Bolivia: credit agencies hail resource boom; rainforest burns

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services raised its outlook on Bolivia last month, citing new investments in the country’s mining and gas sectors. S&P still rates Bolivia’s long-term credit at B+, four steps below investment-grade status, but the positive outlook raises the prospect of a higher rating in the near future. The agency especially cited progress in long-stalled talks between the Bolivian government and Jindal Steel & Power over the $2.1 billion iron ore project at El Mutún (Santa Cruz department), and recent agreements to exploit lithium (in Potosí). (Dow Jones, Aug. 22)

A state of emergency was meanwhile declared in Bolivia as forest fires spread across the country, especially the Amazonian east. Almost 25,000 fires have destroyed about 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land and more than 60 houses. Smoke from the fires has delayed plane flights and forced several airports to close for short periods. A Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) natural-color image on NASA’s Aqua satellite Sept. 2, showed smoke obscuring the eastern two-thirds of the country, punctuated by hundreds of little red dots each representing a forest fire. President Evo Morales described the fires as “a natural phenomenon,” while also acknowledging that they were mostly caused by farmers clearing land ahead of the planting season. (Irish Weather Online, Sept. 7; BBC News, Aug. 19)

The rainforest crisis comes at a bad time for the Morales administration, as a cross-country protest march from the Amazon region that began on Aug. 15 continues its 560-kilometer trek to La Paz. The protesters, from the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS, Beni department) are seeking to halt a new road through their territory, which they say would be an artery for peasant colonization and extractive industries, accelerating the destruction of the rainforest. (CSM, Aug. 23)

The government has been quick to denounce the protesters. Juan Ramón Quintana, former minister of the presidency and current director of the Agency for the Development of Macro Regions and Border Areas (ADEMAF), charged that the marchers have been spurred on by NGOs and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to create a climate of destabilization, and called for the agency’s expulsion. The government has not followed up on his recommendation. (IPS, Sept. 6)

The march, some 2,000 strong, is currently approaching the border of Beni and La Paz departments, and imminent violence is feared as a group of pro-Morales peasant colonists are blocking the road to halt their advance. The two groups are now some 50 kilometers apart, with the marchers at the town of San Borja, considering their options as the counter-protesters block the road at the next town to the west, Yucumo. Government Minister Sacha Llorenti appealed to the counter-protesters to lift the blockade in order to avoid clashes, while the Beni Defender of the People (human rights ombudsman) Luis Revollo called for the government to send troops to keep the peace. (ABI, Sept. 8; AFP, Sept. 7)

See our last posts on Bolivia, the mineral cartel, and the struggle for the Amazon.

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