Bolivia: Climate change, inequality and resilience



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.