It has been a good few weeks for people power. Protest movements have occupied the world’s financial centres, brought European capitals to a standstill, and – with a helping hand from the West – brought down Gaddafi’s Libyan regime.
Meanwhile, in Bolivia, people power has chalked up a small victory of its own, but with major repercussions for the social conflicts the coming years may have in store. Following a two-month march from the Amazon lowlands to the capital, La Paz, protesters raised enough media coverage and popular support to force the government into a major u-turn. President Evo Morales agreed to drop plans for a highway to be built through a biodiversity-rich rainforest reserve. In doing so he agreed to ‘govern by obeying the people’ – and proved how powerful and effective social movements of this type can be.
The Amazon highway protest is local Bolivian politics, but the underlying issues are global. This is a classic case of economic interests colliding with the interests of a vulnerable people and their environment. The Bolivian government had to choose between a big job-producing scheme, and defending fragile ecosystems and the local communities who sustain – and are sustained by – this environment.
Locally, the upshot of the protest march is that the government will re-route this particular highway around the nature reserve. But the Bolivian example is important because the same underlying questions are being faced elsewhere. Many African governments are weighing up huge land acquisition bids – so-called ‘land-grabbing’ – from sovereign funds and multinationals. These investors promise to ramp up food and biofuel production on marginal, ‘under-used’ land. But this often means tearing up the traditional grazing rights of peasants, evicting them from their land, and risking further environmental degradation.
This kind of choice is nothing new, but now the stakes are higher than ever: ecosystems are visibly collapsing under the weight of ever-increasing human activity. Nature’s capacity to sustain itself, and us, is under severe threat.
And as these conflicts sharpen, land becomes the key battleground. The way land is used regionally and globally can tip the environmental balance either way. If wisely managed, it can stock carbon, retain water, host diverse species and remain fertile for food production. But if land is fatally over-exploited, its mechanisms will fail, and the emerging problems of today will become wholesale food, water, environmental and climate crises. Land use conflicts like the Bolivian one are therefore likely to become more widespread and more intense, as more regions – and the planet as a whole – nears the tipping point.
What transpired in La Paz is that big money projects can be warded off by people power. So will this example be a source of inspiration for others? The current news agenda seems to bode well – people power is clearly not in short supply. Anti-capitalist protests, anti-austerity strikes and the Arab Spring collectively represent the biggest, most diffuse and most global outpouring of anger since 1968. But this does not necessarily mean the local battles will be won.
In the West, the targets of our anger are the ‘bankers’ and the ‘European establishment’, responsible respectively for plunging the economy into a nosedive and Southern Europe into painful debt restructuring. But are these targets or scapegoats? What are the desired outcomes? To force all bankers into retirement or penitence? To make the Greek economy default? This is where the parallel with 1968 rings the most true – these are protests fuelled by burning indignation, but lacking a clear achievable target.
The coming weeks and months will define whether the protesters, strikers and freedom fighters of this autumn of discontent have achieved lasting change. What is clear is that once the global anger recedes, people will return to fighting more local battles. And as the Bolivian marchers showed, these local battles can be the most effective of all.