Bolivian President Evo Morales' favorite cause-célèbre has always been coca the small leaf that is a key element of Andean culture and is central to cocaine production. But recently, he's seemed more keen to stump on behalf of Mother Earth, chastising the developed world's lamentable environmental track record and vowing to lead the planet toward a more sustainable future. Last week, his government made history when the U.N. voted unanimously to accept Bolivia's proposal to make water a human right. "In the hands of capitalism everything becomes a commodity: the water, the soil, the ancestral cultures and life itself," Morales wrote in a 2008 open letter on climate change. "Humankind is capable of saving the earth if we recover the principles of solidarity, complementarity and harmony with nature."
Yet in his own backyard, Morales isn't looking so eco-valiant. Indeed, a series of environmentally disruptive development projects have many critics claiming that the leader of South America's poorest nation is more talk than walk when it comes to the fragile planet earth. "Morales' environmental crusade feels like just a show," says Adolfo Moya, president of TIPNIS, an indigenous community located within Bolivia's Isiboro-Sécure National Park, where construction is about to begin on a highway that will cut through the heart of protected area.
The government insists projects like the one through Isiboro-Sécure must be done. The number of paved highways in Bolivia can be counted on one hand. Furthermore, the Morales administration says that the 300-km road that runs through the preserve will connect the states of Beni and Cochabamba and is necessary to enhance goods transport between the regions. Currently getting from one side to the other means driving three times as far through the eastern state of Santa Cruz.
But Isiboro-Sécure is home to numerous unique flora and fauna species, including 11 endangered animals. Meanwhile, TIPNIS is the last remaining territory where Moya's ethnic Mojene people live in relative cultural isolation. Thus, the highway has provoked outrage and protests that have already claimed two lives. "We know we need development," Moya says, "but it shouldn't have to lead to extinction."
The highway isn't Bolivia's only eco-controversy. Morales has become a recent cheerleader for the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) a bold new effort by area governments to construct a continent-wide infrastructure network that includes roads, waterways, ports and energy and communications projects. Bolivia's got more than a dozen on the table, and while each offers needed services for the country's rural impoverished majority, the costs are worrisome.
"I don't want to say I'm for it, and I don't want to say I'm against it," says Alvaro Martinez, of an IIRSA hydroelectric plant planned for his tiny Amazon-basin town of Cachuela Esperanza on the banks of the Beni River. Martinez and his neighbors currently rely on a decrepit yet costly oil generator that only provides electricity for a few hours daily. So they are thrilled that their plentiful river could give them light all day long. But, he says, their small dam is conditioned on Bolivia having acquiesced to Brazil's construction of two immense hydroelectric dams on the Madeira River less than 160 km from the Bolivian border. The $13 billion pair will be three times as powerful as the Hoover Dam in the U.S. and will provide 8% of Brazil's total energy needs. But environmental-watchdog groups are forewarning the projects will be Brazil's equivalent to China's Three Gorges Dam: environmental-impact assessments show that the dams risk the survival of rare dolphin and fish species and could flood the entire northern Bolivian Amazon basin, displacing Martinez's town, among others.
Equally unsettling for many there is Bolivia's economic reliance on extractive industry. Morales chides the prosperous nations of the developed world for their fossil-fuel addiction and reticence toward capping carbon emissions, but Bolivia benefits greatly from the sale of those raw materials: 13% of its GDP comes from the gas and mining industries. The government did not respond to TIME's requests for comment, but when questioned on this seeming paradox by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman during the alternative Climate Summit that Bolivia hosted in April, Morales responded, "[Environmental groups] say, 'Amazon, no oil.' So they're telling me that I should shut down oil wells and gas wells. What is Bolivia going to live off? Let's be realistic."
Morales' officials often combine this pragmatism with a nationalist twist emphasizing the difference between an oil rig that fills national coffers and one that fills the pockets of foreign corporate executives. Indeed, increased revenue from Morales' nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector in 2006 has been funneled into stipends for school-age children to buy books and uniforms, as well as adult literacy programs and support for pregnant women. But that doesn't mean the government should be expanding its reliance on environmentally damaging industries, says Rafael Quispe, president of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, a powerful coalition of highland indigenous-community leaders. "We want a moratorium on all new extractive projects," Quispe tells TIME, lamenting that the Bolivian government's 2011 economic plan includes increased oil exploration, mining and gas production. "We need to be thinking about models of development that respect Mother Earth rather than continuing along the same path," Quispe says.
On an international stage, Morales agrees, and not all hope is lost on the home front, says Jenny Gruenberger, executive director of Bolivia's Environmental Defense League. "Our new constitution establishes a basis for this kind of alternative thinking," she says, explaining that the government is now supposed to evaluate development projects through a lens of vivir bien, or "living well" a jab at what's seen as the industrialized world's preference for vivir mejor, or "living better," via unlimited consumption and economic expansion at all costs. The idea is to balance environmental, social, cultural and economic considerations instead of using a normal cost-benefit analysis. "The Isiboro-Sécure could be a vivir bien pilot project," says Gruenberger, noting that there are dozens of ideas that link the two regions that offer greater environmental and cultural harmony, like a train above the forest canopy.
If so, the will to pursue alternatives to paving over large tracts of forest remains elusive. Until last week, Juan Pablo Ramos was Morales' longest-standing highest environmental authority. But Ramos tells TIME that he resigned from his Vice Minister of the Environment post "out of conscience," leaving an unsigned environmental license for the Isiboro-Sécure highway on his desk on the way out. Ramos says he remains hopeful that the Morales government's international environmental leadership is more than just talk. But, he says, "we are in a time of great threats. We finally have the entire world discussing how to move forward sustainably, and it's on all of us to keep the pressure on Morales and all world leaders to make this happen."