Exploring energy justice in rural Bolivia : a thesis prepared in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Environmental Management at Massey University, New Zealand

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Great progress has been made in improving energy access in Bolivia during the last four decades. However, rural areas, where grid solutions are not tenable, still pose challenges for the goal of achieving universal energy access. Although decentralized renewable energy solutions (DRES) are being deployed in rural areas, not all the benefits expected from energy access are materializing. In many instances the benefits of DRES are inequitable relative to grid solutions, and in some cases, they bring unwanted social impacts. Research shows that socio-cultural, economic and political issues, as well as the individual values and beliefs of users regarding energy services, nuance and mediate development benefits. Therefore, policies focused on targeting off-grid rural energy access need to reflect on and engage with the specific context and needs of rural communities. Energy justice offers a valuable conceptual framework to explore energy systems from the perspective of social justice. It encompasses three key tenets: distributive justice, procedural justice and recognition justice. Drawing upon a bespoke conceptual framework based on the two mainstream approaches to studying energy justice, this thesis uses argumentative discourse analysis to explore the discourse underpinning Bolivia’s rural energy policy. Five key public policy documents relating to rural energy access in Bolivia were identified and analyzed and eleven in-depth semi-structured interviews were carried out with key stakeholders within the Bolivian energy sector including representatives from the government, academia, private energy suppliers, non-government organizations and international cooperation entities. Findings show that while Bolivia’s national policy framework for off-grid energy access echoes global narratives relating to energy justice, it is underpinned by its own unique discourse framing Bolivia’s efforts to achieve universal energy access. This discourse is characterized by three key elements. First, a distributive a principle of universalization to deploy modern energy services across rural areas supported by a meaningful framing strategy. Second, two parallel coalitions built around electricity and clean cooking fuels and technology (CCFT) and other energy requirements position the government at the forefront of the energy access challenge and introduce the environment as a non-human actor within the energy sector. Thirdly, an epistemological approach of development based on the indigenous philosophy Vivir Bien that calls for an ecosystemic perspective to conceptualize the instrumental value of modern energy services. However, several inconsistencies constrain Bolivia’s capacity to achieve its goal of universal energy access by 2025. These issues include (1) policy vagueness and an undefined distributive rationale to deploy energy as a basic service and reallocate socio-economic and environmental benefits from energy access; (2) constraints on meaningful participation and power imbalances within the procedural arrangements of Bolivia’s energy policy framework; and (3) lack of recognition of energy requirements across different cultural and socio-economic identities within rural populations related to political strategies stemming from the ideology of the incumbent political regime. Three groups of possible measures to address these issues are proposed. First, it is argued that the distributive rationale could be strengthened by using qualitative and quantitative benchmarks; standardizing strategies to better engage with the potential reallocation of socio-economic and environmental benefits; and developing broader policy instruments to achieve universal energy access in rural areas. Second, procedural arrangements should focus on sectorial capacity building to establish new sites of argumentation and explore alternatives to broaden the current governance structure. Finally, the rationale of recognition justice within the policy framework could be strengthened by exploring typologies of individual users of energy to design more targeted policies, considering the potential of traditional forms of economic organization and exploring cultural figures related to Community Justice to lead the local governance arrangements around energy access.
Figures are re-used under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution licenses, except for Figure 3.10 (=Panwar et al., 202 Fig 3), which was removed for copyright reasons.