Bolivia's climate challenge
We need a fair deal so that countries which have contributed little to global warming are not prevented from developing

October 18, 2008 - Guardian

As the growing season starts in Bolivia, thousands of families are struggling to cope with droughts in five of nine regions. The lack of water threatens to destroy a significant part of this year's staple cereal crop, quinoa.

Some farmers have begun growing drought-resistant crops, like Brazil nuts, to adapt to this change in climate. (Bolivia now exports 75% of the world's Brazil nuts, compared to just 20% from Brazil.) These efforts have been painfully slow, however, because they require not only fresh investment, but also expensive research to determine which parts of the country will be most vulnerable to droughts – and flooding. In other words, knowing what to prepare for, when to do it and where.

It is worth pointing out that Bolivia as a nation is responsible for less than 0.1% of the global emissions of carbon dioxide. This is mainly because it is the poorest country in South America and relatively under-developed as a result.

Clearly, to pull itself out of poverty, Bolivia needs to develop. The challenge will be to implement a development strategy that takes carbon emissions into account. I am a climate change adviser for CIPCA, which works with indigenous farmers around the country to help them improve their yields and adapt to climate change. In the UK, we receive support fromChristian Aid, which is lobbying heavily in Europe for tighter controls on emissions.

It is good news that the British government yesterday pledged to cut UK emissions by 80% by 2050. But it is also important that the EU agrees to a strong target – at least the 30% cut by 2020 currently being discussed. I have come to London to take part in Christian Aid's Countdown to Copenhagen campaign to lobby the British government to push for a fair climate deal at the UN summit in Copenhagen in December next year.

In Bolivia, there is a growing political awareness that we too need to develop in an environment-friendly way. Nonetheless, there is also recognition that no development is entirely free of environmental consequences. Bolivia is already feeling the consequences of other countries' carbon-heavy development, and many feel that it should not be doubly jeopardized by having its own development unduly constrained by environmental concerns.

An idea which is gaining currency is the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework, which basically argues that countries must cut their emissions and pay for adaptation measures in relation to the amount they have emitted in the past. In other words, Bolivia has less responsibility for creating the problem, so it should receive more help in solving it.

Bolivia, at the heart of the South American continent is a country with a comparatively substantial proportion of its population – around 40% -– still living in rural areas and depending mainly on traditional small-scale farming activities. This, along with a poor development of its economy and extremely high income inequalities (partly as a result of decades of having applied the IMF and World Bank liberalisation policies) has contributed to a high degree of vulnerability in the country as a whole. In La Paz, for example, scientists fear that the accelerated melting of the Andean ice caps will mean that there is not enough water to supply the city by 2009. The only way to combat this is to build large reservoirs to capture water in the rainy season for use in the dry season. But this costs money, which the government does not currently have.

The great challenges ahead for Bolivia will be skilfully managing its key natural resources – its huge reserves of natural gas, in particular – and reinvesting the revenues in improving basic services such as health care, education and public infrastructure. Bolivia has the potential to lead the way in redefining the concept and paradigm of development.

Unfortunately political unrest over constitutional reform threatens to derail this process. The moneyed elite in the eastern lowlands are pressing for greater autonomy after the government announced it will redistribute land and petroleum royalties to the country's indigenous majority.

Last month, tensions over the constitution erupted into violence with 30 people killed in the northern province of Pando. I hope this conflict is not allowed to scupper Bolivia's development.