Researching the politics of development



Political settlements, natural resource extraction, and inclusion in Bolivia

Working paper 77

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Denise Humphreys Bebbington and Celina Grisi Huber
This paper forms part of a project investigating the relationships between political settlements and natural resource governance over the longue durée in four countries in Latin America and Africa. Specifically, it examines this relationship for the governance of minerals and hydrocarbons in Bolivia. This paper makes the following arguments. As a poor country with a relatively weak central state, Bolivia’s natural resources have served as a ‘mechanism of trade’ mobilised by competing interest groups to build coalitions in support of their particular projects and to secure the acquiescence of those who might contest their projects. In this way, natural resources are used to create political pacts and negotiate political settlements in which a dominant actor attempts to win over the opposition of those resistant to a particular vision of development and/or governance. These pacts and settlements are revisited constantly, reflecting the weak and fragmented power of the central state and of the elite, as well as persistent tensions between national and subnational elites. There have been short periods of settlement – in particular the early 20th century, when the so-called ‘tin barons’ were especially strong and excluded sectors (labour, peasantry, indigenous people) were weak; and the contemporary period, in which social movements and their dominant party are strong. However, the more general pattern has been one of instability, reflecting the relatively short-lived capacity of one or another actor for strategic collective action. Ideas about, and modes of, natural resource governance have been central to periods of instability and stability alike, and to significant periods of rupture in Bolivian politics. For example, mining and miners were central to the 1952 revolution and the following 12 years of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) government; natural gas, water and notions of resource nationalism were at the core of the 2005 election of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) government of Evo Morales.
The period since 2006 has been characterised by a stable settlement revolving around an alliance between MAS, national social movements and two iconic, dominant leaders in the forms of the president and vice-president. This settlement is also sustained through bargains with parts of the traditional economic elite and those subnational actors able to exercise sufficient power to extract concessions from the main parties to the settlement. In addition, particular interpretations of prior forms of natural resource governance have produced ideas about historical dependency and exploitation that are themselves constitutive of the settlement that the MAS has built (ideas that also circulated in earlier periods of resource nationalism).