 6 months.

Once a "poster country" for neoliberal structural adjustment policies, Bolivia is now the icon of the anti-globalization movement. On a visit last summer with a Global Exchange human rights delegation, we had a sense of bearing witness to an important historical moment. In understanding what is happening in Bolivia today, of particular importance to progressive planners is the new MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) government's attempt to reassert popular sovereignty over previously-privatized natural resources, and to recognize new forms of participatory decision-making that respect communitarian traditions. Of interest too are the roles played by urban neighborhood organizations and democratic participatory planning reforms in the development of Bolivia's new social movements, widely regarded as the most radical and powerful in the Americas today.

Brief history of Bolivia: From structural adjustment to anti-globalisation

Since colonial times, Bolivia's wealth of natural resources (land, silver, tin and other minerals) has been plundered by national and international elites at the expense of the impoverished indigenous majority. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and the most indigenous (62%, primarily Aymará and Quechua). At the same time, the indigenous population has a long history of civil resistance, led in modern times (1964-82) by a militant, miner-dominated trade union movement. Historically, Bolivia's trade union confederation has been unique in representing broad sectors of society (including professionals, women, and, since 1979, sindicato peasant unions), and in extending its concerns and sphere of influence well beyond traditional economic issues.

In the 1980s and '90s, at the behest of the international financial institutions, neoliberal Bolivian governments implemented a radical structural adjustment program that reversed 40 years of state economic intervention and social welfare benefits. Profitable public enterprises (energy, transportation, and telecommunications) were sold to multinational corporations at bargain prices, while unprofitable ones (such as the mines) were shut down, dismantling the state-dominated economy. Government spending was slashed, price and trade protections eliminated, and markets opened up to foreign goods and investment. Twenty-three thousand miners lost their jobs virtually overnight, followed by 35,000 teachers and other state workers. With the formal economy in collapse and cheap food and other imports flooding the market, impoverished indigenous peasants and miners migrated en masse from the Altiplano to El Alto, Cochabamba, the eastern lowlands, the Chapare jungles, and abroad to Argentina. The trade union movement was decimated. Distrust of government and the traditional political parties was rampant.

In 2000, a popular uprising in Cochabamba succeeded in throwing out the Bechtel corporation and in returning the privatized water company to the social sector. In 2003, an even broader mobilization against the exploitation of gas and oil resources led to the forced resignation of two successive presidents. These events reflected a dynamic convergence of urban and rural territorially-based social movements including campesinos from the Altiplano, neighborhood organizations, workers, and students based in El Alto and Cochabamba, and cocaleros from the Chapare and the Yungas, fusing national-popular and indigenous demands to create an increasingly radical agenda. Ultimately, this resurgent opposition brought about the historic election of Evo Morales, an indigenous cocalero leader, with 54% of the popular vote (a rarity in Bolivian history: no other presidential candidate in the past 50 years has received the majority necessary to avoid throwing the election back into the Congress).

The MAS party's agenda calls for dismantling the neoliberal economic model, reasserting state sovereignty over natural resources (such as water, hydrocarbons, land, and coca), rewriting the constitution through a Constituent Assembly, and empowering the indigenous majority through new forms of popular participation. Through our meetings with community leaders, government representatives, educators, journalists, and social activists, we gained perspective on the many challenges facing the new MAS government and the social movements as they seek to bring these promises to fruition.


In Serena Calicante, a community of 300 families on the southern fringe of Cochabamba settled by displaced ex-miners from the highlands (with basic housing provided through their pension fund), we met with veterans of the "water wars." Transplanting their trade-union consciousness to new urban settings, former miners are an important constituency in Bolivia's new social movements.

When Bechtel took over Cochabamba's water operations, Serena Calicante residents saw the price of their poor quality, trucked-in water increase by up to 200%. Communities already hooked into the water system faced similar increases. Urban water cooperatives using wells they had dug themselves and peasant farmer irrigators who had regulated their own water use for generations were outraged to find their communitarian traditions shattered, as free water became an unaffordable commodity controlled by foreigners.

These groups and others united to form the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life (the Coordinadora), which organized massive civil resistance to payment of the rate increases as well as civic strikes, demonstrations, building takeovers, and road blockades. Interestingly, they were aided by a group of progressive planners in Cochabamba who explained the intricacies of water privatization. The Coordinadora developed new "horizontal" networks for community participation based on egalitarian traditions and consensus decision-making, convening massive open meetings in the town square. Eventually, the Coordinadora and its allies succeeded in returning the water company to municipal control.

Six years later, water rates have stabilized--but Serena Calicante (along with 50% of Cochabamba) is still not hooked up to the municipal water or sewer system. Major hydro projects launched by previous governments, plagued by corruption and cost overruns, remain uncompleted. Due to illegal connections in the richer neighborhoods and seepage through ancient pipes, 55% of the water that enters the system is lost and the standards for international funding have not been achieved. While remaining strongly in support of MAS, the community is prepared for more struggles ahead. "Que la lucha nos mantenga joven," they told us ("may the struggle keep us young").


In El Alto, community radiojournalist Marco Quispe explained that the initial impetus for the 2003 "gas wars" was a proposed scheme by then-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada ("Goni"), chief architect of Bolivia's structural adjustment program, for a pipeline to export gas to the US through Chile. As every Bolivian schoolchild knows, Bolivia lost its seacoast to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1879, making this choice of route extremely unpopular. The issue quickly escalated to control of Bolivia's oil and gas reserves, located mostly in the eastern lowlands departments. Thanks to Goni, these vast reserves--the second largest in South America--were ceded to the multinationals on extremely favorable terms in the 1990s. In communities like El Alto, the hydrocarbons issue evokes still-bitter memories of the 1934 Chaco War where 50,000 mostly indigenous soldiers died in defense (according to popular belief) of Bolivia's petroleum interests.

A key actor in the gas wars was El Alto's Federation of Neighborhood Juntas (FEJUVE), a coalition of 540 block groups representing each of El Alto's 9 neighborhood districts. As in Cochabamba, the democratic organizational structure and political consciousness of FEJUVE is rooted in the mining and peasant union traditions of its membership, transplanted to an urban setting.

Formed in 1979, FEJUVE has a strong activist tradition built on its success in delivering water, streetlights, roads, and other services to the neighborhoods. Somewhat paradoxically, FEJUVE was strengthened by the 1994 Law of Public Participation (LPP), a neoliberal decentralization reform instituted by Goni which devolved 20% of the national budget to municipalities and encouraged participatory planning and fiscal oversight by community-based organizations. In some districts, FEJUVE's neighborhood councils effectively operated as micro-governments.

After Goni's resignation, FEJUVE led a successful civic strike in El Alto against a tax on building and home construction, as well as a massive mobilization against the privatization of El Alto's water system (now scheduled to return to public control in 2007). Since the election of Evo Morales, FEJUVE has been weakened by the loss of key leaders to MAS cabinet positions and its relations with the government have been strained. At the same time, significant steps have been taken to address FEJUVE's demand for nationalization of hydrocarbons.

In May 2006, Evo Morales proclaimed the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas reserves under the symbolically-titled "Heroes of the Chaco" decree, which gave foreign firms 180 days to renegotiate their contracts or leave the country. The gambit appears to have paid off. The 10 largest foreign companies--including Brazil's Petrobras, the biggest investor--have agreed to new terms for exploration and development under which the government's share of revenues will increase from 18% to up to 80%. In four years, these long-term contracts are expected to generate an anticipated $4 billion annually for social and economic programs (up from $500 million in 2004).

In time, the government hopes to regain majority ownership and control of five companies that were privatized under Goni, relegating them to the role of service-providers for the reconstituted state energy company. Along with the details and costs of these arrangements, many other issues remain unresolved--including the gas price increases that Bolivia wants Brazil to accept, the fate of Petrobras' refineries, how much the private firms will be required to reinvest, and whether the devastated state energy company can develop sufficient capacity and resources to exercise meaningful control (even with Venezuela as a minority partner). Some question whether the program, which relies on a combination of buybacks and forced negotiation, truly constitutes "nationalization." Nevertheless, the new contracts appear to represent a meaningful step towards Bolivia's recovery of its gas and oil resources.


In the eastern lowlands department of Santa Cruz, we met with campesinos affiliated with Bolivia's Landless Peasant Movement (MST), formed in 2000. According to Silvestre Saisari, a national MST leader, the organization represents primarily indigenous migrants from the highlands, who work on the large eastern latifundios (estates) under subsistence conditions. Although many of these ex-highlanders are now second- generation lowlands residents, they are unable to gain land titles and suffer from considerable ethnic/ racial prejudice. The MST organizes land occupations and advocates for collective land use and ownership based on egalitarian, communitarian, and environmentally sound principles. These demands generally go beyond the program of the much larger national Confederation of Peasants' Unions of Bolivia (CSUTCB), with which the MST is fraternally allied.

The prosperous agribusiness estates that dominate the eastern lowlands, producing soy, cattle, and other export commodities, were acquired primarily since the 1970s through patronage land grants made by former military dictators to their political cronies (with US government backing), to promote diversification of the Bolivian economy. Much free land was also given to foreigners. Today there is significant absentee-ownership and speculative investment, with land used as collateral for loans that have enriched the Santa Cruz-based agribusiness elite.

The new radical agrarian reform program announced by Evo Morales in May 2006, and subsequently adopted by the Bolivian Congress, promises to redistribute non-productive, under-utilized latifundio land to existing residents (both highland and lowland indigenous), along with technical support and tools. To date, 9 million acres have been granted to 60 indigenous communities, and another 5.5 million acres have been recovered by the state in preparation for redistribution.

While peasant groups like the MST are strongly supportive of these measures, there are several concerns. The program will not benefit the millions of campesinos who remain in the western highlands; here, the original 1953 agrarian reform was successful in breaking up large estates, but repeated subdivisions by subsequent generations and lack of technical assistance have left an impoverished peasantry with small tracts of land (minifundios) that rarely produce beyond subsistence consumption. Moreover, since all of the land redistributed to date under the new MAS initiative has been publicly owned, the government's ability to carry out a large-scale private land redistribution program has not been tested. The eastern landholding elites have mounted an aggressive effort to resist and sabotage land reform (see below), resulting in delayed implementation and increasing impatience among the MST and allied peasant organizations.


The coca leaf is legal in Bolivia and is widely used in indigenous social, political, and ritual life. It is a stimulant, a mild anesthetic, and a hunger suppressant. Even the soldiers chew coca while on drug patrol.

In the Yungas, Bolivia's traditional coca-growing region, we visited an Afro-Bolivian community whose slave ancestors cultivated coca for transport to the highland mines, enabling the Spanish to amass their fortunes on the backs of an exploited, conscripted indigenous labor force. We learned that the production of coca for export took off in the 1980s, with structural adjustment, mine closures, and the US demand for cocaine fueling the migration of highland peasants and miners (including the family of Evo Morales) to the Chapare region of Cochabamba. Chapare was then an open frontier, with no operative government structure. Cocalero groups, again transplanting their political and organizational consciousness, formed new peasant unions which assigned land, assessed taxes, and developed public works projects.

Like FEJUVE in El Alto, the cocalero unions were greatly strengthened by the LPP which enabled them to control decentralized budgets and resources and deliver jobs and benefits to their communities. In 1995 they won control of the Chapare's newly-recognized municipal governments. Some 700 local unions representing 45,000 families were eventually organized into the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba (of which Evo Morales remains president today).

From 1998-2004, the US-funded war on drugs and the forced eradication of coca in the Chapare led to militarization, widespread human rights violations, and mobilization of the cocaleros into a powerful social movement and political party with links to national worker and campesino organizations. Today, the situation is characterized by a tense, uncertain equilibrium which the MAS government is struggling to maintain. Illegal drug exports--widely credited with saving the Bolivian economy during structural adjustment--have been substantially reduced, while a certain amount of negotiated legal growing is permitted for traditional domestic consumption (primarily chewing and tea). Evo Morales is pressing hard to expand the legal uses of coca--for industrialized products such as toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, and diet pills--in recognition of the reality that few alternative crops in Bolivia's peasant economy can compete with coca in price, durability, and marketability. The MAS government also insists on using social control and voluntary compliance to enforce legal growing limits.

However, Bolivia is under constant pressure from the US to cut back on coca production and step up its drug eradication efforts. At stake is the hoped-for extension of the Andean Trade Protection and Drug Elimination Act (ATPDEA), set to expire next June 30, which allows Bolivian exports (such as textiles, furniture, and clothing) to enter the US duty-free. The loss of these protections could eliminate up to 100,000 jobs, many of which are held by indigenous workers in El Alto (at the United furniture factory we visited there, which sells to outlets like Target and Costco, , 600 jobs could be lost). This poses a substantial dilemma for the MAS government in its efforts to respond to the needs of diverse social movement constituencies.

Constituent Assembly

The popular election of the Constituent Assembly, two days before our arrival in July, fulfilled a major demand of the social movements and a central MAS campaign promise. For the first time in Bolivian history, the constitution will be rewritten by a body that reflects the nation's indigenous majority, with substantial (34%) female participation and an indigenous woman as president. In the delegate vote, MAS and its allies won close to 60% and a majority of those elected from 7 of the 9 departments--significantly increasing Evo Morales' mandate, but short of the 2/3 required to control the Assembly.

Since then, the Assembly has been stalemated by disputes over ground rules that reflect more fundamental geopolitical divisions. MAS has insisted that the Assembly be invested with "original" powers that will enable it to undertake a wholesale restructuring of the state without answering to the Congress or the courts. In order to keep the opposition in check, MAS also wants individual Assembly votes to be decided by a simple majority, with 2/3 approval required only for the final program (followed by a national referendum, as required by law). More fundamentally, MAS sees the Assembly as "refoundational, plenipotentiary, and plurinational," an opportunity to enshrine the rights of Bolivia's indigenous majority into law and alter the political landscape in far-reaching ways.

This view is strongly contested by the political opposition, representing primarily the affluent, Santa Cruz-based, European-descended elite in the 4 lowlands departments where the vast majority of Bolivia's current wealth (hydrocarbons and fertile land) is concentrated. This group is directly threatened by agrarian reform and to some extent by the nationalization of hydrocarbons which they perceive as curtailing investment in the booming Santa Cruz economy.

Initial opposition efforts were focused on a referendum campaign for regional autonomy, through which the Santa Cruz elites hoped to deprive the federal government of the resources needed to carry out MAS' redistributive programs. The referendum failed nationally but won a majority in each of the 4 eastern departments; the issues of regional and indigenous autonomy are among the many to be decided by the Constituent Assembly. More recently, the Santa Cruz-based opposition has employed road blockages, civic and hunger strikes, and vigilante tactics to protest MAS' efforts to control the Constituent Assembly, which have produced increasingly violent confrontations with indigenous groups.

Looking ahead

Over the past year, the MAS government has made significant strides towards recovering Bolivia's natural resources and developing new forms of participatory decision-making that empower the indigenous majority. Major challenges have been posed by increasingly mobilized regional elites, internal capacity and resource constraints, and continued dependence on foreign investors and the US government. The MAS government walks a continuous tightrope between these realities and the high expectations of Bolivia's organized social movements which have succeeded in toppling two presidents in as many years.

At the end of the day, the MAS program is considerably more pragmatic than revolutionary. Alvaro García Linera, Bolivia's vice-president (and a widely- respected social movement theoretician), envisions a kind of "Andean capitalism" combining community-based, family-based, and modern industrial economies. The goal is to "transfer a part of the surplus from the nationalized hydrocarbons in order to encourage...forms of self-organization, self-management, and commercial development that are really Andean and Amazonian."

Whether Evo Morales and MAS will succeed in carrying out their historic mandate to refound the Bolivian state and restructure the neoliberal economy remains to be seen. Some fear that MAS will resort to increasingly authoritarian, if not dictatorial, measures to implement its redistributive program, which could ultimately provoke a civil war. Others worry that the measures that are achievable within Bolivia's polarized democratic system--not to mention the global economy--will never go far enough to redress existing social inequities. In any case, Bolivia may test the limits of what is possible. This powerful example of a democratic revolution grounded in a social struggle over water, land, and energy resources is one that progressive planners should be watching, and supporting.

Emily Achtenberg is a Boston-based urban planner and affordable housing consultant specializing in the preservation of federally-subsidized housing. She visited Bolivia in July 2006 on a human rights delegation with Global Exchange and worked on an urban archaeological project there in 2004. Thanks to GeorgeAnn Potter of Cochabamba for comments and inspiration.

First published in Progressive Planning: The Magazine of Planners Network, No. 170, Winter 2007.

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