Amazon: Bolivia's Threat to the Rainforests

There's a reason that William Powers's writing is so down to earth. It's because Powers's goal is to protect the earth. On the front line of conservation in the Amazon, Powers has successfully initiated the largest rainforest-based carbon project in the world. He has harnessed big-business financing from companies such as British Petroleum and American Electric Power to protect Bolivia's rainforests in exchange for "green points"—a system allowing Kyoto Protocol signatories to gain credits for activities that boost the environment's capacity to absorb carbon.

In the process, Powers's project has protected 2 million hectares—almost 5 million acres—of carbon-absorbent forest, saved endangered species such as the jaguar and river dolphin and ensured legal rights to the land for 2,000 native Chiquitano Indians, who now head the project themselves. His new book, "Whispering in the Giant's Ear" (Bloomsbury) is a rip-roaring chronicle of the struggles and compromises, doubts and determination needed to implement the Kyoto accords—an international agreement setting targets for industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions—in Bolivia. With a host of unlikely heroes, it pits petroleum companies alongside local Indians, fighting against loggers.

Bolivia's leftist new president, however, could pose a fresh threat to the protected forests as he tries to help his nation's impoverished farmers. Evo Morales and his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), advocate the expansion of legal coca cultivation, which could encourage thousands of coca growers and landless poor into protected forests in search of new soil to harvest. (Over the last 20 years, the coca-growing region of Chapare has lost about 40,000 hectares—almost 99,000 acres—of forest.) Industrial soya and cattle farmers are also lobbying hard for access to these areas. To aggravate matters for the environmentalists, MAS last month closed Bolivia's Ministry of Sustainable Development. MAS describes the change as structural readjustment and says that the ministry's responsibilities have simply been absorbed by three larger ministries; Powers says its removal makes harder for the Bolivian government to co-ordinate a national conservation plan. Powers spoke to Antonia Francis about Kyoto, coca and Morales. Excerpts:

FRANCIS: You've led the largest Kyoto experiment in the world here in Bolivia. Why is it considered such a success?

William Powers: The Noel Kempff Climate Action Project is the largest rainforest-based Kyoto Protocol pilot in the world. It shows how you can combine, synergetically, biodiversity conservation of one of the most important areas in the world, the Amazon, empowering native Americans and [working toward] the primary objective [of] slowing global warming. It's brilliant because they've been able to tweak market incentives to give value to rainforests that wouldn't have existed otherwise. And the [rainforest's] value is to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and cool the planet.

You criticize other international environmental aid agencies such as the World Wildlife Fund and CARE, claiming donors could spend their money better. What's your Kyoto alternative?

With many aid organizations, there's a feel-good, warm and fuzzy idea that if you show enough pretty pictures, it's going to change things. But you have to ask, what are the incentives for change? How are you going to make it last? If one hectare of rainforest is worth $100 as ranch land but worth $101 to remain as rainforest, you've created the incentive.

It's cheaper for companies to buy Kyoto Protocol green points here rather than reduce their own pollutant emissions. Is this a case of industrialized countries shifting their problems onto poorer countries like Bolivia?

Author and aid worker William Powers

Of course, the companies are not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. Nor are they doing this for "green-washing." They are doing this because the global community got together and passed the Kyoto Protocol, which forced these companies to reduce their [greenhouse gas] emissions. Right now you have carbon brokers traveling the world, looking for projects they can actually invest in. I see this project as a complete win-win—for the environment, the local people and for the climate. To the cynics, I ask: What have you done for the 2,000 Chiquitano Indians, who, thanks to this project have been able to leapfrog local corrupt officials, oligarchic governments and gain land tenure and business in their territory?

What is President Evo Morales doing for the environment?

Evo is indigenous, so there's a positive side to his leadership, a sense of new ownership amongst indigenous people. In Carrasco National Park, local Indians are actually blocking migrant colonists from settling in the park. Why? Because they say, now the park is ours, we will protect it. But at the same time, there are bulldozers gassing up on the other edge of the park, ready to [illegally] cut a road right through. I don't see how we can stop that.

Could Morales stop the bulldozers if he wanted to?

Of course Evo could stop them. It's a national park. But he probably won't. Evo's MAS party is not prioritizing environmental issues, despite its rhetoric about how George Bush is the enemy of the global environment. In practice, the environment is [about] No. 20 on MAS's list of things to do. Of course, shutting down the sustainable-development ministry makes it even harder for MAS to co-ordinate conservation into a national vision.

Why does Morales seem so unconcerned about the environment? Is it because of his promises to the coca-growing unions?

Definitely. The coca growers are a danger. If they came en masse, it could mean the construction of roads into the national parks like Madidi and Carrasco. Even now, the cocaleros [coca growers] have been entering right inside, cutting lines every hundred meters [330 feet]. On a big scale, they could just slash and burn to the horizon. Coca's the most lucrative crop around and it grows really well in national park region.

So current U.S. anti-coca-cultivation policies are indirectly protecting Bolivia's rainforests?

[I've] never looked at it like that before. No. What protects Bolivia's forests is the fact they are national parks, legal entities that protect that part of Bolivia for nature. The problem is that those boundaries are not as respected now that MAS has come into power. That's the main issue.

And have you seen MAS supporters slashing and burning the land?

Well, I've had those experiences several years before with MAS. In 2003, I was in the buffer zone of Amboró National Park, and new colonists tied to the MAS party threatened us with machetes, saying we were on their land. It wasn't their land, it was a 1,200 hectare cloud forest that belonged to a Bolivian environmental organization. But that's the ideology amongst many of the campesinos [rural population]—the land is for those who work it.

What other dangers are there to the forests apart from the coca growers?

The biggest short-term pressure from within the MAS party is to give land to the poor.

There's also the temptation to open up the Bolivian Amazon to cash-crop interests—for example, the Brazilian soy companies. The price of land in Bolivia is something like 10 times less than it is in Brazil, right now. The same risk with cattle ranching. So the danger of Morales? Instead of doing what he should do—which is protect the rainforest for the long term sustainable growth of this country—he could just to sell it off.

Do you support coca cultivation for legal purposes?

Well, we're working with one municipality which wants to become an "eco-coca zone." They've zoned the ecological area, but they want to plant coca as well. They say they'll sell it for local, traditional use—to chew, to use as toothpaste, treatment for hunger and altitude sickness. They've actually named 35 products they can make from the coca leaf. But the reality of it is that a lot of it will go into the illegal drugs market.

Why don't you believe all the coca will be used for legal purposes?

How is that possible? The market is the market. Of course the solution is to change that market—make Bolivian coca-leaf products into a brand. But promoting new products takes a long time.