Bolivia’s economic expansion is correlated with significant environmental costs. Bolivia’s environmental degradation costs were projected to be more than 6% of GDP in 2006, far higher than those of Peru and Colombia.
Even though this cost estimate is merely a crude compilation of numerous distinct localized environmental issues, it shows that when environmental expenses are considered, the actual growth rate is far lower than the official one.
It’s important to note that this cost estimate does not fully account for Bolivia’s continuing environmental change. There are strong signs that the current development patterns are jeopardizing important ecosystem functions, including water purification, climate, floods, and disease regulation.
This has a big influence on poverty and economic growth now, and if these bad patterns continue, future implications might be far more severe.
Table of Contents
7 Major Environmental Issues in Bolivia
- Water Pollution and Water Management
- Air Pollution
- Land Degradation and Soil Erosion
- Loss of Biodiversity
- Oil and Gas
1. Water Pollution and Water Management
Bolivia has an abundance of water resources, yet in some areas of the highlands, valleys, and El Chaco, water scarcity is becoming an increasing issue. The effects of climate change are probably going to make this worse.
Serious disputes over water management, particularly in Cochabamba and El Alto, were a major factor in the process that led to the election of the Morales government, and water continues to be a contentious subject that is understood in terms of human rights.
However, given how seriously polluted many of Bolivia’s water channels are, the inadequate quality of much of the water is a cause for considerable concern. Discharges from mining operations, the agriculture sector, and untreated wastewater from homes and businesses are major sources of pollution.
One of the main causes of water pollution is mining, plastic, and hazardous heavy metal concentrations in wastewater discharge can be considerable (e.g., arsenic, zinc, cadmium, chrome, copper, mercury, and lead).
One of the most notable examples is the Pilcomayo River basin, where it is estimated that annual losses to agriculture, cattle breeding, and fishing total millions of dollars due to river contamination, primarily from mining.
Another illustration is the massive mining project San Cristobal, which uses 50,000 m3 of water a day and is located in one of the driest regions of the nation—Nor Lipez. This is roughly the same amount utilized by El Alto, a metropolis of more than a million people.
Furthermore, some fossil groundwater is being used in the project. It is challenging to evaluate the sustainability of Bolivia’s increasing usage of this resource because accurate estimates of the size of the country’s groundwater resources are lacking.
Nonetheless, there are requests for more study and oversight of this resource due to mounting concerns.
Organochlorinated chemicals like aldrin and endrin are frequently found in agricultural runoffs as a result of pesticide use that is not under control. Industrial discharge requirements are rarely met by most enterprises.
For instance, in Santa Cruz, of the 600 major industries—which include the manufacturing of vegetable oils, tanneries, battery factories, and sugar refineries—just a small number treat their waste.
Because of climate change, glaciers are melting quickly, which affects downstream water availability and exacerbates pollution when water flows are low.
2. Air Pollution
Except for three to four months during the dry season, when there are frequent fires, particularly in the lowlands of the Amazon and the east (Santa Cruz), Bolivia enjoys generally acceptable air quality throughout the majority of the year.
The country has seen a rise in fires over the past few decades as the agricultural frontier has grown. However, cities above 2000 meters have a severe problem with air pollution (e.g., La Paz, El Alto, and Cochabamba).
The biggest producers of particulates are automobiles, industry (especially the manufacturing of bricks, metal foundries, and oil refineries), and the burning of agricultural and domestic waste.
Particles smaller than 10 microns are concentrated in certain areas to 106 micrograms per cubic meter. This is 2.5 times higher than the norm for Latin America and the Caribbean and comparable to highly polluted cities like Mexico City and Santiago, Chile.
Nearly 80% of people living in rural areas heat and cook with firewood and other solid fuels, which contributes to indoor air pollution. One major reason for respiratory infections is this. Forest loss.
10% of the tropical forests in South America are found in Bolivia, which contains more than 58 million hectares of forest (or roughly 53.4% of the total land area). Considering its tiny population, out of all the countries, Bolivia has the most forest area per person. Widespread deforestation is increasingly reducing this asset.
From 1990 to 2000, the estimated annual amount of deforestation rose to 168.000 hectares; between 2001 and 2005, it increased to around 330.000 hectares. Although more recent estimates are hard to come by, assessments from recently suggest that deforestation is on the rise.
To the north of La Paz and the tropics of Cochabamba, in Santa Cruz, the situation is very dire. Deforestation is thought to be responsible for 18–25% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. This fact compounds the already negative repercussions of deforestation, which include erosion, degraded soil, loss of biodiversity, and disrupted water recycling systems.
Determining the primary cause of deforestation is challenging since several studies identify different primary causes, and logging for timber is frequently followed by agricultural growth.
However, the primary causes are large-scale agricultural development, illicit logging, which occurs often, and forest fires, which are mostly started to clear land.
It can be quite profitable to convert forests to agricultural land or cattle ranching for export, and forestry finds it difficult to compete with these uses. According to government estimates, the growth of large-scale agro-industry is responsible for around 60% of the deforestation, with settlements in forested regions contributing very slightly.
The majority of research demonstrates that small-scale farmers will find it difficult to access forests for larger-scale farming unless the forests have already been cleared for cultivation by the agroindustry or forest extraction. There has been no reduction in illegal logging, and the forestry administration is inept.
In Bolivia, coca leaves are widely grown. Large-scale deforestation is a result of land preparation for coca growing, which often involves burning and carbonizing material.
Research on Colombian coca cultivation shows that four hectares of tropical forest must be degraded before one hectare of coca production can be established. Fertilizer and pesticide applications in considerable quantities are also necessary during the cultivation phase.
The construction of an 182-mile road, 32 miles of which would pass through TIPNIS, a sizable protected area, has been the source of contention for the past year. The project would significantly improve Bolivia’s inadequate network of highways.
Nonetheless, the proposal would result in extensive harm, polluting the park’s three principal rivers and allowing unauthorized logging and habitation to expand across huge tracts of woodland. If constructed, the TIPNIS road would probably be a busy transportation route used to deliver Brazilian soybeans to ports on the Pacific for export to China.
This has led some detractors to claim that the TIPNIS road is not intended to help Bolivians progress economically and socially but rather to promote Brazilian industries.
3. Land Degradation and Soil Erosion
Just 2–4% of the land is useful for agricultural stuff for planting. Both in the mountains and the lowlands of Bolivia, the soils are shallow, brittle, and prone to erosion. The amount of degraded soils rose from around 24 to 43 million hectares between 1954 and 1996, an 86% increase.
Approximately 70–90% of the land in the valleys and 45% of the entire area are eroding, which poses a significant challenge to raising agricultural production.
In addition to causing social unrest, Bolivia’s vast land ownership disparities are a major factor in soil degradation. The land continues to be divided into minuscule pieces (also known as “surcofundio”) in the highlands, where tiny farms predominate (also known as “minifundio”).
Peasants are forced to overuse the soil and plants due to the increasing demand on their property, which makes them more susceptible to erosion by wind and water.
big-scale export crop farming on “latifundios” (big land estates) and massive cow grazing are the mainstays of agriculture in the lowlands. The primary cause of land degradation is emphasized to be the quickly expanding soybean monocultures.
The government’s 2010–2015 program aims to continue distributing land to small owners while also doing away with the latifundio.
Urbanization processes (like those in Cochabamba) and river contamination (like those in Pilcomayo) by leftover mining wastewater are two other factors contributing to the loss of agricultural land. Growing coca on steep slopes contributes to soil erosion as well.
4. Loss of Biodiversity
Bolivia is one of the so-called “mega-diverse” nations because of its extreme species richness. But this rich diversity is in danger, which means that species will disappear and—more significantly—that natural ecosystems will become less resilient to change, which will lead to a decline in ecosystem services. Yet, there is a dearth of information regarding the loss of biodiversity.
Bolivia has made strides toward creating a system of protected areas, which now encompasses around 20% of the country’s total land area—a far higher percentage than in other Latin American nations.
About 15% of the nation’s land is covered by the 22 significant areas that make up the National System of Protected Areas, while an additional 7% is covered by departmental and local protected areas.
The majority of these locations are home to indigenous and small communities. However, there are significant issues with actually implementing the protected areas concept. Hunting, settlements, illegal logging, and bio-trade are all common occurrences.
Due to a lack of employees, the protected area system is unable to effectively carry out its purpose. Mega projects related to mining, infrastructure, and hydropower also pose a threat to protected areas.
These illustrations demonstrate that attempts to conserve biodiversity and preserve the environment cannot be made in a vacuum; rather, they must be considered within a larger social and economic framework.
Being the birthplace of numerous domesticated species, including potatoes, quinoa, amaranth, tomatoes, peanuts, cocoa, and pineapple, South America is especially significant. Bolivia is home to the wild cousins of several of these domesticated animals.
One resource that can help guarantee the survival of these crops in the face of changing agricultural pests and illnesses as well as global climate change is the genetic diversity of these wild cousins of crop plants.
Bolivia’s agricultural biodiversity is in danger due to changes in demand and/or improved commercial varieties.
For certain kinds, the effects of climate change also present grave concerns. Potato, quinoa, peanut, ajipa, papalisa, hualusa, and yacon types are becoming fewer in number and have a smaller range and distribution.
After natural gas, mining is now Bolivia’s second-largest source of foreign exchange earnings, and the National Plans list it as one of the key industries for generating income.
Expectations regarding the extraction of novel minerals like lithium are high due to the state’s growing involvement in the industry.
However, the mining industry also contributes significantly to environmental issues. One of the main causes of pollution, particularly to water, but also to air and soil, is mining.
More than 70,000 families engage in cooperative and small-scale mining, which is very polluting. The fact that the majority of mines in Western Bolivia create acid water with a high concentration of heavy metals is especially concerning.
Examples of how mining operations have led to health issues include the serious contamination of the Pilcomayo River and the lakes Poopó and Uru Uru.
Although the highlands are usually thought of when mining comes to mind, the lowlands also have substantial mineral reserves. The NDP states that mining activities are common in Santa Cruz and other departments and that the Beni department has resources of gold, wolfram, and tin.
There have been reports of repeated confrontations between mining concession holders and indigenous communities, and mining concessions occasionally operate within traditional lands.
Stricter implementation of environmental laws and mining laws’ environmental provisions are required to reduce mining-related pollution.
The National Plans do not include any promise to reduce pollution from the mining industry, notwithstanding the severity of the environmental issues produced by this sector.
International mining corporations do not appear to be compelled to give environmental concerns top priority when they form alliances with the Bolivian government.
6. Oil and Gas
Bolivia possesses substantial prospective petroleum reserves in addition to the third-largest gas deposits in Latin America. According to the NDP, hydrocarbons—which produce rents that may be reinvested—are the engine of economic expansion.
In the years following favorable global market pricing, the sector’s value of exports has expanded dramatically. From 2000 to 2005, it accounted for 4-6% of GDP.
Rent-seeking behavior and corruption have proven to be major roadblocks to effective management of the growing income in many developing nations experiencing resource booms similar to these.
Bolivia’s history of corruption and inefficient use of public resources may make it challenging to reverse, even though the government has declared its aim to use the money for pro-poor development.
Bolivia could participate in programs that promote accountability and openness to promote good government in the sector.
One such attempt is the Extractive Industries Transparency Attempt (EITI), which aims to verify and fully publish government income from mining, oil, and gas as well as industry payments in resource-rich nations.
The state budget is not the only thing affected by rising tax revenues from the petroleum industry. Departments and municipalities have received a sizable portion of the sector’s increased tax revenues. At these administrative levels, accountability and transparency are undoubtedly equally important problems.
The development of oil and gas has had unfavorable effects on Bolivia’s ecology and society for a great number of small people.
The development of roads and pipelines has resulted in deforestation; the opening up of distant areas to facilitate the entry of slash-and-burn farmers; pollution of water basins and drinking water; chemical waste; and loss of biodiversity are among the major environmental concerns.
Since the sector’s operations directly deforest significant regions and indirectly offer up additional areas for agroindustry or slash-and-burn agriculture, the activities also affect climate change.
The sector’s operations have also contributed to some of Bolivia’s worst environmental catastrophes. It is concerning that the National Plans do not go into detail on the environmental issues that the sector’s growth has brought about.
It merely makes note of the nationalization of the oil and gas industry and the fact that, following nationalization, the state received 73% of the industry’s income, compared to 27% before nationalization.
The release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a factor in global warming, is an additional adverse consequence of producing oil and gas.
Bolivia does not, however, emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases; at 1.3 tons per person, it emits significantly less CO2 than the average of 2.88 tons per person in Latin America. However, the emission rate would probably rise sharply if CO2 emissions from deforestation were taken into account.
Given the growing attention that climate change is receiving on a global scale, Bolivian forestry may have a substantial commercial potential for sequestering carbon.
However, the government opposes the selling of carbon credits and the monetization of forests.
The NDP emphasizes Bolivia’s enormous potential for producing energy from hydropower and hydrocarbons. The National Plans do not give hydropower any particular attention. Rather, the emphasis is on cement, hydrocarbons, and mining.
The production of electricity was nationalized after 2006. Early in 2013, there occurred the most recent nationalization. When the government has more sway over the industry, environmental concerns don’t seem to go up.
Conversely, it appears, as in other areas, that the only consideration when the government gets involved is the possibility of short-term economic growth.
Bolivia is primarily dependent on imported diesel to meet the energy needs of industry and other sectors, even with the hydropower potential. To lessen reliance on fuel imports, the MAS IPSP includes the Gas to Liquid project.
Significant financial expenses have arisen from the government’s approach of directly regulating domestic pricing below border prices. Significant smuggling to nearby nations with greater domestic costs has also resulted from low prices.
Industries including industry, transportation, and agriculture are compelled to use more expensive imported diesel.
Subsidies for fuel prices typically hurt government finances as well as the economic use of energy and frequently lead to shortages.
Fuel subsidies result in a significant benefit leakage to higher-income groups, making them an inefficient means of protecting the real earnings of low-income households.
As seen by both the current and previous governments, whose attempts to cut fuel subsidies were thwarted by public outcry, fuel subsidies are nevertheless frequently popular.
Looking at the environmental situation in Bolivia, you can say everything is wrong, but this can change with the involvement of both the government and the citizens.
Stringent laws need to be taken to bring about a sustainable future, especially in the mining and oil sector. Also, the people need to be enlightened and made aware of the menace they find themselves in and what they need to begin to do to secure the future for the next generation.
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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.