Community Solar Development in Bolivia: A Path Towards Climate Resilience, Decolonization, and Political Empowerment

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Analyzing the interactions between capitalism, colonialism, and the field of international development in Latin America, this paper explores small-scale, community solar development as a potential solution to the climate crisis as it unfolds in Bolivia. Bolivia has one of the largest indigenous populations in Latin America and is on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The unique geographical landscape of climatic extremes of the Andean nation on the one hand makes its natural environment particularly vulnerable to climate change but on the other hand endows it with tremendous potential for decentralized solar energy. After identifying the inextricable links between capitalism, colonial expansion into Latin America, and extractivist modes of wealth, this paper posits that Bolivia’s modern extractivist development model is a form of neocolonial oppression imposed by Western powers to maintain their dominance in Latin America. Within this analytical framework, the paper goes on to critique systems of international development that perpetuate colonial systems of oppression and provide false solutions to the environmental damage and social inequities created by capitalist expansion. Finally, the paper presents the prospect of using community-based solar systems as alternative forms of development in Bolivia that not only promote climate resilience but also counteract extractive economies and empower marginalized communities. Ultimately, these community solar projects can serve as small-scale models for the remaking of global economic and political systems, which is essential to ensure justice and sustainability for all.

The Climate Crisis and Searching for Alternatives 

The climate crisis of today is a catastrophic convergence of capitalism and colonialism. Capitalism’s propensity to obsess people with the accumulation of capital for profit by any means necessary led to the creation and exploitation of colonial economies in order to feed its insatiable need for more– more capital, more land, and more labor to work the land and produce more capital. This search for increasing capital and profit has altered the climatic systems of the Earth.

Now, we must search for alternatives. We must transform economies around the world from those based upon capitalist structures of extractivism and fossil fuel dependency to those fueled by clean, renewable energy and regenerative livelihoods. Economies must be localized, scaled down, and decoupled from the neoliberal concept of growth; unfettered capitalist-oriented economic growth has severely damaged the planet and its peoples. We must also remedy the legacies of colonialism that continue to oppress historically marginalized communities across the world. Neocolonial systems of oppression often take the form of post-colonial development strategies which, in the name of progress, remake the Global South in the image of the Global North in a process that eerily mirrors an era declared bygone by historians.

Bolivia, an Andean nation with thirty-six recognized indigenous peoples and nearly half of its population identifying as indigenous, acutely experiences the compounding oppressions of global capitalism, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and extractivism.[1] Formerly a Spanish colony, Bolivia was run by European-descendant men until 2006, when Aymara coca farmer Evo Morales became the country’s first indigenous president. Vehemently adored by most of Bolivia’s indigenous population, “Evo” became celebrated for his dedication to decolonizing the Bolivian state: in 2009, he oversaw the creation of a new constitution renaming Bolivia the “Plurinational State of Bolivia” to recognize the thirty-six different indigenous nations and codifying indigenous rights and forms of cultural, political, and juridical autonomy.[2] Morales was also widely praised for his commitment to environmental preservation: in 2010, the Plurinational Assembly of Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which recognized the Andean cosmovision that places the earth deity Pachamama at the center of all life.[3]

Despite Evo’s momentous efforts towards decolonization, indigenous empowerment, and environment protection, his thirteen-year presidential term continued to promote a neoliberal, extractivist development model that stood in direct opposition to his initial campaign promises and eventually contributed to his forced resignation in November of 2019. While Evo’s legacy is one of anti-capitalist, indigenous resistance, his prolonged tenure also launched the post-colonial state on a path of unprecedented extractivist development.

There must be a path towards development in Bolivia other than Morales’ extractivist model, which enhances climate resilience and encourages self-sufficiency among Bolivia’s indigenous communities while also promoting local wealth. Community-owned solar systems offer a solution to all of the above. Solar-power is the most easily accessible and deployable of renewable energies. Small-scale solar systems, e.g. rooftop photovoltaic panels or small, community-sized solar fields, enable electrification for rural or marginalized communities that have been disconnected from national grids. More importantly, solar power allows communities to remain disconnected, preserving their energy independence from the state and securing their resilience to natural disasters that may wipe out any electric grid constructed.

While community solar development is not inherently decolonial, it can contribute to the process of decolonization. When solar power is introduced to communities on a small-scale, when community members are trained on how to use and fix their solar systems, when they are given ownership over the electricity generated by the panels and are able to decide how to use that energy to benefit their community, solar development works to dismantle colonial power structures and empowers the formerly oppressed while meaningfully boosting local climate resilience. While not the only solution to the climate crisis, community solar systems provide a multifaceted solution that targets the roots of capitalist, extractivist, and colonialist development that led to the climate crisis we face today.

Evo Morales, Empty Promises, and Indigenous Resistance

Though not without occasional bouts of discontent, Morales’ previously widespread indigenous support began to reveal its growing disapproval in 2010 at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. In protest of the lack of centrality of indigenous issues at Morales’ conference, groups of Bolivians convened a parallel event — Mesa 18.[4] Aguirre and Cooper argue that “it was one of the first and probably one of the most visible public expressions of wariness toward the Morales administration from his social-movement base.”[5] The main source of contention from the counter-protestors were the contradictions between Morales’ development projects and his commitment to environmental sustainability and indigenous rights. Protestors argued that Bolivia’s development projects, such as the proposed Trans-Oceanic Highway through Cochabamba and the Beni region of the Amazon, and the $2 billion hydroelectric dam Cashuela Esperanza to be constructed on the Beni River, would destroy ecologically sensitive areas and infringe upon indigenous rights.[6] Participants of Mesa 18 implored that these natural resources belong to communities, not the state, and therefore must be managed through local community structures.[7] Rafael Quispe, one of the leaders of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, Bolivia’s largest indigenous organization, argued that “the [economics] models that we’ve known until now are socialism and capitalism, but both are Western, both are extractivist, developmentalist, consumerist, and predatory. These models violate the rights of Mother Earth, and if President Evo Morales expresses that we are in a socialist model then he violates the Mother Earth.”[8]

These grievances expressed by indigenous leaders are a far cry from the waves of indigenous support that elected Evo Morales and his Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) party into office in 2006. Following the explosive 2005 gas wars, in which the radical leftist indigenous bloc rose up in street protests, road blockades and massive marches to the capital in protest of gas privatization, Morales consolidated his support from the Bolivian indigenous majority by presenting himself as one of them, as a warrior of indigenous struggle, and as an alternative to the capitalist, neoliberal, and neocolonial Mesa administration.[9] To many, Evo represented liberation from white supremacy and from colonial oppression, and that was enough to give him unprecedented power that continued to grow until his recent resignation in response to massive public outcry against his overextended and contested presidential term.

Despite Evo’s campaign promises and intentions to transform Bolivia’s economic development, the country has continued to follow a development model defined by neoliberalism and extractivism. Extractivism can be understood as a regime of capital accumulation derived from the appropriation of nature and oriented towards primary commodity export.[10] In Bolivia, extractivism exists in its purest form in the mining sector, which expanded drastically under the Morales administration and consolidated the country’s resource governance.[11] Though promising indigenous autonomy and post-neoliberal reforms, President Morales resulted to the selling of “Third World resources to the most convenient bidder, of degrading their physical and human ecologies, of killing and torturing, of condemning their indigenous populations to near extinction.”[12]

Perhaps the first major sign of the Morales administration’s condemnation of the very people who elected him and with whom he himself identifies was his TIPNIS highway proposal. In 2011, Bolivia saw an explosion of indigenous-led mobilization in protest of a proposed 190-mile highway that would cut through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, known as TIPNIS.[13] To the Morales administration, the highway represents a crucial step in alleviating poverty for the many indigenous people who reside within the TIPNIS, affording them better access to infrastructure and services. Proponents also argue that the primary beneficiaries of development within TIPNIS — i.e. hydrocarbon exploration– would be indigenous communities.[14] However, according to a 2011 study by the Bolivian Institute for Strategic Research, the highway would increase deforestation in the park by 64% within 15 years of the road’s construction by allowing access to illegal loggers and farmers.[15] In addition, indigenous communities remained skeptical that they would receive benefits from the development projects, when historically they have suffered the brunt of ecological and human health externalities of extractive development. In response, thousands of TIPNIS residents—mostly indigenous—began to march the 360 miles from the Amazon lowlands to the capital, La Paz, in August of 2011.[16] Police brutality against the marchers ensued, in which 70 were wounded.[17] In response to international outcry, President Morales agreed to cancel the construction in October of 2011, signing a law that banned the road’s construction and designating the reserve as “untouchable.”[18] However, just six years later, in August of 2017, Morales reneged on his commitment. He passed a new law that ended TIPNIS’s protected status, thus paving the way for the highway’s construction.[19] In Bolivia, the TIPNIS struggle laid bare the blatant contradictions between Morales’ political platform and his actual policies.

Morales’ seeming loyalty to natural resource extraction, however, might be less a failure of Morales’ attempts to wrest the economy away from extraction and more of a condition of the global capitalist market that makes it impossible for alternative development models to exist and thrive. Andreucci and Radhuber argue that “the expansion of extractivism has been related to the reproduction of political economic conditions established under neoliberalism.”[20] These neoliberal conditions prevented Morales’ MAS party from implementing more of the radical demands of his indigenous social movement base, namely indigenous autonomy, plurinationalism, decolonization, and communitarian economies. Instead, the global economic reality in which neoliberalism and extractivism remain dominant and thus profitable forced Morales to rely on short-term rents from extraction to maintain political legitimacy.[21] The Morales’ government’s inability or reluctance to undertake structural, macroeconomic reform is even reflected in the new constitution rewritten by Morales in 2009, in which mining is still explicitly favored over indigenous and communal forms of economic productivity such as agriculture.[22] While the 2009 constitution recognizes that “communities have a right to autonomous indigenous territorial administration, to a healthy environment and to practice their traditional political legal and economic forms,” mining activities are given a higher value than agriculture when both are competing for land use rights.[23] It is clear from the Morales administration’s counter-neoliberal rhetoric on one hand, and extractive, neoliberal policies on the other, that larger political and economic forces favoring neoliberalism and extractivism limited the Bolivian government’s ability to realize its counter-neoliberal reforms while maintaining political viability. In Bolivia, as in other Latin American countries, it seems that the two goals exist in mutual conflict.  

Geographers and urban studies scholars Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing similarly argue that there is an inherent conflict between the demands of anti-capitalist, anti-extractivist Bolivian social movements and the realities of economies long dependent on extractivism for their wealth. This conflict inevitably limits the ability of government policy to address these concerns and, thus, fuels social unrest.[24] Even though the Morales government partially succeeded in using revenue, primarily from gas production, to substantially reduce poverty rates in Bolivia—the percentage of people living in poverty fell from 59.9% in 2006, when Morales first came to power, to 34.6% in 2017, and extreme poverty reduced by more than half (from 38.28% to 15.2%) over the same period[25]— these improvements in quality of life were the result of extractive processes, and ultimately “have proven insufficient to create sustainable broad-based development.”[26] Short-term profits from extractive industries reduce the government’s incentive to invest in other sectors, thus funneling national resources into one form of economic development and hindering more multifaceted, sustainable development.[27]    

Bolivia’s natural resources continue to mostly benefit Bolivia’s wealthy and their foreign partners, while country’s poorest (who are largely indigenous) are condemned to poverty and the effects of environmental contamination, and even death at times. Despite the Morales administration’s new legal frameworks protecting environmental and indigenous rights, environmental regulations have proven effective on paper but not in practice. Thus, the mining sector and other extractive industries have continued benefitting not only from Bolivia’s lax environmental protections, but also through lenient regulations that incentivize extractive operations to the detriment of ecological well-being and indigenous livelihoods.

Revenues from natural resource extraction in Bolivia have increased significantly under the Morales administration, but the majority of the wealth going to private multinational firms and the government.[28] Needing to maintain its promise to alleviate poverty, especially among indigenous communities, Morales began to approve new exploitative projects at the beginning of his second term that would provide the state with the capital it needed to reinvest in social programs while also covering state expenses.[29] It was around this moment that the failure of alternative development models to succeed in a capitalist global economy was realized. Subsequently, the Bolivian government approved a series of megaprojects based on the expansion of extractive industries, including lithium exploration, mining operations, road and large hydroelectric dam construction.[30]

According to Kohl and Farthing, oil and gas profits—which accounts for more than half of Bolivia’s state revenues—increased from $173 million in 2002 to more than $2.2 billion in 2011.[31] Similarly, Bolivia’s mineral exports—with zinc, tin, and silver as the three most heavily exported—grew from $346 million in 2005 to around $3.5 billion by 2011.[32] The total value of exports increased from $412 million between 1999-2005 to $2.258 billion between 2006-2012, an astonishing 448% increase.[33] However, only about $350 million in mining royalties and other taxes were collected by the state, which amount to only around 10% of production value.[34] This demonstrates while a large percentage of governmental revenue stems from hydrocarbon extraction (around 40% in 2008), foreign companies continue to extort and profit from a disproportionate amount of Bolivia’s natural resource wealth.[35] With the persistent lack of state-owned capital, Morales turned to the very countries profiting off Bolivia’s resources to ask for more money to finance government operations and services: foreign direct investment (FDI) ballooned from $20 million in 2003 to $651 million in 2011, and FDI stocks represented 37% of Bolivia’s Gross Domestic Product in 2010, which was 10% higher than the South American average.[36]

Morales’ deference to extractivism persisted and strengthened throughout his presidency. On August 28, 2019, Bolivia exported its first shipment of beef to China.[37] Forty-eight tons of beef from the Santa Cruz Cattlemen’s Federation were sent on that day, with plans to export 8,000 more tons to China in 2019. Bolivian cattle ranching has the prospect of bringing in $800 million for the country, as the commercial beef market expands from China to other target markets such as Russia.[38] Around the same time that this shipment occurred, unprecedented forest fires ravaged millions of hectares of forest and pasture land in Bolivia, mainly in the tropical savannah region of Chiquitania and Pantana, home to the world’s largest marshlands. These fires were not naturally-occuring; rather, they were caused by the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture used by Bolivian farmers to prepare their land for commercial cattle ranching, among other environmentally-destructive agricultural industries.[39]

What’s worse, these devastating practices were permitted by the Morales administration: in July of 2019, Morales passed a decree that allows controlled burns for agricultural purposes.[40] Not only did Morales deny that the fires were caused by the decree, claiming that the clearing was done illegally by farmers, he also refused to accept international aid to control the fires in a political move mirroring Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro’s claim that accepting international aid to quell fires in Brazil’s Amazon violated the country’s sovereignty.[41] Both Bolsonaro and Morales’ unquestionably destructive agricultural policies contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon and the violation of indigenous rights: the Bolivian livestock sector alone has caused 60% of the country’s deforestation.[42] Nonetheless, Morales stated on August 30, 2019 that the fundamental bases for Bolivia’s economic growth are “energy, hydrocarbons, mining, agriculture, and scientific knowledge,” verbally solidifying the dominance of extractive development in Bolivia as forest fires actively violated the environmental and indigenous rights he had promised to uphold.[43]

In a chaotic tumult of electoral fraud accusations, constitutional violations, road blockades and violent protests, Evo Morales was forced to resign from the Bolivian presidency on November 10, 2019.[44] Though innumerable factors contributed to his resignation—namely the fact that he was vying for a fourth presidential term that was deemed unconstitutional by the constitution he wrote but changed to accommodate his desire for a longer tenure—his approval had waned among indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Bolivia over the years.[45] Evo’s laggard and inadequate response to quelling the forest fires in Chiquitania mentioned above—the most recent in a decade-long pattern of prioritizing industrialization over environmental protection—contributed significantly to the demise in his popularity.[46] Evo’s successor, President Jeanine Añez, while more visibly committed to democratic procedures and establishing new elections, threatens to undo the decades of progress secured by Evo on indigenous rights. Similarly, her religiously and politically conservative cabinet is unlikely to prioritize a decolonial agenda that decouples Bolivia’s economic growth from extractivist, capitalist development projects. Thus, the political, economic, and social future of Bolivia is tragically uncertain, and relying on the post-colonial state for sustainable development is difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, sustainable development at the community level outside of the entrapments of the state is achievable and, more importantly, necessary to provide Bolivia’s most marginalized and indigenous populations with the autonomy, resilience and prosperity they deserve.

Development as a Form of Neocolonialism

Bolivia’s protracted extractivist development is as much about power dynamics as it is about money. The enduring legacy of colonialism in Bolivia undeniably shapes Bolivia’s current economic model, and its dependency on extractivism despite widespread popular protests against this model and in support of more communitarian, locally-controlled, and environmentally just development must be understood in terms of its colonial history.

Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa elucidates on the paradoxical role that post-colonial South American nations such as Bolivia take on in their efforts to grow economically post-independence, writing,

[e]ven when these nations try to break free from their colonial heritage, that is, their dependence on the export of primary products, through the implementation of development plans directed at diversifying their economies, they generally need foreign currency to achieve this. But they can only access foreign currency by exporting primary products, which again increases their dependence on exports. Paradoxically, by trying to exploit their comparative advantages, these countries that are exporters of natural assets, are frequently reassuming their colonial role as exporters of primary products- a role now redefined in terms of the neoliberal rationality of globalising capitalism. For them, neocolonialism is the next step on from post-colonialism.[47]

Svampa identifies this post-independence reliance on natural resource exports and foreign currency for development projects as a form of “neocolonialism.” She also notes that Bolivia leads this neocolonial development trend, as 92.9% of Bolivia’s exports are primary products.[48] This process of neocolonization via extractivist development is far from sustainable: instead, it leads to “the consolidation of export enclaves with little or no connection to local chains of production,” foments social conflict and generates regional fragmentation.[49]

Colonialism, capitalism, and development are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. Colonialism was a necessary byproduct of the expansion of capitalism. European growth during the eighteenth century coincided with its transition to capitalism. It is not a coincidence that as capitalist Europe grew, so did the Atlantic slave trade; the increasing demand for tropical commodities required a substantial and free labor force to meet the European demand while securing as much profit as possible for owners of capital.[50] As European colonialism seeped into the Americas, so too did the production of commodities for export from extractive industries and tropical agriculture. Development studies scholar Henry Bernstein argues that “the idea of development was established by the late colonial period— and moreover the idea of development as a process in which state funding, agencies, and initiatives had a central role to play.”[51] “Development” thus became a justification for colonialism as an ideology of progress. Because colonialism exported the social inequities inherent to European capitalist society (i.e. class divisions between laborers and capital-owners) to its overseas colonies, development became the tool by which colonial powers could “contain and manage the potential social disorder of the dynamics of immanent (or unchecked) capitalist development.”[52] Columbian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar calls this tool a “politics of poverty,” upon which the new order of capitalism and modernity relied to transform the rest of the world in its mirror image “by turning the poor into objects of knowledge and management.”[53] This management of social ills was then placed in the hands of those who had created them in the first place: the colonial state.[54] When the World Bank (an inherently colonial apparatus designed for the specific purpose of keeping post-colonial states indebted to former colonial powers) in 1948 defined those countries with annual income per capita below $100 as “poor,” the problem became one of insufficient income, meaning the solution was clearly economic growth.[55] Thus, development is no more a tool of “progress” than it is a means of perpetuating colonial rule and the systems of oppression inherent within colonialism. “Development” is a tool of oppression invented by the Western elite to maintain dominance over societies it deems inferior, qua the world outside of Western Europe and North America. As Bernstein states, “it is impossible to divorce the idea of ‘development’ from colonial processes and rationales.”[56]

This intrinsic relationship between colonialism, capitalism, and development is crucial in understanding the economic trajectory of many post-colonial states, namely Bolivia. The “rational” and “scientific” doctrines of development utilized by colonial authorities in European colonies were never appropriate for the environmental and social conditions of the colonies since these doctrines were developed by Western societies, for Western societies. The pathway of development promulgated by Western countries “conformed to the ideas and expectations of the affluent West, to what the Western countries judged to be a normal course of evolution and progress.”[57] Economic growth in the hands of Western countries meant “the replication in the poor countries of those conditions characteristics of mature capitalist ones,” including industrialization, urbanization, agricultural modernization, infrastructure, social services like health care, and Western education.[58] As Escobar writes,

the discourse privileged the promotion of cash crops (to secure foreign exchange, according to capital and technological imperatives) and not food crops; centralized planning (to satisfy economic and knowledge requirements) but not participatory and decentralized approaches; agricultural development based on large mechanized farms and the use of chemical inputs but not alternative agricultural systems, based on smaller farms, ecological considerations, and integrated cropping and pest management; rapid economic growth but not the articulation of internal markets to satisfy the needs of the majority of the people; and capital-intensive but not labor-intensive solutions.[59]

 Within the practice development exists an inherent power dynamic that values Western technical knowledge and conceptions of progress and devalues local, indigenous knowledge and livelihoods. To those working in the field of development, the villager is someone who can never and will never “understand” what is best for them, because what is best for them is only known by Westerners and defined by the Western ideology of progress.[60] Because many indigenous livelihoods do not fit within this ideology, they are dismissed and disparaged as backwards, deficient, and ignorant.

 When colonial authorities retreated physically from their colonies post-independence, they left in many instances broken societies: neither the imposed Western institutions nor local livelihoods remained intact. The economic and political struggles of these post-colonial states, in attempting to reclaim their autonomy from European-dominated institutions while maintaining social stability, were then unjustly blamed on the cultures of these post-colonial states, when in fact blame lies exclusively with the colonial powers. This uneven post-colonial development thus “inherited, adapted, reproduced, and in some instances reinforced many of the specific ideas and methods of colonial doctrines of development and their constructions of modernity: what it means to be modern, and how to get there.”[61]

This imposed modernity on post-colonial states by their metropoles was another form of colonialism, “a strategy to remake the colonial world and restructure the relations between colonies and metropoles” to ensure continued domination by the West.[62] In a word, neocolonialism. To Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana, neocolonialism “represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage.”[63] Neocolonialism is a process by which colonial territories are fragmented into smaller “non-viable states which are incapable of independent development,” and therefore must rely on their former colonial powers for economic and political stability.[64] The idea of foreign aid is inherently neocolonial; Nkrumah writes, “in order to make it attractive to those upon whom it is practiced it must be shown as capable of raising their living standards, but the economic object of neocolonialism is to keep those standards depressed in the interest of the developed countries.”[65] The field of international development, then, is predicated on maintaining a historical power dynamic between “developed” and “developing” countries, in which “aid” to a post-colonial state becomes nothing more than a predatory investment in the sustained oppression of the former colony from which the metropole extracts ever-increasing profits.[66] From this definition of neocolonialism provided by Nkrumah, it is clear that development is a perpetuation of colonial oppression within post-colonial states, and only by breaking free of this imported model of progress can these countries engage in a process of true decolonization.

Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of neocolonial development is how it ultimately disempowers post-colonial states into accepting defeat, into enabling oppression. This defeat comes when those in the Third World come to “think of themselves as inferior, underdeveloped, and ignorant and to doubt the value of their own culture, deciding instead to pledge allegiance to the banners of reason and progress.”[67] The Global South will never be deemed “developed” by the “developed” world (i.e. the Global North) because doing so would invalidate the systems of oppression (white supremacy, global capitalism, colonialism) that ensure that the Global South is perpetually “developing” while the Global North remains powerful. Thus, development must be seen for what it really is: an impossible paradox.  

Community Solar: An Alternative Path of Development

In this sense, community-scale development is not an inherently de-colonial project. In some cases, it can replicate colonial systems of oppression at the community level by delegitimizing local knowledge, disempowering community agency and preventing local self-sufficiency. Done right, however, community solar projects can redress and avoid the neocolonial tendencies of international development efforts by providing local communities with the tools and resources they need to grow sustainably and without outside assistance.

The kind of community development exemplified by community solar projects represents what development studies scholars Sam Hickey and Giles Mohan call a “radical politics of development” that situates development within a “process of social change rather than a discrete technocratic intervention.”[68] Organizations, often NGOs, that provide community solar projects, must be less like “public service providers” and more like “civic actors” that empower the communities in which they work through advocating for equity and rights-based political agendas, and working alongside local social movements.[69] Working in opposition to extractive development models, community solar projects have the potential to create an alternative form of politics within the societies they operate, a politics that remedies past harms of colonial oppression and democratizes decision-making. Only this kind of community development will foster climate resilience and community well-being. Similarly, geographers and international development scholars Diana Mitlin, Sam Hickey and Anthony Bebbington argue that NGO-led community development must be understood as a “long-term process of social change” that can either perpetuate harmful hegemonies or forge new counter-hegemonies.[70] In this sense, community development is much more than an economic mechanism, but rather a process of transforming society into the localized, community-based and climate resilient world that will remedy the climate crisis.

Anthropologist Dana Powell explores this process of transformation in her analysis of renewable energy projects on Native American reservations in the United States. She views this proliferation of these projects “as new modes of economic, ecological, and cultural development” that counter “the history of bio-political regimes of natural resource extraction, which have marked indigenous experience in North America” as well as in South America.[71] In North and South America alike, indigenous people share a common struggle against state-sanctioned resource extraction that destroys indigenous land, culture, and lives. According to Powell, renewable energy, specifically wind and solar projects, have become “technologies of resistance and existence”[72] that liberate indigenous populations from the oppression of biopower, which she defines as “the power of the state ‘to make live and let die’” in its ruthless pursuit of unfettered economic growth.[73] In 2003, the first utility-scale, indigenous-owned and operated wind turbine was installed on the Rosebud Sicangu Lakota reservation in South Dakota.[74] The project was imagined and executed by local and regional activists and engineers, including the tribal government, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, and the indigenous NGO Honor The Earth, but was funded by state agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Energy, Interior, and Agriculture.[75] Twenty years earlier, Hopi engineers, activists, and tribal leaders began installing solar panels on rooftops of residences on the reservation.[76] More recently, national networks and cultural protection organizations have collaborated to install additional solar technologies on New Segobia, or Western Shoshone territory, on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation, and on the Navajo reservation.[77]

While these community-based renewable energy projects allow Native Americans to harness the wind and sun for their own power production, they remain imperfect in that they still rely on the post-colonial state apparatus for support, mainly funding. Although the geopolitics of Bolivia’s indigenous population differs vastly from that in the United States, this reliance on state agencies and foreign NGOs for funding is also a reality of many community solar projects in Bolivia. However, once a community solar project is implemented, it allows the community to take ownership of their power—literally and metaphorically—and thus facilitates the transition to self-sufficiency. Even though community solar projects are not completely de-colonial in nature, they nonetheless contribute to the process of decolonization necessary for the liberation of indigenous people in Bolivia and elsewhere.

Ultimately, community solar development is part of a larger societal transformation towards regenerative, autonomous and localized growth that feminist scholar Maria Mies terms the “subsistence perspective.”[78] The subsistence perspective is one in which the sole purpose is life for life, not for the accumulation of capital that has led to the current climate crisis.[79] According to Mies, “‘subsistence’ denotes a rejection of every form of colonialism, expansionism, and dependence” and instead calls for a shift towards regionalism, self-sufficiency in place of market dependence, organic agriculture, food sovereignty, and grassroots democracy.[80] This subsistence lifestyle leads to regional, autonomous economies that are the antithesis of global capitalism and thus the solution to the climate crisis. Community solar contributes to a subsistence lifestyle by promoting energy independence, climate resilience, and local wealth that exists outside of the capitalist market and neocolonial development.

Community Solar Projects in Bolivia

Despite Bolivia’s extremely high solar potential, solar energy provides only two megawatts of Bolivia’s total energy supply.[81] Bolivia’s weakest solar radiation is equivalent to Europe’s strongest solar radiation, at about four sun hours per square meter per day.[82] In other words, Bolivia’s proximity to the equator combined with its relatively cloudless weather makes for extremely productive solar production. Nevertheless, Bolivia only has four large-scale solar plants: two in Yunchara and Cobija that produce 5 megawatts each, one in Uyuni that produces 60 megawatts, and its largest in Oruro that produces 100 megawatts.[83]

Bolivia’s disinclination for large-scale solar is less a representation of a prioritization of an alternative development model but more a result of a lack of foreign investment to finance major solar projects. Nonetheless, in place of large-scale solar have sprung smaller-scale, decentralized solar projects, stemming from both the Bolivian government itself and NGOs. As part of its rural electrification plan, the Bolivian government provides rural houses cut off from the national grid with solar panels and lithium batteries to store solar energy at night.[84] The renewable rural electrification program, known as Programa Electricidad para Vivir con Dignidad (PEVD), was financed by a combination of public and private funds, including the Nordic Development Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank supplementing funds from the Bolivian government.[85] The program intended to electrify approximately 180,000 rural households across the country, making it the largest rural electrification program in the region.[86] The project aimed to make photovoltaic systems affordable to rural populations by financing 60% of the cost of a PV system, while users were expected to pay the remaining 40% over a term of three years.[87] Nonetheless, despite the program’s moderate success, it remains too dependent on foreign financial aid to be sustainable: trapped in a paradox of eternally “developing,” the post-colonial state is unable to implement renewable energy policies without a financial commitment from instruments of neocolonial finance such as the World Bank. Once foreign funding runs dry, solar electricity provision ceases. Thus, this state-led residential solar development program falls short of the “radical politics of development” promulgated by Hickey and Mohan, as it works within the confines of the post-colonial state and with the support of neocolonial financial institutions, and fails to truly empower the marginalized communities it intends to serve.

 In place of the government, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a crucial role in the diffusion of small-scale renewable technologies among the people. Acting as intermediaries between local communities, micro-enterprises, and academics, these organizations disperse solar technologies, build local capacity, and share knowledge to address the dual goal of sustainability and inclusion in the process of community development.

 A Cochabamba-based NGO called Energética tackles rural electrification with a more social-justice-based approach than the Bolivian government. Formed by a group of academics from the Universidad Mayor de San Simón in Cochabamba, the organization focuses not only on the technological components of solar energy distribution, but also on the sociological aspects of sustainable development.[88] Energética’s mission is to promote energy use “from a perspective of equity, broad solidarity, and proactivity” to achieve sustainable development.[89] The organization takes a multidisciplinary approach in “understanding that the energy problem influences and depends on the rest of the economic, social, technological, environmental and cultural system” and that individuals must take ownership to ensure the success of the projects in which they participate.[90] Energética takes a four-pronged approach to rural electrification: (1) developing energy access, (2) sharing knowledge, (3) organizing demands, and (4) strengthening institutions and companies.[91] Energética works to develop energy access using solar technologies in three realms: energy for the people, which seeks to meet the energy demands of families for lighting, communication and cooking; energy for the community, which develops projects to “strengthen social infrastructure” and services such as rural schools and clinics; and energy for production, which aims to generate additional income for these communities from the production of renewable electricity.[92]

Energética also has a robust knowledge sharing program, in which it trains locally-based decision-makers, operators, technicians, and users in how to use and fix the solar technologies it deploys throughout rural communities in Bolivia.[93] This component of Energética’s work is perhaps the most consequential in promoting social change within the communities it services. Rather than simply introducing a foreign technology into a rural community without any knowledge exchange, Energética ensures that its energy project is matched to the needs of the community, and that community members are equipped with the skills they need to take ownership of the technology so that they are not reliant on the organization for continued support and can instead live self-sufficiently. In this way, Energética’s projects mirrors the renewable energy systems built on Native American reservations in the United States: in both cases, indigenous traditions of sharing the fundamental means of subsistence such as land, tools, or public infrastructure are merged with modern technologies that allow indigenous communities to maintain their traditional livelihoods in a landscape defined by neoliberal extractivism. According to anthropologist Ruth Volgger, this interaction between traditional knowledge and academic, entrepreneurial knowledge is called diágolo entre saberes, dialogue between knowledges.[94] This dialogue “does not reject modern technology, rather it attempts to combine different kinds of knowledge in a non-invasive way to achieve new solutions.[95]

If a community does need technical assistance, Energética trains a cadre of local technicians that can service the community when necessary. As part of an effort to “guarantee and ensure the technical sustainability of photovoltaic systems in the long term,” Energética collaborated with national solar technician unions and popular education institutes to train “Maintenance Microentrepreneurs” across the country that are equipped to service their communities.[96] In a publication summarizing this project, Energética interviewed its numerous technicians to understand more clearly the needs of the communities it services. One technician called Pablo reiterated that “it is necessary that the users have access to local maintenance services and suppliers because many of them do not leave their communities.”[97] By employing these local technicians, Energética preserves community self-sufficiency and their rural livelihoods, rather than making them reliant on federal resources or supplies only available in cities. Another technician named Oscar suggested that “it is necessary to gain the user’s confidence, speak the same language… and enhance the user’s training.”[98]  Similarly, Energética technician Enrique also recommended to “conduct training workshops for the user” and that “it is more beneficial if they are taught in the same language of the user.”[99] To share knowledge among indigenous people, Energética provided information and trainings in their native languages, most commonly Quechua or Aymara.

Between 1996-2008, Energética installed 13,983 photovoltaic systems, of which 83.4% were for domestic use, 16.3% were for social use (clinics, schools, churches, adult centers, unions) and 0.3% were for productive use, such as spinning centers, artisanal centers and pumping systems.[100] Most of these installations were in Cochabamba, Potosí and Oruro, but Energética’s work spans all nine departments across Bolivia.[101] Until 2012, Energética led a project providing electricity supply to 18,494 people living in rural areas of Potosí and Oruro via photovoltaic systems.[102] Between 2014-2016, Energética installed communal solar water pumping systems in Oruro, Cochabamba and Potosí to provide potable water for indigenous populations without electricity access.[103] The project is intended to “improve the quality of life and the health situation” of 16,000 people, “guaranteeing a sustainable and ecological water supply and thus reducing the migration of the countryside” to cities.[104] It is a perfect example of a community solar project that contributes to the process of decolonization. Energética combats the degradation of traditional livelihoods forced by state-led capitalist development and urbanization by sharing knowledge, encouraging indigenous users to take ownership of their power supply, enhancing local health and preserving indigenous livelihoods.

Energética continues to empower indigenous communities with rural electrification, its most recent project bringing PV and lithium battery solar systems that use LED bulbs to light rural houses. Compared to the government-led rural electrification project, Energética’s projects engage in a process of social change aimed at decolonization via renewable energy technologies. These development projects are truly technologies “of resistance and existence” as stated by Powell that enact “alternative ways for tribes to self-sustain and grow healthy economies, ecologies, cultures, and bodies,” as stated by Powell.[105] By reclaiming the power-generating processes of nature, indigenous communities in Bolivia and elsewhere can reclaim their social, cultural, economic, and political power.

The Center for Development with Solar Energy (CEDESOL) takes community-based solar development one step closer to a “radical politics of development” than Energética. The Cochabamba-based non-profit’s mission is “to empower the disempowered, guided by the concepts of alternative education, renewable energy, and social justice.”[106] CEDESOL centers social justice and community empowerment in its work bringing solar cooking systems to rural communities in and around Cochabamba. CEDESOL understands that “real technology transfer is as much about social issues as it is about technology”; it strives to make its technologies sustainable by requiring “community support, an informed understanding of its workings” and technology that “serves a practical purpose.”[107] When CEDESOL introduces its solar cookers to a community, it is “often met with cultural resistance.” To overcome this reluctant unfamiliarity, CEDESOL couples technology introduction with “intensive, ongoing training and support programs” to ensure that “individuals, families and communities own the technology and have the confidence to modify it to fit local and individual needs.”[108] Only through community ownership can community and individual empowerment be achieved.

 CEDESOL has distributed 10,000 rocket stoves and solar cookers to rural communities, thus reducing biomass dependency, offsetting more than half a million tons of carbon emissions, and empowering communities as they gain energy independence, financial liberty, and greater freedom (especially among women and children) from duties such as cooking and collecting firewood.[109] In the long-term, CEDESOL’s solar cookers improve the health of participants, especially women and children, and contribute to both local and global environmental health. CEDESOL’s latest project is provision of solar cookers to eleven schools in Toro Toro, a rural municipality in Potosí founded in the late colonial period by mestizo migrants from Cochabamba. The project has three distinct phases. The first is environmental education–the process of sharing knowledge with participants on environmentally-friendly practices to understand the benefits of solar cookers. This education is crucial to maintaining CEDESOL’s 92% adoption rate by participants.[110] The second phase is distribution, which not only provides individuals cook-stoves, but also trains users to prevent reversion to familiar, unsustainable cooking methods. The third phase is evaluation, in which CEDESOL encourages participants give feedback on their educational training and on the performance of their cook stoves. This last step allows CEDESOL to “continue to work closely with communities…to fight for carbon reduction, social justice, and access to education in impoverished communities throughout Bolivia.”[111]

CEDESOL’s community development efforts go one step further than Energética’s, valuing community empowerment and social justice over technological innovation in their projects. Nonetheless, both organizations provide prime examples of how community solar development in Bolivia can be an alternative form of sustainable development that empowers, rather than marginalizes, its rural and indigenous population, amid working to mitigate climate change’s impacts on the global vulnerable communities.

Cracks in the System

The failure of many development projects to foster community autonomy along with climate resiliency is a product of our current society. How can a country that exists within the modern capitalist system resist neoliberal and neocolonial development when those very nations in the Global North, which have defined themselves as “developed,” regard it is as an “underdeveloped” nation? Colonial systems of oppression are deeply rooted in our society, and it is unfair to place the burden of decolonization entirely on previously colonized countries when they already suffer economically, politically, and socioculturally from those very same systems.

However, the small-scale solar development presented in this paper offers a promising solution to this incredibly convoluted conundrum. Community solar development is but one of many clear cracks in the capitalist system, a metaphor employed by John Holloway in his book Crack Capitalism. The more small-scale solar projects that are deployed across the world, simultaneously empowering communities, relocalizing economies, and fostering climate resilience, the more the oppressive capitalist-colonialist economy disintegrates into more sustainable and just alternatives. As Holloway says himself, “the opening of cracks is the opening of a world that presents itself as closed.”[112] Only by taking a chance on these creative solutions can we prevent our descent into destruction.

About the Author

Celia is a senior at Tufts University from Redding, Connecticut. She is double majoring in International Relations and Environmental Studies with a focus in Sustainability, Policy and Equity. Though her academic interests range from environmental policy and science to history and global affairs, she is primarily interested in how climate change interacts with historical systems of oppression to produce new injustices and is dedicated to fighting these injustices through her activism and work. She spent last spring traveling throughout Vietnam, Morocco and Bolivia to understand the complexities of climate change in some of the world’s most vulnerable landscapes, and hopes to continue this international study of community sustainability post-graduation. 


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[1] “Indigenous People in Bolivia.” IWGIA,

[2] Robert Albro, “Evo Morales’s Chaotic Departure Won’t Define His Legacy.” Foreign Policy, (November 22, 2019).

[3] John Vidal, “Bolivia enshrines natural world’s rights with equal status for Mother Earth.” The Guardian, (April 10, 2011).

[4] Jessica Camille Aguirre and Elizabeth Sonia Cooper, “Evo Morales, Climate Change, and the Paradoxes of a Social-Movement Presidency,” Latin American Perspectives 37, no.4 (July 2010): 240

[5] Aguirre and Cooper, “Evo Morales, Climate Change, and the Paradoxes of a Social-Movement Presidency,”  240-1

[6] Ibid, 240

[7] Ibid, 241

[8] Ibid 241

[9] Jeffery R. Webber, “Carlos Mesa, Evo Morales, and a Divided Bolivia (2003-2005),” Latin American Perspectives, 37, no.3 (July 2010): 67

[10] Diego Andreucci and Isabella M. Radhuber, “Limits to ‘counter-neoliberal’ reform: Mining expansion and the marginalization of post-extractivist forces in Evo Morales’s Bolivia,” Geoforum 84 (2017): 280

[11] Andreucci and Radhuber, “Limits to ‘counter-neoliberal’ reform: Mining expansion and the marginalization of post-extractivist forces in Evo Morales’s Bolivia,” 282

[12] Arturo Escobar, “The Problematization of Poverty: The Tale of Three Worlds and Development” in Encountering Development: The Making and the Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 52

[13] Dan Collyns, “Bolivia approves highway through Amazon biodiversity hotspot,” The Guardian, (August 15, 2017)

[14] Emily Achtenberg, “Why is Evo Morales Reviving Bolivia’s Controversial TIPNIS Road?” NACLA, (August 21, 2015)

[15] Collyns, “Bolivia approves highway through Amazon biodiversity hotspot.”

[16] Achtenberg, “Why is Evo Morales Reviving Bolivia’s Controversial TIPNIS Road?”

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Andreucci and Radhuber, 281

[21] Ibid, 282

[22] Ibid, 284

[23] Ibid, 284

[24] Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, “Material constraints to popular imaginaries: The extractive economy and resource nationalism in Bolivia” Political Geography 31 (2012): 225

[25] Oliver Balch, “How a populist president helped Bolivia’s poor— but built himself a palace,” The Guardian, (March 7, 2019)

[26] Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, “Material constraints to popular imaginaries: The extractive economy and resource nationalism in Bolivia,” 226

[27] Ibid

[28] Kohl and Farthing, 230

[29] Maristella Svampa, “Resource Extractivism and Alternatives: Latin American Perspectives on Development,” Journal of Development Studies, 28 (January 2012): 126

[30] Svampa, “Resource Extractivism and Alternatives: Latin American Perspectives on Development,” 126

[31] Kohl and Farthing, 230

[32] Ibid, 231

[33] Andreucci and Radhuber, 285

[34] Kohl and Farthing, 231

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

[37] Miriam Telma Jemio, “Bolivia’s forest fires and the rise of beef exports,” Diálogo Chino, (September 4, 2019)

[38] Jemio, “Bolivia’s forest fires and the rise of beef exports”

[39] Ibid

[40] Paola Flores, “Evo Morales not trending among Bolivia’s youth ahead of vote,” The Associated Press, (October 7, 2019)

[41] Jane Dalton, “Amazon fires: Bolsonaro rages at ‘colonial’ G7 leaders over $16m aid deal to fight Brazil blazes,” The Independent, (August 26, 2019)

[42] Jemio, “Bolivia’s forest fires and the rise of beef exports”

[43] Ibid

[44] Anatoly Kurmanaev, “Evo Morales and Bolivia: What We Know About the President’s Resignation,” The New York Times, (November 12, 2019)

[45] Yascha Mounk, “Evo Morales Finally Went Too Far for Bolivia,” The Atlantic, (November 11, 2019)

[46] Simon Romero, “Where is the Amazon Rainforest Vanishing? Not Just in Brazil,” The New York Times, (August 30, 2019)

[47] Svampa, 117

[48] Ibid, 118

[49] Ibid, 119

[50] Henry Bernstein, “Colonialism, Capitalism, Development,” in Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, eds. Tim Allen and Alan Thomas (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000): 247

[51] Bernstein, “Colonialism, Capitalism, Development,” 265

[52] Ibid, 266

[53] Escobar, “The Problematization of Poverty: The Tale of Three Worlds and Development,” 23

[54] Bernstein, 266

[55] Escobar, 23-4

[56] Bernstein, 267

[57] Escobar, 26

[58] Ibid, 38

[59] Ibid, 43

[60] Ibid, 49

[61] Bernstein, 269

[62] Escobar, 26

[63] Kwame Nkrumah, Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (London, UK: Panaf Books, 1970), ix

[64] Nkrumah, Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, xiii

[65] Ibid, xv

[66] Ibid

[67] Escobar, 53

[68] Sam Hickey and Giles Mohan, Relocating participation within a radical politics of development: citizenship and critical modernism (Manchester, UK: University of Manchester, 2003), 1

[69] Sam Hickey and Giles Mohan, Relocating participation within a radical politics of development: citizenship and critical modernism, 20

[70] Diana Mitlin, Sam Hickey, and Anthony Bebbington, “Reclaiming Development? NGOs and the Challenge of Alternatives” World Development 35 no.10 (2007): 1705

[71] Dana E. Powell, “Technologies of Existence: The indigenous environmental justice movement” Society for International Development, 49, no.3 (2006): 125

[72] Dana E. Powell, “Technologies of Existence: The indigenous environmental justice movement,” 130

[73] Powell, 128

[74] Ibid, 129

[75] Ibid

[76] Ibid, 130

[77] Ibid

[78] Maria Mies, “Housewifisation—Globalisation—Subsistence Perspective,” in Beyond Marx, eds. M. Van der Linden and K. H. Roth (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 2014): 231

[79] Maria Mies, “Housewifisation—Globalisation—Subsistence Perspective,” 236

[80] Ibid, 232

[81] Renan Orellana de la Fuente, “Energy in Bolivia,” Lecture, Centro de Estudios Superiores Universitarios,  Cochabamba, Bolivia  (April 26, 2019)

[82] Miguel Fernandez, “Renewable Energy in Bolivia,” Cochabamba, Lecture, Centro de Estudios Superiores Universitarios, Cochabamba, Bolivia (April 26, 2019)

[83] “Bolivia opens its largest solar farm,” Power-Technology,, (September 10, 2018)

[84] Renan Orellana de la Fuente, “Energy in Bolivia,”

[85] “Rural electrification with renewable energy in Bolivia,” Nordic Development Fund,, (September 7, 2012)

[86] Mario Pansera, “Renewable energy for rural areas in Bolivia.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16, no.9 (2012): 669

[87] Pansera, “Renewable energy for rural areas in Bolivia,” 6699

[88] Ibid, 6700-1

[89] “Energy for Development” Energética,

[90] “Methodology and Work Areas,” Energética,

[91] Ibid

[92] Ibid

[93] Ibid

[94] Pansera, 6702

[95] Ibid

[96] Energética, “Micro Empresas Solares: Número 2,” (March 2010): 3

[97] “Micro Empresas Solares: Número 2,” 3

[98] Ibid, 8

[99] Ibid, 11

[100] Energética, “Micro Empresas Solares: Número 1,” (March 2009): 1

[101] “Micro Empresas Solares: Número 1,” 1

[102] “Decentralized Infrastructure for Rural Transformation,” Energética,

[103] “Potable Water Photovoltaic Pumping in Oruro,” Energética,

[104] Ibid

[105] Powel, 130

[106] “Our Mission,” CEDESOL,

[107] “Our Mission,” CEDESOL

[108]  Ibid

[109] “Current Project,” CEDESOL,

[110] “Current Project,” CEDESOL

[111] Ibid

[112] John Holloway, Crack Capitalism. (London, UK: Pluto Press, 2010): 5