Why are my lungs burning (Part 4, La Paz edition)

Climbing to El Alto from La Paz, Bolivia. Evo wanted this old bus off the road by 2018. Bus drivers said no.

Going to La Paz, Bolivia, where the airport is above 4,000 meters and the main plazas are around 3,700 over sea level, you expect your lungs to suffer. (For those of you unfamiliar, 4,000 meters is about 13,200 feet.) After all, in a normal country, 13,000 feet is the top of a reasonably high mountain, rather than some river valley well below nearby peaks. So the lack of oxygen is predictable. But in spending last week in and around that city, I was unpleasantly surprised at how the political system and people’s values combine to make the air much more polluted than it need be.

Bolivia is a poor country, even by the modest standards of South America. It is in boom, but almost no one has a private automobile. The pollution tends to come from wood smoke, fireworks and most of all, poorly tuned diesel vehicles.

The government tried to raise fuel prices around New Years’. That would have given drivers of buses and trucks a financial incentive to replace old, poorly tuned vehicles. But the government did a lousy job of getting public support for the move ahead of time, instead trying to sneak the measure through over the summer holidays. Popular rejection was swift and brutal, led by the powerful bus drivers’ and truckers’ unions. The government soon backed off.

Then, over the past few weeks, there was another attempt to clear up the air and increase road safety by banning old buses. Owners, many of whom operate their own 15-seat minivans as the country’s primary mass transit system, would have seven years to replace any vehicle that is more than 12 years old. This time, the populace as a whole didn’t rise up in vast marches, but drivers threatened to go on strike and blockade all of the country’s roads. This was now two weeks ago. You didn’t hear about it because it didn’t happen — the government proposal was put on ice again.

There are a lot of causes of this current situation. The Bolivian government, like many, is not good at presenting controversial proposals to the public. And the mass transit owners seem to lack vision of how they could contribute to a better country. But these are both normal problems, ones that you might also find in San Francisco, Tokyo or Melbourne. So why has California, for example, managed to clean up its air over the last century, while Bolivia has so much trouble?

The question goes well beyond Bolivia, in fact. This whole series of “Why are my lungs burning” articles, with prior installments from Venezuela and Chile, are really about the same thing: Why does the air sort of suck in so much of Latin America? There are a lot of reasons, but what it may come down to is that the public doesn’t demand clean air, so they don’t get it.

First of all, there’s the old concept of the needs pyramid. When people are hungry, they don’t care as much about a bit of pollution. They just want a cracker (or a chuño). Second, most people in the world don’t travel internationally. If the only city you know is smoggy, you are likely to think that smog is just part of city life. Third, there is little education about lung health. Sure, there are a few anti-smoking messages, but it’s still permitted and expected to smoke indoors in Chile, and elsewhere in the region, while anti-smoking rules are being imposed, enforcement is weak.

While people may not value clean air all that much, the interest groups who want to pollute will do anything in the world to defend their right to continue doing so. In Bolivia, the bus drivers threatened to paralyze the country. In Chile, wood stoves keep on burning through the smoggy days, despite official prohibitions. (And the cops just keep tossing tear-gas canisters at marches of high-school students demanding low-interest student loans. Nice.) In Venezuela, PDVSA is the once and always dominant institution in the country, and there’s no question that it will keep doing as it pleases.

And Latin American governments, which could take leadership on these issues, are depressingly bad at public consultation. So what should be a straightforward policy move with widespread public support — like banning smog-belching buses — is just imposed, without discussion or meetings, and everyone gets pissed off at being bossed around. I used to get annoyed with the slow speed of U.S. democracy. I am coming to understand why slow and successful is better than speedy “revolutionary” moves that just instigate rebellion in the public.

This isn’t meant to be a pessimistic post. I suspect that the public can learn that asthma isn’t normal, that smog can be eliminated, and that healthy lungs just feel good. I think governments can, one way or another, learn to enact controversial measures without causing near-revolutions. If so, it will be just a matter of time before my lungs stop burning.

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One thought on “Why are my lungs burning (Part 4, La Paz edition)

  1. Kepler

    I wish you were right. But then: how many people are going to go abroad in the coming years?
    I was reading Africa, Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, and what I find there reminds me a lot to what I see in Venezuela. I know we have much more oil per head than Nigeria, we have other customs, we speak all the same language, etc. Still: the most dysfunctional states in Spanish America, countries like Venezuela or Guatemala and probably Bolivia, really share quite a lot of attitudes you find in Africa:
    what people get from the North people use until it collapses, without proper maintenance, and then one repairs it and repairs it until it cannot be repaired anymore. Polution is a huge problem in Africa in most places that have come in contact with technology, that have become urbanized.
    People went from producing local stuff that was almost always biodegradable (hammocks, chairs, clothes in the best case) to importing stuff they did not know how to deal with, so that now most of Spanish America and Africa has landfills with the technology of the XVIII century but for very poisonous products of the XXI century (that is specially the case in Venezuela).

    Those who do travel seem above all keen to bring ideas about fancy “intelligent” street lights, which they then import, or about new buses, which they also import.
    They are less keen in supporting the development of local technology.

    Finally: our governments consider their citizens idiots. As I always say: ignorance is quite widespread, but people are not more or less stupid than in Norway or Canada. You just have to explain the facts. You don’t do that with an annoucement. You need a plan and time, lots of precious time.
    You need to think beyond your term. You need to think about policies that can be supported when your political enemy is in power.

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