Bolivia: Climate change, inequality and resilience

[To read full text on both documents, click on every photo]


In 2009, a team of Oxfam researchers travelled around Bolivia, collecting information about the country’s vulnerability to climate change and interviewing experts, government officials and NGOs, and most importantly, poor women and men, mostly from Indigenous communities, about their experiences of climate change and their efforts to adapt to it.

In the report that followed, Oxfam stressed that Bolivia was particularly vulnerable to climate change due to widespread poverty, its variety of ecosystems, weather extremes, melting glaciers and high deforestation rates. It found that many producers and local farmers were already witnessing a changing climate, in terms of unpredictable rainfall, more disasters stemming from extreme weather events and higher temperatures, with negative impacts for their livelihoods. Women were often the hardest hit as they were usually left to tend families and small-scale farms, and had fewer alternative livelihoods when crops were lost.

The report outlined five main impacts that Bolivia could expect as a result of climate change: less food security; glacial retreat affecting water availability; more frequent and more intense ‘natural’ disasters; an increase in mosquito-borne diseases; and more forest fires.

A little over ten years later, a similar team of researchers travelled to different regions of Bolivia, in part to see what had changed and to delve deeper into some aspects that had not been covered previously. We revisited the small village of Khapi in the municipality of Palca, tucked under Mount Illimani in the department of La Paz, where villagers were feeling the effects of water insecurity partly because of receding glaciers.

The team also spent time examining the aftermath of the devastating forest fires, the worst in Bolivia’s recent history, which affected the Chiquitania region in the east of the country in the second half of 2019. Here climate change played a role as a ‘stress multiplier’, creating weather conditions (less water availability and higher temperatures), which made the fires worse.

Finally, the researchers visited Bolivia’s remotest department of Pando in the Northern Amazon, where several communities are pursuing a variety of alternatives to burning down or clearing forests. Such stories are an inspiring antidote to the general ‘doom and gloom’ narratives around climate change.

Many of the testimonies collected on this visit were familiar from the first visit in 2009. In particular, the repeated experiences of hotter temperatures, unpredictable or shorter periods of rainfall, sudden downpours, and more droughts were a common refrain in all three regions we visited.

Since 2009, Oxfam and its partners have continued to document the ways climate change has a much greater impact on women (particularly because they are usually in charge of agricultural production), to give voice to their experiences of resisting hydroelectric schemes, oil companies and road building in different parts of the country, and to assess progress in women’s participation and decision-making powers in social organizations and other public bodies.

However, many aspects have changed in the last ten years, the most important of which are sketched out in section 2. In 2009, the then president Evo Morales, supported by the social movement MAS, had only been in power for three years. In November 2019, after a period of political turmoil following contested elections, he was replaced by the interim government of Jeanine Añez.

Whatever the political colour of a new government, it will face a range of challenges including: gender inequality; access to land, particularly for lowland Indigenous communities; the tensions very apparent in the later years of the Morales government between an economic model based on extraction industries (mining, soya, cattle and timber) and the vision of many Indigenous and smallscale farming communities, particularly in the Amazonian territories and the Chaco, to live more harmoniously with nature and use natural resources in more sustainable ways. The latter is where Oxfam finds that ‘the largest inequality gaps can be seen’.

Oxfam research has stressed that at the global level too, there is a hugely unjust inequality gap in the climate emergency, as the least responsible are unfairly paying a much higher price. There is a huge difference between the carbon footprint of the average person in the developed world compared to that of an average person in low income countries:

  • The average British person emits more carbon dioxide in two weeks than a citizen of any one of seven African nations does in an entire year.
  • A Spaniard every year emits six times as much carbon dioxide as a Guatemalan, and 16.5 times as much as a Nigerian.
  • Within countries, the richer you are, the more you contaminate, and the less likely you are to suffer the most severe consequences of climate change.
  • The most poor, and the least polluting, suffer, and will suffer, the worst impacts.

Of the ten countries most affected by extreme weather events between 1998 and 2017, eight were developing countries with low or medium to low income. Bolivia came in 31st place, the worst affected in South America. In 2017, its greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 47 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2 e), representing just 0.1% of world emissions. This compares to 6,670 MtCO2 e in the USA (15%) and 4,220 MtCO2 e (9%) in Europe. One study suggested that in 2011 Bolivia was low down in 141st place, when ranked by p.c. emissions.

The fundamental point remains as true in 2020 as in 2009, that in Bolivia – a country with very little historical and current responsibility for the causes – the changing climate is a threat multiplier. It adds an additional, potentially devastating layer of vulnerability and risk to hundreds of thousands of poor women and men, and particularly Indigenous communities, already exposed to poverty and environmental problems other than climate change.

This report aims to provide evidence and suggestions to feed into the policy debate in the new political environment in the country, in order to reduce these risks, improve the resilience of the most vulnerable sectors and lessen continuing inequalities.


For the Bolivian authorities:

¬ More action needs to be taken at the municipal level across the country to strengthen the capacity of vulnerable groups to be able to respond to the impacts of climate change at the local level by emphasising disaster preparedness, crop diversification and water catchment. For example, the Territorial Plans for Integrated Development (PTDIs),1 which have to be implemented at the departmental, regional and municipal level and include climate change and disaster risk management, are an important initiative to promote good
practice but need more time for proper consultation with local communities, experts and relevant research.

¬ As appropriate, priority should be given to poverty and inequality reduction in small-scale farming and Indigenous communities, particularly in Amazonian regions, by promoting community led adaptive and integrated territorial development models, such as SAFs, that build climate change resilience, improve
food security and income, strengthen ecosystems and protect forests. These should be seen as an alternative to the dominant agro-export and extraction model of development.

¬ The laws passed since 2013 (particularly Law 741 and Supreme Decree 3973) that give incentives to burn down forests to bolster land ownership and promote agroexports should be repealed. The national and subnational governments should stop encouraging the expansion of the agricultural frontier, protect remaining forests and ecosystems, and promote sustainable agricultural production in areas already converted for agriculture. All action should be rooted in the integrated management of forests, a concept present in the Constitution and other laws derived from it.

¬ Water storage, conservation and management should be made a major priority, particularly in urban areas where increased demand is generating water shortage problems at times of drought. At the rural community level, existing rainfall must be captured, stored and used to the maximum capacity. Glacial retreat adds another layer of water stress, so constant risk assessments are needed, informed by natural and social sciences and based on a participatory approach that includes local values, traditions and perceptions.

¬ In large cities, new green areas should be developed with shrubs and leafy trees to absorb radiation; urban expansion and buildings should be controlled and rationalised in favour of more green protected areas.

For Bolivian civil society and social movements:

¬ Civil Society should be encouraged to exercise social control over the Plan of Land Use (Plan de Uso de Suelo – PLUS) currently taking place in the Amazon region, and collegiate bodies, authorities and producers as established by the Constitution must participate in monitoring public policies in this area.

¬ The number of organizations run and/or led by women in small-scale farming and Indigenous communities may have increased in the last ten years, and the presence of women in leadership and decision-making roles, and their control of family resources have probably improved; however, these advances are patchy, and need to be strengthened and expanded.

¬ There are also signs that young people are taking a more active role in development and environmental issues, both in rural and urban areas. In particular, various platforms of young people concerned about climate change and other environmental problems have emerged. Their participation in practical policy formulation and execution needs to be strongly encouraged, for example in sustainable and resilient

¬ Indigenous group organizations at the national, regional and local level need to be (re-) strengthened in their leadership capacity and their ability to put forward influential policies that protect their interests, territories and visions of development that are more harmonious with the sustainable development of natural resources. In particular, support should be given for the efforts by lowland Indigenous groups to secure collective administration of their territories.

¬ At the South American regional level, efforts should continue to increase policy coordination and integration within and between countries in areas of climate change policy, deforestation and income generation initiatives in the Amazon, and the development and implementation of adaptation actions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s