Trickle-Down Diplomacy: South American Style

Via The Economist, an interesting report on Evo Morales efforts to swap a stream for a piece of Chilean seafront:

THE Silala (known as the Siloli in Chile) trickles down from Bolivia’s unpopulated Andean plateau to the Chilean border. Little more than a ditch in places, the stream is nevertheless the cause of renewed tension in the two countries’ already testy relationship.

Much of the Silala’s water is consumed in Chile—drunk in the towns of the arid Atacama desert and used in the giant state-owned Chuquicamata copper mine. Chile insists the Silala is an international river and that it has a legal right to use the water. Bolivia has long argued that without the crude stone conduits that help channel the Silala to the border, the water would stay in Bolivian territory. In the latest bout of this long-simmering row, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, is threatening to reduce the Silala’s supply to Chile. Somewhat bizarrely, his plan hinges on fish farming.

Egged on by the central government, local politicians allied to Mr Morales’s Movement to Socialism have decided to make use of the water. Last month the governor of the Potosí region, Felíx Gonzales, oversaw a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of a fish farm supplied from the Silala. The irrigation of land for agriculture and the building of a hydroelectric dam have also been mooted.

All of these projects are economically doubtful. Only tiny amounts of electricity could be produced and there is no one to sell it to. The nearest people live in the village of Quetena Chico, a long drive away (see map). They say the land is too inhospitable for agriculture. Moreover, geological and historical evidence backs Chile’s claim that water from the springs has always flowed across the border. Brendan Mulligan, a Canadian water expert, says the Silala clearly travels along an ancient water course: “the channels just make the flow more efficient”. A report by Bolivia’s own state-run geological service, Sergeotecmin, in 2003, agreed that the water follows a natural drainage course.

In truth the impasse is about more than the Silala. It is intimately linked to another and much larger body of disputed water: the Pacific Ocean. Since Chile annexed Bolivia’s sea coast in the 19th century, Bolivian politicians of all persuasions have cultivated antagonism towards Chile. The grievance is reinforced by an annual “Day of the Sea”. The slogan “Reclaim the Sea” was for years painted above the doors to customs facilities and printed on the spine of the La Paz phone book.

In a speech last year Mr Morales described the loss of the coastline as “an open wound”. He signed a decree creating the Strategic Unit for Maritime Claims, which is charged with co-ordinating Bolivia’s bid to achieve access to the sea (without conspicuous success so far). The Silala gambit looks like a renewed effort to turn the screws on Chile over maritime access.

It stands no chance of convincing Chile to cave into Bolivia’s demands for a chunk of its coast. On the other hand, cooler presidential talk might eventually lead to an improvement in the conditions for Bolivia’s trade through Chilean ports. An end to Bolivia’s refusal to sell its abundant supplies of natural gas to its energy-hungry neighbour might help, too.

Still, the ruse does have enormous potential to galvanise domestic animosity towards Chile and to boost the president’s popularity. It will thereby help to deflect criticism of Mr Morales for having unilaterally abandoned wide-ranging talks with Chile last year, and for his failure to make good his frequent threat to take Chile to an international court over Bolivia’s landlocked status.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 22nd, 2012 at 3:53 am and is filed under Bolivia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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