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“Beyond Natural Resource Management Patterns: An Alternative Economy in Bolivia”, DevISSues Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 19-21

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Abstract

As a master student of the major in Politics of Alternative Development (PAD), I had two important questions: How can 'alternative development patterns' be defined within the globalization process? Also, what elements distinguish 'the alternative' from the mainstream in the development field? For developing countries like Bolivia – rich in natural resources but with high levels of poverty and inequality - these questions are closely related. Perhaps critical thinking beyond the usual primary commodity based economic patterns towards alternative development patterns based on multiple and more flexible economic activities can help us get through this puzzle. Especially alternatives from organic agriculture, biocommerce, forestry management and environmental services. These are all capable of conserving the local environment and generating local development. As part of the research team at the Human Development Report (UNDP-Bolivia) I have had the valuable opportunity of being part of a Thematic Human Development Report La otra frontera (The Other Frontier). This report presents different characteristics of traditional commodity-based economic development, which it terms 'the old frontier'. It presents an alternative model – 'the other frontier'- and in this article these two will be contrasted to show how they co-exist and also provide quite different perspectives on the place of this small country within global trade.
Beyond Natural Resource Management Patterns: An Alternative Economy In
Bolivia
Ma. Daniela Sanchez Lopez
1
As a master student of the major in Politics of Alternative Development (PAD), I had two
important questions: How can 'alternative development patterns' be defined within the
globalization process? Also, what elements distinguish 'the alternative' from the
mainstream in the development field? For developing countries like Bolivia – rich in
natural resources but with high levels of poverty and inequality - these questions are
closely related. Perhaps critical thinking beyond the usual primary commodity based
economic patterns towards alternative development patterns based on multiple and more
flexible economic activities can help us get through this puzzle. Especially alternatives
from organic agriculture, biocommerce, forestry management and environmental
services. These are all capable of conserving the local environment and generating local
development. As part of the research team at the Human Development Report (UNDP-
Bolivia) I have had the valuable opportunity of being part of a Thematic Human
Development Report La otra frontera (The Other Frontier). This report presents different
characteristics of traditional commodity-based economic development, which it terms
'the old frontier'. It presents an alternative model 'the other frontier'- and in this article
these two will be contrasted to show how they co-exist and also provide quite different
perspectives on the place of this small country within global trade.
Two Development Patterns in Bolivia
Bolivia is rich in renewable and non renewable natural resources and this means, on the
one hand, that traditional commodity-based economic growth is highly dependent on
mines and hydrocarbon resources. The consequence for Bolivia has been ‘impoverishing
economic growth’; the economy grew by 5 per cent in 2007, for example, whilst the
number of people living below the poverty line increased (UNDP, 2008). This
development pattern has deep historical roots; Bolivia has always been highly dependant
on raw material exports of silver, tin, rubber and now also of hydrocarbons. Orthodox
economic development patterns were reliant on a cheap, unskilled labour force, and this
pattern tended to concentrate wealth in just a few sectors and in the hands of wealthy
families and large companies. The paradox of impoverishing economic growth is
twofold: first, it shows the country lacks diversity in its productive matrix. Extractive
activities, drawn into nationalization processes since the election of Evo Morales to
power in 2006, have led the government to spend a great deal of its revenue on these
conventional sectors and on social assistance programmes.
Second, mining and hydrocarbons are capital intensive sectors, with weak linkages to the
rest of the Bolivian economy. These sectors employ only 10 per cent or so of the
economically active population of the country; indeed, the main sources of employment
1
Published in DevISSues Vol. 12, No. 1, April 2010, Institute of Social Studies, The
Netherlands.
remain agriculture (36 per cent) and trade (14 per cent). Consequently, in line with the
so-called 'curse of natural resources', the richness of Bolivia's natural resources is not
translated into a better standard of life for most Bolivians (Sanchez, 2009).
On the other hand, the Report refers to the the other frontier’. This refers to Bolivia's
great potential to diversify and re-value the land according to its uses and degree of
biodiversity. 'Alternative' activities would include environmental services, ecotourism,
sustainable forest management, biotrade and organic agriculture, all being examples of
income-generating activities that tend to produce linkages between different sectors of
the economy. Such activities also tend to be organizationally sustainable,
environmentally compatible and to position the country favourably in relation to the main
products involved. This table summarises the issue:
Two realities in Bolivia
The old frontier: commodity based model
The other frontier: intangible added value
model
Four main commodity exports of Bolivia
(hydrocarbons (natural gas), zinc, tin,
and soya). World wide they represent:
0,2% of world hydrocarbons exports;
1% of world zinc exports;
3,2 % of world tin exports;
0,04% of world soya exports.
Tiny exports - already visible. For example:
World leader in rainforest certification;
World's top 12 countries with
organic
agriculture surface (incl. Brazil nut
organic plots in the Amazon rainforest);
World's top 3 exporter of Brazil nuts;
World's top 10 exporter of organic coffe
e
and cacao;
World's top 5 exporter of certified
rainforest timber.
Source: Own translation based on Sanchez (2009) and UNDP (2008)
The Potential of an Alternative Development Pattern
Although Bolivia's economy will remain hydrocarbon- and mining- based in the long
term, the other frontierdescribed here has started to be a feasible source of livelihood
options for thousands of Bolivians. This ‘alternative’ economy involves an estimated half
a million smaller producers and their families, and contributes an estimated US$300
million annually in export revenue, generating 370,000 jobs in total across Bolivia. There
are around 60,000 organic producers across Bolivia and 26 organizations involved in Fair
Trade networks (which puts Bolivia in fourth place in Latin America). The small size of
these initiatives is not an accident; their scale means they are less capital-intensive and so
have the potential to diversify both the economy and people's livelihoods. With time, the
'other frontier' might help shape a new identity for Bolivia as a high-ranking, mega-
biodiversity country.
In my view, this alternative development pattern has three main strengths in the Bolivian
context:
(1) The high-biodiversity and relatively well preserved environment is a distinct source of
comparative advantage, opening up prospects for exchanges in alternative markets which
value both the quality of the productive process as well as the final product. For instance,
organic Brazil nuts, quinoa, organic coffee, vicuña fibre and many other products like
these, require good quality and distinctive production processes in order to be certified as
organic and have access to these 'alternative' markets. The ‘extra’ price or ‘premium’
paid by consumers in importing countries is because these products are grown and
processed without chemicals or pesticides and in ways that are environmentally friendly,
without use of child labour and in ways that encourage employment, self-reliance and
community development. This alternative pattern of production implies that land use in
the long term needs to be sustainable and needs to consider different productive processes
not based on simple expansion of the agricultural frontier. Intensification, based on
improvement of land use and higher environmental yields and standards, are more
important than absolute increases in acreage or production. Different certification
processes (organic, fair trade, forestry certifications, among others) are a distinctive and
valuable ‘intangible’ value added for all exported commodities in these 'alternative'
sectors.
(2) The wide, diverse and dense social fabric (tejido social) of small producers in Bolivia
represents an important network and creates some positive potentials for public policies.
Producers' associations are key actors that can promote local development, can enhance
the impact of public interventions and can support capacity building and challenge
unequal power relations, especially in terms of access to markets. The 24 successful case
studies of the Bolivian UNDP Report show how important the positive impact of peasant
and community associations can be to this changed overall economic dynamic.
(3) Thirdly, and not least, the imminent threat of the climate change and the stark terms
of the environmental debate today are forcing developing countries to find alternatives
and ways to insert themselves differently into the global economy.
In conclusion, this research experience has convinced me that alternative and sustainable
development patterns really are possible. I am also convinced that Bolivia has a unique
opportunity and the potential now and in the future, to position itself as an important
stakeholder within the new paradigm that involves alternative, more sustainable forms of
natural resources use, so that Bolivians can cross 'the other frontier' of development.
The responsibility for opinions expressed in this article rests solely with the author.
Maria Daniela Sanchez Lopez (PAD 2006) is a researcher at the Human Development
Report (UNDP-Bolivia). She has a bachelor's degree in Economic Sciences (Universidad
Católica Boliviana, Bolivia, 2003). Her main areas of research include: environment,
natural resource management social participation, civil society and economics. She can
be contacted at sanchez.danielex@gmail.com /daniela.sanchez@idh.pnud.bo
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