Bolivia: A Development Overview

Since the end of the Napoleonic wars and the establishment of Bolivia's independence from Spanish rule in 1825, Bolivia endured a volatile and unstable past with close to 200 overthrows of the government and several rewrites of the constitution. Throughout this history, the people of Bolivia faced many complex development problems, mostly stemming from the country's deep-seated poverty and unreliable government.

The poverty and corruption of Bolivia's past continue to plague the country today. With a per capita income of $2,800—as compared to an average of $8,200 for other Latin American countries—Bolivia stands as the poorest nation on the continent. Furthermore, real GDP per capita in Bolivia is less today than it was 27 years ago, while 64 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. These conditions leave numerous Bolivian citizens unable to plan for the future, afford adequate health care, receive an education, or address fundamental social issues such as inequality.

Cochabamba is a region in which many Bolivians live in impoverished conditions. The recent water crisis is a testament to the people of Cochabamba's desire and willingness to fight the dreadful conditions and immoral policies that affect their lives. In order to secure a $138 million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bolivia's government agreed to privatize public enterprises, including national oil refineries and the public water system of Cochabamba, SEMAPA. The resulting 40-year lease turned control of the water over to a subsidiary of the California-based Bechtel Corp. Soon after, the company doubled and tripled local water rates, forcing citizens to pay up to 23 percent of their monthly income to have water. Because the World Bank required that no subsidies be given to reduce the cost of water, the Bolivian people were left to shoulder the burden.

Unable to pay their water bills, Cochabamba's citizens assembled massive protests, shutting the city down for a week and refusing payment. To protect Bechtel's interests,

"the Bolivian government declared a 'state of emergency,' suspended constitutional rights, cut off radio stations, and kidnapped protest leaders from their beds in the middle of the night, flying them to a remote jungle jail to keep them away. Military forces seeking to squelch the protest used not only tear gas, but live rounds, killing a 17-year-old boy and injuring more than 100 people. In the end, however, the people of Cochabamba stood strong and eventually the government and the company were forced to back down, suspending the contract and rolling back the water hikes" (Shultz, 2000).

In 2003, widespread social unrest erupted again, but this time from a proposed plan to export natural gas, a recently discovered resource. Again, huge protests mounted by the people stopped plans to export Bolivia's natural gas reserves to large, western markets. Two years later in 2005, the government passed a controversial natural gas law that imposes significantly higher taxes on the oil and gas firms, as well as new contracts that give the state control of their operations. Bolivian officials are currently in the process of implementing this new law.

Although Cochabambans courageously overcame the water crisis and fought victoriously for fair economic policies in regards to the country's gas reserves, the people of Cochabamba and surrounding rural villages still have a difficult battle against poverty. Several factors contribute to these difficulties. With very little or no money to their name, most families are unqualified to take out much needed loans that could help them get a step ahead. Furthering this problem is countless Bolivians lack basic job skills, and are therefore unemployable. For the shocking number of Bolivians living below the poverty line, not having a reliable source of income prevents them from receiving important health care services, and also prevents them from access to education. Moreover, without an education, numerous Bolivians are not only unaware of their citizen's rights, but are completely left in the dark with respect to the political arena and the opportunities they have to fight for governmental policies that could affect their lives.

Compounding the already severe problems faced by so many Bolivians is environmental degradation that poses a huge threat to the sustainability of the land in the Cochabamba area. Deforestation, erosion, and poor land productivity are devastating the lives of thousands of Bolivians living in rural farming villages who depend on the land for their survival.

The Bolivian government's policies and the aid provided by other international institutions have inadequately addressed the grave and very complicated problems facing Bolivian communities. FSD is working on the ground in Cochabamba and surrounding rural villages to expand and develop the capabilities of local nonprofit organizations and communities that are working to implement sustainable solutions. Interning or volunteering with one of our partner organizations offers the opportunity to support critical work that reflects the needs, wants, and voices of local community members. Our work exhibits an approach that listens to and utilizes the wisdom of local community members and leaders to implement project work that produces sustainable growth and empowerment.

Read more about programs and opportunities initiated by our Community Partners in Bolivia.

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