Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

The Anti-politics of the Sustainable Development Goals in Bolivia and beyond

By Jess Hope, University of St Andrews, UK

Sustainable development is one of the central policy responses to climate change and intensifying environmental degradation. Sustainable development is now most often thought of in relation to the United Nations 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 SDGs, which replaced the previous Millennium Development Goals, are the most ambitious global development goals to date. As a flagship project of ‘global development’, they have been reorientated to include both the global North and South.

The SDGs are part of a suite of polices to address climate change. They unite development banks, multilateral and bilateral institutions, states, international non‐government organisations (INGOs), civil society organisations, and, increasingly, private sector actors in balancing social, economic, and environmental arenas within a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity.”

Bolivia is an important case study to investigate the challenges, aims and realities of sustainable development. On the one hand, Bolivia has a very progressive, radical, and indigenous-led political system. Even after the 13-year reign of President Evo Morales ended in what was decried as a right-wing coup – with the interim government ushering in an increased power of the Christian far‐right, a rise in state violence (including a massacre in El Alto) and in racism, and a dogged promotion of the Bible – the country re-elected Morales’ party the MAS. This demonstrated the strength and resilience of the country’s social movement bases, as well as continuing commitments to indigenous rights and politics.

Yet even with this political landscape, there is ongoing commitment to resource extraction and energy production. This relies heavily on fossil fuels and contributes to environmental degradation. As with other parts of the Amazon region, in Bolivia certain indigenous territories and conservation areas are being opened up for fossil fuel exploration and mining, causing a great deal of conflict. The question is – How do the SDGs address these conflicts to ensure that Bolivia’s development model becomes more sustainable?

Assembling the SDGs In Bolivia

Although the SDGs set out specific examples, what sustainable development actually is remains unclear. The definition most cited is from the 1987 Brundtland Commission, who explain it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. However, the concept has long been plagued by its vagueness, leading to criticisms that it is impossible to measure which makes it an easy tool for greenwashing. As such, we need a different way to define and assess sustainable development.

In a recent paper in Transactions, I therefore argue that we can better define sustainable development by attending to the ways it comes into being from existing discourses, policies, networks, partnerships, organisations and landscapes – what we might call an assemblage – and by analysing how this SDG assemblage is disciplined to suit powerful, unsustainable interests. Looking at sustainable development in this way helps us better understand how governments can be committed to both the sustainable development agenda whilst intensifying commitments to fossil fuel and mineral extraction. It also helps us identify the geography of the SDGs, namely how particular places, people and protests are being excluded from the sustainable development agenda, creating a form of anti-politics.

I researched the early take-up of the SDGs in Bolivia, visiting the country twice in 2017 and 2019 to research two conflicts over new energy mega-projects: road building to access hydrocarbon pools in the Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS; Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park) and hydropower dams in Chepete and Bala, asking why these conflicts were not included in the SDG agenda or brought into work on specific goals (for example, SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities, SDG 13 Climate Action or SDG 4 Life on Land).

I discovered that when the SDGs were taken up in Bolivia, they were framed by existing development agendas, networks, and politics, which pre‐date the environmental goals for Agenda 2030. Organisations talked about the ways existing commitments and projects chimed with certain goals, rather than revising the socio-environmental approach of their work in line with the new agenda. Importantly, the UN worked hard to partner with the central government, to ensure state-level commitment to Agenda 2030. Compared to the previous development goals, the MDGs, the SDGs offer a “looser script” to states. Yet, in Bolivia, such partnership consolidated government interpretations of progressive, social movement and indigenous-led ideas about development and the environment. Namely, interpretations that have aligned alternatives to development such a Vivir Bien (the good life) with government commitments to industrialisation, resource extraction and modernisation. What this means is that those opposing the effects of extractive-led development in their territories have lost key ways to articulate their own agendas and access wider development infrastructure.

In Bolivia, deference to state-led development is a major issue for the environmental remit of the SDGs because extractivism depends on contractual partnerships with transnational firms and capital. An example of this are the 2006 contract renegotiations with global hydrocarbon firms, when the Morales administration renationalised the sector. This gave Bolivia a higher percentage of royalties from private gas companies (amounting to US$5.5 billion in 2014 and US$3.7 billion in 2015). Following renationalisation, the government continued to work closely with transnational firms – relied on for their expertise and technology, and the state now includes transnational firms within the nationalised hydrocarbon framework. Bolivia contracts work, for example, from Brazil’s state‐oil giant Petrobras, Spain’s Repsol, the UK’s British Gas, and France’s Total (Fabricant & Gustafson, 2016). Shell returned to Bolivia in 2015 after eight years’ absence.

These elements of the SDG assemblage are coupled with others. In government discourse, the infrastructures and megaprojects for hydroelectricity, mineral and fossil fuel extraction are implicitly tied to Vivir Bien and sustainable development. In the posters and materials of government ministries, new roads, bridges, mines, and energy projects are framed as representations of their successes in, and commitments to, development.


The SDGs explicitly seek partnership between states, the private sector and civil society, mobilising a common project for all. The  starting point is therefore one of political neutrality, with no perceived conflict between, for example, states and civil society or transnational corporations and communities, and where there is no blame for environmental degradation to date – though we all know this is not the case.

Defining sustainable development from how it emerges from existing discourses, policies, networks, partnerships, organisations and landscapes, does not ignore power dynamics. This power is instead seen as a mix of self‐regulation, self‐governance, and repression and is crucial in shaping the sustainable development assemblage.

Direct repression, for example, is a mechanism of disciplinary power, often aimed at those who protest the negative consequences of extractive‐led growth. The Latin American Observatory of Mining Conflicts, for example, note the criminalisation of those opposing mining in 143 out of the 245 mining conflicts documented; the Environmental Justice Atlas, which maps extractive‐related social conflicts in the region; and Global Witness, which documents those attacked or killed for defending land and the environment from encroaching frontiers of capital. Global Witness documented 207 deaths in 2017, the highest yet recorded. The majority of these (almost 60%) were in Latin America.

Similarly, in Bolivia, NGOs are disciplined to ensure that the politics of extractivism are not a part of their work. International NGOs were clear that they could not get involved in disputes between the state and civil society, despite previously and publicly supporting the same individuals and indigenous organisations. This was explained as respecting the sovereignty of Bolivia and the government’s right to determine the country’s national development agenda. However, reticence to publicly engage with conflicts over extractivism was also explained as a response to the legislation and bureaucracies of government. One interviewee from an International NGO described a climate of “fear and mistrust” when working in the country – one that challenged their work and created a sense of insecurity.

NGOs referred to government attempts to pass new legislative frameworks for their work and to an ever‐changing administrative process for gaining authorisation to work within the country. INGOs worried for their other projects, beneficiaries and staff. Those that did want to work with movements opposing extractivism found little support from external funding bodies, who were keen to avoid conflict with the central government and instead wanted to fund “more traditional sustainable development”.

The Lost Geographies of the SDGs

All of this works to stabilise specific interpretations and practices of sustainable development, thereby omitting any of the conflictive politics of extractivism that surround them. In Bolivia, this works to create lost geographies of the SDGs – the territorial and protest movements that form a part of Latin America’s wider eco‐territorial turn in opposition to the socio‐environmental impacts of extractive‐led development. This opposition is being continually weakened, excluded, and marginalised by the take-up of the SDGs, as it builds consensus between development, states and the private sector. It explains how particular issues (here, extractivism) and geographies (here, indigenous territories) are excluded from the sustainable development agenda, despite their vital importance for environmental justice and wellbeing.

Defining sustainable development as an assemblage therefore reveals not only these exclusions but also how the conflictive politics of extractivism are rendered neutral; a form of anti-politics. The sustainable development assemblage is instead disciplined to suit state and private sector interests in ways that limit significant changes to unsustainable partnerships and practices. This sustainable development, as defined by the SDGs and through its focus on consensus building, is environmentally inadequate because it fails to challenge powerful polluters and weakens those who seek to reveal sites of socio-environmental degradation and injustice.

About the author: Jessica Hope is a Lecturer in Sustainable Development in the School of Geography & Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews. Her current research investigates political ecologies of sustainable development and resource extraction in Latin America. She gained her PhD from the University of Manchester and previously held posts at UCL, the University of Cambridge and the University of Bristol.

Suggested further reading

Hope J. (2020). The anti‐politics of sustainable development: Environmental critique from assemblage thinking in Bolivia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

1 comment

  1. This is an exceptionally well-written article pointing out the fallacies of working within a global system devoted to increasing economic expansion and amplifying the very waste that is worsening global climate change, which the SDGs tend to ignore – the central pivot of much SDG thinking is that low-carbon, low-energy processes and mechanisms can simply be plugged into expanding global capitalism and we can continue to have massive consumption and a better environment, which is not true.

    You can either have mass consumption capitalism or a liveable planet, but not both.

    Researchers interested in this work should also look into research on energy justice (Raphael Heffron, Rosie Day etc.) and other work questioning the idea of the Green Environment (see our paper BROWN, E., CLOKE, J., GENT, D., JOHNSON, P. H. and HILL, C. (2014): ‘Green growth or ecological commodification: debating the green economy in the global South’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 96 (3): 245–259).

    In the current situation, though, it is improbable in the extreme that COP26 or any other COP will change the intensely hazardous situation for humantiy, when these very fora are dictated by corporate-friendly political classes and NGOs, plus substantial numbers of lobbyists/PR people from the very corporations that are making the situation of humanity so much worse.

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