(above) Bolivian miners await the arrival of President Evo Morales at a ceremony in El Alto.
We should look to Bolivia for inspiration
Bolivia under President Evo Morales is seeking a radical development model based on equality and environmental sustainability – and there are lessons we can all learn
In 2006, I was working at the UN in Mexico City, which happened to be hosting the World Water Forum that year. On the large civil society march (which the risk-averse UN security team had advised staff to stay away from) one sovereign government was represented: Bolivia. The message was that water was a public good, not a private commodity.
Water was the emblematic issue at the core of the peaceful revolution in Bolivia that had swept a new and radical government to power just two months earlier. Packed with new ministers who had been at the heart of the mass demonstrations in rejection of the privatisation of urban water, the new administration became one of the first governments in the world to enshrine the right to water in its constitution.
Bolivia has got used to standing alone in the international arena. In last year's climate talks in Cancún, in Mexico, it was the only one of the UN's 192 member countries to vote against a deal it – along with most scientific experts – considered insufficient to tackle critical levels of global warming.
Bolivia is the conscience of the world on climate change and sustainable development. Global warming is not a theoretical issue in Bolivia. One-third of its Andean glaciers have melted, and a further third are expected to melt in the next 10 years. Rather than compromise in international forums, it is sticking to its guns, buoyed by mass meetings such as the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in 2010.
In its most counter-conventional move to date, it is planning to enshrine the rights of Pachamama (Mother Earth) in national law. These are the kind of things westerners might associate with hippies returning from an ashram in India in the 1960s, rather than a sovereign government in 2011.
In reality, they are profoundly serious policy measures recognising the gravity of the threat to life in Bolivia and across the world caused by humanity's inability to manage its environmental impact.
The man at the centre of this ecological revolution is Evo Morales, an ex-coca farmer and trade unionist, who became the first indigenous president of Bolivia in 2006. Between 55% and 62% of Bolivians are indigenous, and between 25% and 30% are mestizo. The rest are white. Guess who has all the money.
The nearest comparison in recent times is the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994. As with South Africa in the heady days of the early 1990s, it is not the dry economic statistics that matter most at this moment in Bolivia's history, but the incredible shift in power and accountability. The majority feel for the first time that they have a stake. Thirty-six indigenous languages have finally been officially recognised.
Mandela should probably have gone further earlier in ensuring redistribution. While avoiding conflict in the short term, the endemic violence in today's South Africa is in part a legacy of his failure to grasp that nettle.
In contrast, Morales has made changes in Bolivia, including land reform (ie taking land from the wealthy) and higher taxes on national and international corporations, which have inevitably generated conflict in one of the world's most unequal countries. But they are necessary if all Bolivians are to benefit from the natural wealth of the country. Despite massive international pressure, the Morales government renegotiated oil and gas contracts to make sure the state recovered more of the profits.
Is Morales getting everything right? Of course not. While poverty is down significantly (from 19.6% in 2005 to 11.8% in 2008), and while income inequality is also falling, public spending on health and education appears to be in decline. And there is some truth in criticisms that Morales seeks to bolster his own support base by encouraging divisiveness in political debates.
But attempts to undermine Morales by ridiculing his unfashionable jumpers or exaggerating possibly foolish comments (genetically modified chicken, anyone?) are part of a crude and occasionally racist campaign to discredit one of the only governments in the world genuinely questioning the sustainability of the current development model in a coherent manner.
The US cut aid to Bolivia when it refused to sign up to the Copenhagen climate change deal, but this crude blackmail is no longer working, in part because other countries in the region, such as Brazil and Venezuela, are supportive financially, but also in part because of the cancellation of millions of dollars of IMF and World Bank debt following the Make Poverty History campaign of 2005. Unburdened by debt, Bolivia can act and speak more freely.
Bolivia needs to industrialise – it can't go on importing everything forever. Hydrocarbon and mineral deposits (like lithium) are its ticket out of poverty, and they need to be developed and sold abroad. So there are inevitable contradictions and hypocrisies between government rhetoric and political reality.
But there is no doubt that Bolivia is seeking a development model based on equality and environmental sustainability, of the kind other governments occasionally mention in speeches but never try seriously to enact. The Morales administration's policies are similar to some traditionally leftwing positions, but this ecological focus, emanating from deep cultural values, makes it unique and worthy of serious attention.
Indigenous people in Latin America, who have suffered on the underside of the last 500 years of history, look to Bolivia for inspiration and concrete policy options. So should we.