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The Green Guevara’s

by William Powers

Bolivia is rich,” a Tacana Indian woman told me last week inside Madidi National Park. Earlier in the day, we’d witnessed a hundred capuchin and squirrel monkeys rush down from the Amazon jungle canopy and were now relaxing beside Lake Chalalan while her cousin, a shaman, blessed coca leaves as the evening’s traditional drumming and dancing began.

This is Chalalan Lodge, a wholly Indian-owned and -operated ecotourism outfit through which a hundred indigenous families lifted themselves out of poverty – while creating benefits worth a half million dollars for the Bolivian economy each year. It is one of dozens of similar operations – from the world’s largest salt flats in the south, to Lake Titicaca in the west, to the eastern Pantanal wetlands –  that combine economic growth with conservation. It seems improbable that such enterprises should exist in Bolivia, a fragile democracy, and the hemisphere’s poorest place next to Haiti.

As the December 18 presidential elections approach, the front-runners could not look much different from one another. In first place is Evo Morales, an Amayra Indian running under the Movement Toward Socialism banner who is sometimes seen as Che Guevara’s second coming. Running behind “Evo” is Jorge “Tuto” Quoroga, a millionaire former IBM executive from the European-descended Bolivian elite; he is closely aligned with America’s Republican Party and is married to a Texas blonde named Ginger.

Tuto warns that, should Evo win, he might consolidate a Latin American axis-of-evil connecting a leftist Bolivia with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Evo counters that Tuto is too linked to Bolivia’s corrupt political establishment – one of the most dishonest in the world according to the watchdog group Transparency International – to do much for Bolivia’s two-thirds Indian majority.

Whichever man wins will face Bolivia’s seemingly intractable pair of ills: social-exclusion and poverty. It’s a combination that has led to the overthrow of two presidents in the last three years. Workable solutions will lie not in ideology but rather in capitalizing on what the nation has to offer to the global economy: its stock of pristine ecology.

Noel Kempff, for example, one of Bolivia’s national parks, is home to the world's biggest forest-based Kyoto Protocol experiment. The park contains the biggest chunk of virgin cerrado habitat left on Earth, with tapirs, red brocket deer, silvery marmosets, and pumas living amid twenty waterfalls crashing off the Huanchaca Mesa into forests. The park’s waterways contain one-tenth of the world’s remaining 1,000 giant river otters, along with black and speckled caiman, pink river dolphins, and capybaras.

The 2,000 Chiquitanos living around the park contend that a tree holds up the Amazon’s seven skies, and they are living that belief in a modern way: by using their forests to help reduce the stratospheric greenhouse gasses that cause global warming. British Petroleum and American Electric Power, the largest electricity supplier in the United States, have helped the Chiquitanos buy up logging concessions, thereby doubling Noel Kempff to three million acres. The firms earn cap-and-trade carbon credits to fulfill their Kyoto requirements.

Bolivia’s Indians have also used their eco-clout to convince the energy companies to bankroll their fight for a 750,000-acre homeland bordering Kempff. It now pays for nature to stay, as the locals earn their neo-traditional living by ranching oxygen traded on the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), and through shipping certified timber and organic palm-hearts to Chile and Europe.

Bolivia destroys the myth that Third World countries are too poor to be green, and casts serious doubt on the famous “environmental Kuznets Curve” – the theory that environmental quality correlates with wealth. Bolivia’s track record is remarkable: the world’s first debt-for-nature swap; the world’s largest protected dry tropical forest; experimental Indian park management; a rapidly growing protected-areas system; a National Environmental Fund; a world leader in international efforts to protect the endangered vicuna; progressive forestry legislation; a national biodiversity conservation agency; and a total ban on trade in domestic species.

Conservation resonates with local political parties. On the left, Evo delivers homilies exalting Pacha Mama, or Mother Nature; on the right, Tuto favors market mechanisms like Kyoto over command and control. Both candidates want jobs to be created in ecological services.

Regardless of who comes to power, the West should channel a larger portion of the billions of dollars in development aid each year, including the newly approved $535 million for the country from the UN’s Millennium Challenge Account, to foster a local spirit of natural capitalism instead of providing charity. The Indian-run lodge I visited is part of a $175 million ecological tourism industry that has been growing at 20% a year precisely because of the country’s natural splendor.

Economists argue that should the current trickle of 350,000 visitors each year grow to a quite reasonable million, every Bolivian would be employed. “Bolivia is where Costa Rica was 20 years ago,” an eco-tourism expert told me at the first national summit on the industry on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Finally, the Bush administration must ratify the Kyoto Protocol, in order to allow both global firms and Bolivian community entrepreneurs to create yet more rainforest ranches and other creative initiatives that reduce poverty, harbor biodiversity, and cool a warming world. Perhaps Bolivia is indeed rich – in a way that could benefit all of us well into the future.

William Powers is the author of Blue Clay People and a forthcoming book on Bolivia.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005.


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