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Today is the third day of highway blockades in the Department of Oruro, the culmination of what is already 29 days of pressure backed the department’s Civic Committee and its labor federation (the Central Obrera Departamental of Oruro; COD). The form and schedule of the strike follows the standard Bolivian pattern: participants declared themselves on alert to press their demands, and have held 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour general strikes before proceeding to an indefinite period of pressure, which began on Monday. Road blockades are common means of ramping up pressure in the country, and in fact Oruro’s blockades coincide with blockades by peasants in La Paz department, neighborhood organizations in El Alto, and a municipal organization pursuing a border dispute outside the city of Cochabamba.
However, the topic of Oruro’s mobilization is quite unusual. Over four weeks of protests have been waged on what is a symbolic issue: the naming of the newly expanded airport (the expansion and new routes require it to be redesignated as an international airport). The pre-established name, Juan Mendoza Airport honored an aviation pioneer from the department. But on February 7, the region’s parliament chose to honor a different native son, President Evo Morales Ayma, by re-naming the airport after him. Surprise and discontent about the sudden renaming accompanied the airport’s re-opening the next day. The first strikes on the issue took place on February 27 and 28, endorsed by both the COD and the Civic Committee. Unions of miners (notably from the famous mines in Huanuni) and the ever-strident teachers have been vocal participants.
The conflict is particularly surprising given the strong and consistent backing from the region for President Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP) political party. The department gave 79.46% of its votes to the MAS-IPSP in the 2009 general elections, and all but one of its representatives in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly belong to the party. Evo Morales migrated with his family out of Oruro to the Chapare valley region in Cochabamba, but he is a highly respected native son. During the 2010 regional strike by Potosí, Oruro’s Civic Committee was one of the counterweights to a mobilization that was highly critical of the president.
Criticisms from the Civic Committee had already begun by last December, when the national government kicked off construction a museum of the “democratic and cultural revolution” in Morales’ hometown, the village of Orinoca, Oruro. Then, Civic Committee President Sonia Saavedra questioned the priorities for investment from national government funds:
We need projects that are truly icons for tourist development. I don’t deny the value of the museum that will be built in Orinoca, but we also would like to see that the things that are really necessary to be built are built. What should be more at hand is to ensure that people of the country and from abroad come and see the richness of our department. “Necesitamos proyectos que realmente sean íconos de desarrollo turismo, no desvaloro el museo que se va construir en Orinoca, pero también quisiéramos que se construyan los que realmente van a ser necesarios y están más a la mano para que venga gente del interior y exterior del país para que vean la riqueza de nuestro departamento”
Saavedra urged funds for the Museum in Oruro commemorating the city’s world-famous festival, and suggested that water and irrigation were more important priorities for Orinoca than a stadium with 8,000 seats for a town of 2,000 people.
The past month’s discontent has been met by a series of accusations from the departmental government, who have variously accused “a press bought by the right,” conspiratorial actors intending to produce a coup, and other figures as standing “behind” the campaign. However, many mobilization are attempted in Bolivia, while only a few reach this scale. To gain this level of adherence requires a real willingness of people to stay away from work and join in mass efforts at pressure. However surprising, there is little doubt that this willingness is genuine. Moreover, the region’s political leanings are not in doubt. Rejecting the accusations of right-wing ties, Orureño journalists issued a statement declaring:
We journalists have never been from the right, to the contrary we have always been of the left, but from the humble left, wich fights for justice and equality among all, for seriousness and responsibility; on the other hand, the supposed leftists are taking on the poses of the right: self-important, irrational, and unwilling to dialogue. “Los periodistas nunca hemos sido de derecha, más por el contrario, siempre hemos sido de izquierda, pero de la izquierda humilde, que lucha por la justicia, la igualdad entre todos, la seriedad y la responsabilidad; en cambio, los supuestos izquierdistas están asumiendo poses de la derecha, soberbios, irracionales y faltos de diálogo”
More recently, Saavedra rejected the renaming in this way: “It’s a servile act by the [departmental] Assembly members who want to erase the history of Oruro. Juan Mendoza was the first Bolivian pilot born in this land.” “Es una actitud servil de los asambleístas que quieren borrar la historia de Oruro. Juan Mendoza fue el primer piloto boliviano nacido en esta tierra.”
So the current strike can best be understood as an act of resistance to the symbolic centralization of power, and the beginnings of a personality cult emerging around the president. That this resistance is coming from his own home region reflects the critical and diverse currents that make up Bolivian political culture.
The president himself has tried to remain aloof from the conflict, noting that he had never asked for any public works to bear his name and urging Orureños to work out the conflict among themselves. However, as the conflict enters a second month, national officials have begun to disqualify participants in the protest, repeating local accusations, and suggesting that the preference for Mendoza over Morales has an anti-indigenous, racial component. The Observatorio on Racism reacted skeptically on twitter.
Several proposals have been floated to resolve the conflict, including referring the matter to the Constitutional Tribunal (there are legal restrictions on naming works after living people), naming the airport Juan Mendoza and the terminal after Evo Morales, and simply calling the place Oruro International Airport. Today, however, the strike goes on.
Update, January 11: It’s official. Bolivia’s stance has been accepted. Thirteen nations filed objections, far fewer than were needed to block Bolivia’s readmission: the United States, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, and Sweden.
The Bolivian government campaign to alter the international legal status of chewing coca leaves (a practice known locally as acullicu) is expected to take its first major step forward later this week. On that day, unless 63 other countries step forward to block the move, the country’s objection to including the practice as a form of narcotic drug use under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs will be accepted as a reservation to the treaty. In effect, the country will stand relieved of a treaty obligation to criminalize coca chewing (which theoretically was required by 1989). Coca chewing remains a widely accepted and legal practice in Bolivia, and coca growers are an important constituency, organized into two regional unions.
The logical and more consequential step would be to remove coca chewing from the convention altogether, but this requires a consensus of parties to the convention. (Removing coca chewing from the convention would not have resulted in its global legalization, but rather left in place national laws on the substance.) A Bolivian effort to do just that failed in 2011 when the United States and 17 other countries filed objections. Anthropologists in the United States, along with drug policy and Latin American policy advocates, had urged the Obama administration to avoid taking this stance, signing on to a letter that argued, “Coca chewing is central to the cultural identity of millions of indigenous Andean people, and has been for many centuries. Rejecting Bolivia’s amendment conflicts with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” This effort at persuasion fell on deaf ears.
Stymied in the broader effort, Bolivian diplomats began a new approach in June 2011. They moved to temporarily leave the convention—while promising to uphold its other requirements—and rejoin with a reservation concerning coca chewing. Their re-adherence was formalized in January 2012, and other parties had twelve months to file objections. That period runs out Thursday, January 10, 2013. Again, the Obama administration has raised a complaint, so far joined only by the United Kingdom, Italy, and Sweden. For Bolivia to not be accepted, this total must rise to 62 by Thursday.
So, a small diplomatic victory over the criminalization of coca chewing seems likely this week. Evo Morales announced that Peru, among other countries, may follow in Bolivia’s footsteps. Last year, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa called the criminalization “a genuine attack on collective rights and an insult to the ancestral peoples of Bolivia. un verdadero atentado a los derechos colectivos, insulto a los pueblos ancestrales bolivianos.” In Bolivia, a public celebration is planned for late this week.
On July 3, as participants in the Ninth National Indigenous March remained camped outside the Vice Presidency, the Bolivian government flew a set of 45 residents in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) to La Paz. Once there, they met with a group of government ministers on live television. The government accepted these 45 people as representatives of TIPNIS and signed an agreement with them authorizing a consultation process for July 29 to September 2 to approve the segment of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway that passes through TIPNIS. According to the government, these 45 people are Corregidores (a community-level office common among indigenous peoples of the region) conveying the assent of their communities. (Some coverage of the event: La Razón)
TIPNIS representatives rejected the proposed process of consultation in a March 2012 summit of Corregidores and have repeatedly stated their opposition to the construction of the road. The Subcentral TIPNIS, which holds collective title to the indigenous territory, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and many other observers (like Pablo Solón), have criticized the proposed consultation as deeply flawed. Many TIPNIS community members and CIDOB members walked 62 days to La Paz as part of the march to oppose the consultation, and they reacted with outrage to the agreement’s announcement. Meanwhile, CONISUR, a separate organization in the region that represents indigenous communities overrun and now intertwined with coca-growing settlers, has been openly advocating for the road and the new consultation process.
As with the recent maneuvers within CIDOB, which have created a parallel leadership vying for control of the organization, the orchestration of this new “agreement” raises major questions about government interference in the internal workings of grassroots organizations, and about the government’s commitment to make the process of informed consent both free and fair.
Alongside these questions of principle, however, are more troubling questions about who this group of TIPNIS community members are, which communities they represent, and how the government of Evo Morales won their assent to the consultation. While the specific facts of the matter are in sharp dispute, multiple accounts undermine the credibility of the government narrative around this agreement.
- The signatories include 18 representatives of CONISUR communities, located outside of the collective title that makes up the indigenous territory. Seven CONISUR communities were recognized as part of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park before, but had their titles divided into individual plots, leaving them outside of the Indigenous Territory. These 18 representatives seem to represent between 11 and 13 communities. (This point is made by Subcentral TIPNIS President Fernando Vargas here.) The government seems ready to treat 13 Conisur communities as part of the consultation, despite the dissent of its own Agrarian Reform Institute (the body charged with land titling in Bolivia). Source: Erbol.
- Fernando Vargas also testified that only about 20 of the 45 community members are in fact Corregidores recognized by their own communities, while others are merely hand-picked community members selected by the government.
- Those Corregidores signing in the agreement may have included both titulares (officeholders) and auxiliares or suplentes (alternates), most likely from the same communities. By the count of Benigno Noza, a Corregidor opposed to the road, there were just 18 officeholders among the group authorizing the consultation.
For these three reasons, government representations that “45 of the 63 communities” signed on to the consultation are lies, intended to deceive the media and the public about the situation in TIPNIS. The signers neither represent 45 communities, nor all they all from the 63 recognized communities within the collective title of the park, a number which excludes the CONISUR and coca-grower communities in Polygon 7, where farmers hold individual titles.
- Adolfo Moye, past president of the Subcentral TIPNIS has also raised grave questions about the way the meeting was organized. Basing his account on family connections (his father-in-law was one of the 45), Moye reported: “The government met them in San Pablo, it was a gathering place from which to transport them. Supposedly, the corregidores had to hand in their [local development] project proposals to the Vice-Ministry of the Environment, but once they there, it became know that they would have to travel to La Paz. But there was resistance, so then the deceptions began with the [threat] of losing their projects and their outboard motors. [El gobierno los reunió en San Pablo, fue un lugar de concentración para llevárselos. Supuestamente los corregidores tenían que entregar proyectos a una comisión del Viceministerio de Medioambiente, pero cuando se encontraron ahí se enteraron que tenían que trasladarse a La Paz. Pero hubo una resistencia, entonces comenzó los chantajes con la pérdida de los proyectos y los motores fuera de borda.]” Later, according to Moye’s account, the government provided its meeting of leaders with alcohol and flew them to La Paz. Moye also claimed that isolation and deception were used to gain support of these community members.
While I cannot verify the details of these claims, it seems obvious that repeating the Morales government’s claim about “45 communities” is taking part in an intentional deception.
It is also clear that the consultation agreement was not representative, and bypassed the local democratic process in TIPNIS. Let me quote Xavier Albó, a Jesuit, intellectual, and anthropologist who worked closely with indigenous movements and the Morales government in crafting Bolivia’s plurinational constitution, on this issue:
It is not evident to me whether the denunciation of Fernando Vargas, that just 18 or 20 of the 45 who signed the agreement with the government are genuine, is true or not. But, having watched on television that entire mediatic ceremony, and all that occurred in the following days, it is clear to methat we are still very far from fulfilling those minimal conditions that would render constitutional this (prior, or justified-after-the-fact) consultation. When Evo and his ministers travel time and again through TIPNIS, laden with gifts (perhaps suitable for [their] development even without a highway) but deliberately avoid speaking as equals with the leaders on the march, and rather denigrate them, what is left of the “good faith” which is necessary for any agreement? [No me consta si la denuncia de Fernando Vargas de que apenas 18 o 20 de los 45 que firmaron el acta con el gobierno son corregidores genuinos es o no real. Pero, habiendo visto por Tv toda aquella ceremonia mediática, y todo lo ocurrido en los días siguientes, sí me queda claro que estamos aún muy lejos de que se cumplan las condiciones mínimas que harían constitucional una consulta previa o de saneamiento posterior. Cuando Evo y sus ministros viajan una y otra vez por el TIPNIS, llenos de regalos (tal vez idóneos para un desarrollo incluso sin carretera) pero deliberadamente evitan hablar de igual a igual con esos dirigentes marchistas y más bien los denigran, ¿en qué queda la “buena fe” indispensable para cualquier concertación?] (“¿Consulta o cooptación en el TIPNIS?”)
As the Bolivian government sat down with CONISUR in La Paz, there was a crucial missing party: the Subcentral TIPNIS, the titleholder to the collective lands that make up all of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory except for the colonized Polygon 7. The Bolivian government was unwilling to formally exclude the Subcentral and its national parent organization, CIDOB, but instead invited it to send representatives within 48 hours (CIDOB did offer to meet in Trinidad, in 20 days). The Subcentral’s absence from these negotiations is perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of the latest turn of this kaleidoscopic conflict, but it has a simple, practical explanation.
While CONISUR marchers advanced towards La Paz, the Subcentral TIPNIS and CIDOB were on their own tours through the communities of the National Park. One delegation headed by CIDOB President Adolfo Chávez travelled the Isiboro River; a second, headed by Subcentral President Fernando Vargas visited communities on the Ochoa River; and a third went along the Sécure River. Last week they made a preliminary report that 32 of the communities they visited were firmly against the proposed Cochabamba–Beni highway crossing through TIPNIS, three others supported the road, while Oromono and Ushve, located in the north section of the territory were divided on the issue. The Subcentral-CIDOB tours also are laying the groundwork for a new national march (CIDOB’s Ninth National March) in protest of the highway. Fernado Vargas reported that there are 31 communities left to visit, eight of which are in the colonized southern region.
The results so far refute claims by the MAS government that CIDOB and the Subcentral lack contact with base communities, and far surpass the government’s assertion that they represent just 20 of the 64 communities in TIPNIS. The logistical coordinator of last year’s march has also confirmed that residents of 64 communities participated in the long trek to La Paz, although some may have joined after the march’s departure from Trinidad due to organizational difficulties. The results are also consistent with radio-transmitted interviews with TIPNIS communities conducted by the Erbol community radio network following the passage of Law 222.
The logistics of this poll are also a reminder of the existing methods of transport inside of TIPNIS and of the pace required for a comprehensive consultation of its communities on anything. River transport is the predominant form of contact between TIPNIS communities, one which is adapted to the landscape and geographic placement of communities. While proponents of the interdepartmental road have suggested that access to health, education, and development will come from ending TIPNIS communities’ isolation, the road will not in fact reach most communities directly. Indeed, when the pro-road CONISUR marchers met with Evo Morales, [he rebuffed their requests for local branch roads] that will connect their communities to the highway, citing a lack of funds. Accessible health care and education require not a highway (which will also bring deforestation and increased narcotrafficking), but meaningful state investment in facilities that are accessible by the TIPNIS indigenous’ own highways, the rivers that flow through the Territory.
Update, March 4: The Bolivian Highway Administration’s (ABC) recent call for a “technical debate” on the highway route makes for headlines that sound like this impasse might clear. But the framing continues to exclude all of the meaningful alternatives presented here. ABC administrator José King continues to discuss alternatives for only Segment Two of the highway, between Isinuta and Monte Grande. Isinuta is on the southern boundary of the park (!). (ABC’s map with these cities is here) Of course, he can then insist that other alternatives that start from Isinuta cut through more forest than the proposed route. Meanwhile, despite eight months of demands to suspend construction, ABC continues to build Segments One and Three of the road (the pause, reported here, seem to have been resolved by mid-February). Until that construction stops, the only sensible read of the situation is that the Bolivian government has no intention of consulting the indigenous on the overall route of the road.
This map, produced by Cochabamba daily newspaper Los Tiempos, is the most important omission from the new round of debate on TIPNIS. It was reposted yesterday by Bolivia’s highly respected former Ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón (@pablosolon). The map shows shows four options to the currently under-construction route that will divide the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park in half, and which is protected to accelerate deforestation in the park, leaving 64% of it deforested within 20 years.
Nowhere in the recent debate has the government put these options on the table. The Prior Consultation law, formally promulgated by Evo Morales this week, does not allow a regional discussion on these other paths. Why is the government maintaining such silence? Why is it not interested in other routes? There are three possible reasons: 1. The ink is dry on a the loan-and-construction contracts with Brazil, so the government would prefer to avoid any further complications. 2. Close allies of the government in the cocalero movement will benefit from the soon-to-be-deforested land made accessible by the road, and from a second illicit export route in a way they would not from the alternate routes. 3. The government wants to illustrate that head-on opposition from grassroots groups will not change its policies on economic planning, and so is being rigidly inflexible on re-routing the road outside of TIPNIS.
Solón and TIPNIS communities have both vocally called for alternatives to be placed on the table. It remains to be seen how much mobilization will be required for this to happen.