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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.

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves

A giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves built during January 2011 protest in support of global legalization of coca chewing

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.

In a very busy Wednesday, Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal struck down a longstanding law criminalizing “contempt” toward public officials and limited the scope of an anti-corruption law; rounding out the court’s surge into the headlines, justice Gualberto Cusi made biting comments on the government’s failure to abide by the court’s ruling on the TIPNIS consultation.

Contempt law ruled unconstitutional: The Tribunal found, in Judicial Ruling 1250/2012, that the law prohibiting contempt (“desacato” ) towards senior public officials through defamation is an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of expression. The court advised public officials that they may use civil court procedures to deal with slander, and nullified the law in its entirety. Numerous opposition figures, including the center-left Mayor of La Paz, Luis (Lucho) Revilla, and the right-wing Governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, have been indicted under this very broad statute following complaints from the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.

The “Marcelo Andrés Santa Cruz” Anti-corruption Law cannot be applied retroactively: In the first legislative session under the new Constitution, the Movement Towards Socialism supermajority wasted no time in approving a new law criminalizing corruption. The law allows for severe penalties against officials who took bribes or other compensation to change policies. It was designed to give the government room to revise contracts and licenses approved under improper influence, and to recover fortunes which had been pilfered from the government. However, it was also referred to as the “Guillotine Law” (including by the Vice President) for its ability to end the political careers of past government officials. On Wednesday, the court sharply limited this aspect, finding that the law may not be applied retroactively “when the sanction [it imposes] is more severe or the act being judged would not have constituted a crime when it was carried out.”

Gualberto Cusi speaks out on TIPNIS: The Constitutional Tribunal had already ruled on the TIPNIS consultation, insisting that any process establishing the will of the communities in the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory about the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would cut through the region and accelerate already serious deforestation, must occur in a mutually agreed framework. Justice Gualberto Cusi—the judge who received the most votes in last year’s judicial election—denounced the current consultation process as a “disaster” that violates the indigenous inhabitants’ rights. Further, the justice suggested that the TIPNIS indigenous may need to look outside Bolivia for protection of their rights: “I believe that in Bolivia, no[, nothing can be done.] It will have to be the indigenous who appeal these acts to international tribunals. Yo creo que en Bolivia no (se puede hacer algo), tendrán que ser los indígenas quienes apelen a estos hechos en tribunales internacionales.” The most likely forum for international appeals is the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which has been a pathbreaking forum for indigenous rights.

None of these rulings would be particularly exceptional for a high court around the world, but this particular high court is in its first year, and came out of a controversial nominating and election process which was boycotted by multiple opposition forces. For it to strike down major laws embraced by the governing party and publicly embrace human rights standards around freedom of expression, indigenous consultation, and ex post facto laws makes this something* of a Marbury v. Madison moment for the new court.

* The analogy is inexact since a Constitutional Tribunal began operation in 1999.

  • Please forgive the past three months of quiet on this blog. My April and May were filled with organizing around May Day and the Free University in New York City. June saw a succession of alternately joyous and traumatic personal events. Through it all, I’ve been microblogging at @CarwilJ on Twitter; so please turn there for updates.
  • On two of this blog’s central fixations, Bolivian indigenous movements and contentious protests, this months have been anything but silent in the real world. It would be futile to try to summarize the past 90 days, but you might want to turn to these excellent English-language sources: Andean Information Network on the May protest wave (1 | 2) and on the police protests-turned-mutiny: May 30 | June 25. A compilation of coverage of the Ninth Indigenous March and the TIPNIS conflict is at Dario Kenner’s Bolivia Diary. The blog’s own articles on TIPNIS often provide a great deal of depth.

If there is one defining new aspect of Bolivian political protest in Evo Morales’ second term (since January 2010), it has been counter-mobilization. With the political right thoroughly defeated, many tensions emerged within the grand coalition of social movements that lent their votes and their marching feet to defend the government for the previous four years. When these groups took to the streets (or, as often happens, took over and shut down the streets) with demands that were unpalatable the government, one way for the Morales administration to resist has been to mobilize other sectors in return. Counter-mobilization within the grassroots is sometimes successful, and sometimes only delays negotiations and concession, but it always comes with a price, damaging previous alliances and increasing distrust among former allies.

Since last October’s Eighth National Indigenous March won a law prohibiting construction of the locally-opposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway through the Isiboro–Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, the Morales government has shifted counter-mobilization into high gear on this issue. From December to February, the organization CONISUR—consisting of the now vastly outnumbered indigenous residents of Polygon 7, an area of TIPNIS colonized for coca—led its own march for the highway. Morales conceded to this march a new consultation process, which the Subcentral TIPNIS opposes. In the process, it became clear that CONISUR communities are themselves engaged in coca growing on private plots of land; the organization affiliated itself with the Six Federations of coca growers and was expelled from the lowland indigenous confederation CIDOB.

In March, local TIPNIS organizations rejected the “prior” consultation and began preparations with CIDOB and the highland traditionalist movement CONAMAQ for a Ninth National Indigenous March, in defense of TIPNIS and advancing other indigenous demands. The government began conceding local demands to regional indigenous organizations in April in a bid to lessen support for the march. Indigenous solidarity and the need to advance local agendas for territory, rights, and material support have been put at odds during this process. Still, of the eleven or twelve regionals that signed agreements, just five distanced themselves from the march (count per Emily Achtenberg) and some of their prominent leaders marched anyway.

Since the march began, however, divisions within the CIDOB umbrella have deepened into an institutional crisis. Led most visibly by Rosendo Alpiri, president of Central de Pueblos Étnicos de Santa Cruz (CPESC, the regional organization for Santa Cruz department), leaders who stayed at home during the march have begun a contest for power over CIDOB. In early June, nine regional leaders met and officially suspended CIDOB President Adolfo Chávez. Chávez deemed the meeting illegitimate and CIDOB Vice President Nelly Romero accused the government of intervening in CIDOB’s affairs.

This week, with over 1200 CIDOB and CONAMAQ marchers still encamped in La Paz, the pro-government CIDOB dissidents have begun a Grand National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples (GANPI), a congress that is traditionally the highest decisionmaking body in the organization. The Asssembly of the Guaraní People and the Indigenous Organization of Chiquitanos are both boycotting the gathering. Early signs indicate that the Assembly will fully adopt the government agenda: reintegrate CONISUR and its leader Gumercindo Pradel into the organization, and (one presumes) accept the government’s proposal for consultation in TIPNIS. Meanwhile, Adolfo Chávez and the camped marchers also continue to act as CIDOB. (Mass marches are a longstanding CIDOB tradition, and involve creating a self-organizing community that essentially represents the organization for the period of the march.) Chávez himself returned to Santa Cruz this week and (according to Santa Cruz daily El Día) is currently occupying his own headquarters along with a group of followers. Rosendo Alpiri pledges to install the new leadership in the headquarters and has invited President Morales to attend.

So, as of this week there will be a “new CIDOB” and an old one. Right on cue, the Morales government has demanded that the new CIDOB as well as CONISUR be present in any new negotiations with TIPNIS leaders. The government invitation to dialogue now extends to TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas and Ninth March leader Bertha Bejarano, both of whom have voiced outrage at the recent maneuvers within CIDOB. As Bejarano puts it: The new Grand National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples “is not organic [i.e., representative of the organization] and is a response to the government’s intention to create parallel organizatins and disregard the organic structure of the principal indigenous organization in the country, for entirely political reasons: seeking to construct a highway through TIPNIS and destroy the largest ecological reserve in the country [es inorgánico  y responde a la intención gubernamental de crear organizaciones paralelas y desconocer la estructura orgánica de la principal organización indígena del país para fines enteramente políticos que buscan construir una carretera por el Tipnis y destruir la mayor reserva ecológica del país].”

It’s one thing to deploy a strategy of countermobilization when two groups have very different interests around an issue. For example, it’s no surprise that coca growers who hope to expand their plots into the Isiboro-Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory along the highly disputed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway have marched in support of it.  It’s something very different when countermobilization takes the form of attempting to split, or even break up organizations, bringing down any leader who challenges the government line. When governments stop taking seriously the independence of social movement organizations and instead demand that movement leaders toe the government line, you no longer have what Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera promised would be “a government of social movements.” Instead, you have a corporatist system, a return to the days when presidents like Hugo Banzer headed the national peasant organization and essentially negotiated with themselves.

The tactics for outside control of grassroots organizations are such a big issue that protections against them are written into international indigenous rights standards. The right to “free, prior, and informed consent” by indigenous peoples over projects and  policies that affect them and their territories requires that indigenous peoples’ own freely chosen institutions be the vehicle for that consent. To waver from this requirement, to “persuade” with large gifts, to station troops within communities, or to implant leaders chosen from outside, invalidates the “free”-ness of any consultation process. (Those of us who have been involved in indigenous solidarity for a long time have seen this strategy deployed by governments hostile to indigenous rights and resource extraction companies seeking local cover for their projects. For a detailed example, it’s worth reading about how oil giant ARCO helped to create the indigenous organization DICIP when it grew tired of being criticized by the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, OPIP, in Suzana Sawyer’s book Crude Chronicles.) Unfortunately, tragically, the Evo Morales government, which has long identified with indigenous peoples, is now deploying every one of these tactics in the TIPNIS conflict.

Following the arrival of the CONISUR march in La Paz, the governing MAS party shifted its public position towards being an arbiter between indigenous groups in TIPNIS. After welcoming CONISUR march, President Evo Morales and MAS legislative leaders backed away from CONISUR’s proposal to simply revoke Law 180 protecting TIPNIS. Instead, they coalesced around a new legislative initiative: a “prior consultation” law on the issue.

Prior consultation is a fundamental principle of indigenous rights, and an important part of the environmental review process. In the case of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway, currently under construction, consultation with indigenous communities has been anything but prior. Indeed, no consultation was pursued at all on Segments I and III of the highway, despite some complaints from the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory I, which is crossed by Segment III. Negative environmental reviews were avoided by the firing of Vice-Minister of the Environmental Juan Pablo Ramos in 2010, and the official responsible for TIPNIS in the National Protected Area Service, Vladimir Ortolini, in October 2011.

Now with Segments I, III, and a small portion of Segment II under construction, the government proposes a public consulatation with indigenous peoples inside of TIPNIS. The consultation is to be authorized under a new law, which has already passed the Senate and has been reviewed without change by the Chamber of Deputies’ Constitution Committee. The consultation will be organized by the independent electoral branch of the Bolivian government, be conducted under the norms and procedures of indigenous governance, and take place in five languages. The issues at hand are:

  • “Consideration and definition of whether the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park is an intangible zone, and about the construction of the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway.” Consideración y definición sobre si el Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure – TIPNIS, es zona intangible o no, y sobre la construcción de la carretera Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos;
  • “Consideration and decision concerning the safeguard measures for protecting the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, as well as those measures to prohibit and remove immediately illegal settlements within the demarcating line, and to determine the measures to maintain the zoning specified in the TIPNIS management plan.” Consideración y decisión sobre las medidas de salvaguarda para la protección del Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure – TIPNIS, así como las destinadas a la prohibición y desalojo inmediato de asentamientos ilegales, dentro de lal ínea demarcatoria, y determinar los mecanismos para mantener la zonificación establecida en el Plan de Manejo del TIPNIS.

In effect, this gives TIPNIS indigenous communities, from the Subcentral and CONISUR a round of consultation, lasting up to 120 days. There have been no statements offering to suspend construction during this time. These issues are precisely those addressed by last October’s Law 180, and agreed between the Subcentral and the government in late November. Apparently, that agreement will go unimplemented.

Evaluations of the law

The proposed consultation has been widely critiqued for its timing, which clearly is not prior to the project in question. The Andean Information Network argues that this model for consultation is “potentially viable,” but comes too late for TIPNIS where “it is improbable that this initiative will alleviate tensions or resolve protracted friction.”

The Subcentral TIPNIS and CIDOB are not impressed by this new consultation, and are preparing to re-mobilize should it pass. Yolanda Herrera, president of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights in Bolivia; the Bolivian Forum on the Enviornment; and Adolfo Moye of the Subcentral have all spoken out against the proposed law. Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena warned that the “unilateral” drafting of the law would “increase the resulting divisions within the lowland indigenous movement and affect its unity and strength, as well as [unleash] a series of probable conflicts at the national level” “aumentar los eventuales desencuentros al interior del movimiento indígena de tierras bajas y afectar su unidad y fortaleza, además de una serie de probables conflictos a nivel nacional.”

Left by the wayside again are alternate proposals for the highway route. As has been noted here before, leaving Segments I and III in their current locations makes a deforestation-inducing route through TIPNIS inevitable. However, numerous engineering groups have proposed alternate routes for a Cochabamba–Beni highway, and will do so again tonight in La Paz (webcasted, even). In the US context, where environmental impact assessment (but not prior consultation) has long been a required part of every “major Federal action” (under the National Environmental Policy Act), the presentation of genuine alternatives is the required first step for meaningful assessment. Bolivia would do well to follow that model.

Six indigenous deputies in Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly stepped forward today to form an Indigenous Bloc (bancada indígena) within the parliament. The bloc consists of Deputies Justino Leaños (Potosí, alternate), Blanca Cartagena (La Paz, alternate), Teresa Nominé (Santa Cruz, alternate), Pedro Nuni (Beni), Bienvenido Zacu (Guarayo people, Santa Cruz), and Cristina Valeroso (Guaraní people, Tarija, alternate). [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that Julio Cortez (Pando) and Bertha Ramallo (Pando, alternate), special indigenous constituency deputies who had affiliated with the right-wing Progress for Bolivia Plan-National Convergence bloc have also affiliated. Initial reports have some discrepancies: La Razón does not include Leaños, while Los Tiempos omits Teresa Nomine. A final count may require a couple days. Página Siete adds Sonia Justiniano (Beni, alternate) and confirms all nine listed here: 3 voting members and six alternates.] The move, endorsed by the National Commission of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), followed a series of announcements since the late September raid on the national indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS.

All members in today’s announcement except Justino Leaños represent special indigenous constituencies and were chosen by community procedures rather than elected to represent the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party. Pedro Nuny, who will lead the bloc, emphasized this allegiance yesterday: “Nos debemos a la CIDOB, por ellos estamos en la Asamblea Plurinacional y si nos ordena votar en contra del gobierno, lo haremos, haremos todo lo que esté a nuestro alcance para proteger nuestros derechos, en especial el territorio indígena” “Our obligation is to CIDOB, it si on their behalf that we are in the Plurinational Assembly and if they order us to vote against the government, we will do that, we will do everything within in our reach to protect our rights, and especially indigenous territory.” (Opinión, 17 January)

Nonetheless, their separation from the MAS has been the most controversial aspect of the move. Indeed, at today’s press conference, the degree of separation to be expected depended on the leader speaking. The following are the disparate statements made:

Adolfo Chávez, President of CIDOB: “Tendrán una responsabilidad de asumir una bancada indígena al interior del seno del Movimiento al Socialismo que significa que no tienen la obligación de abandonar el curul tal como lo habían señalado muchos diputados del oficialismo, ya es una decisión que el diputado Pedro Nuni sea quien asuma la jefatura de bancada de los indígenas.” “They will have the responsibility of becoming an indigenous bloc inside the heart of the Movement towards Socialism, meaning that they are not obliged to abandon their seats as many governing party deputies have signalled. It has already been decided that Deputy Pedro Nuni will assume the leadership of the indigenous bloc.” (Los Tiempos)

“Nuestros hermanos diputados asumen esta gran responsabilidad para hacer cumplir los derechos que corresponden para los pueblos indígenas” “Our deputy brothers and sisters are taking on the great responsibility of ensuring that the rights which belong to indigenous peoples are fulfilled.” (El Día)

Deputy Pedro Nuni, President of the Indigenous Bloc: “Si nos reconoce o no la Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional es otra cosa, pero nosotros trabajaremos y no seremos parte de los 2/3 del oficialismo, porque muchas veces somos objetos de manipulación.” “Whether the Plurinational Legislative Assembly recognizes us or not is another matter, but we will do our work and we will not be part of the governing party’s two-thirds majority, beacuse many times we are objects of [their] manipulation.” (El Día)

The issue of a two-thirds majority has been a prominent issue for press discussions on the Indigenous Bloc. The MAS won 88 of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in December 2009, and has 26 of 36 Senators. However, four La Paz deputies belong to members of the Without Fear Movement (MSM) which ran in alliance with the MAS, but declared its independence in 2010. The Indigenous Bloc subtracts three more voting members from the MAS, leaving them with 82 deputies, or 63% of the lower house, and pushing them below two-thirds of the entire Assembly.

The two-thirds threshold was the subject of an extended controversy in the Constituent Assembly of 2006–2007, but it’s unclear how effective a one-third minority will be in stopping legislation. [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that a 2/3 majority is required both for impeachment and for the approval or modification of laws.] However, indigeneity is a central value of the process of change in Bolivia, and this is one more step that questions whether the MAS is the true standard bearer of that process.

What just happened?
(a capsule summary)

The 500-km (300-mile) indigenous march to preserve Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) was held back for the week of September 20-25 by Bolivian police and a blockade set up by agrarian colonists loyal to the MAS government. Tensions rose as police turned back supplies for the march and indigenous women in the march compelled government negotiator David Choquehuanca to walk with the marchers through the police blockade on Saturday, September 24. Then, on Sunday, September 25, police launched a sudden and violent attack on the hundreds of marchers. The police use of tear gas, baton blows, zip ties and adhesive tape against an intergenerational cross-section of the indigenous movement, and direct targeting of its leadership sent shock waves through the political system. On Monday, three things were in rapid motion: the still-unconfirmed reports of deaths during the raid; some 300 marchers-turned-prisoners the government was attempting to fly out of the region; and a growing sense of outrage at the Evo Morales government for carrying out the attack. Rapidly organized protests by indigenous people and town-dwellers in Rurrenabaque compelled the police to release the arrested marchers before they could be flown out. Meanwhile, protests spread across the country and attracted support from all parts of the political spectrum, including the Defense Minister and figures who had been loyal allies of Morales.

Criticism of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, planned to run through the ecological heart of TIPNIS, was reinforced by major voices this week, even as an international petition by Avaaz sped towards a half-million signature goal. Solidarity protests with TIPNIS were held in nine cities of Bolivia and across the department of Beni, where the raid occurred. On Wednesday, the national labor confederation held a general strike in solidarity with TIPNIS, among numerous other moves in support of the indigenous march.

Most dramatically, the hundreds of marchers bused by the police to Rurrenabaque have reunited with those dispersed during the raid. Together, they re-started the march at 7:00am on Saturday, October 1, less than a week after the raid. Their destination continues to be La Paz.

However, despite President Evo Morales’ apology for the raid, his government continues to support the proposed road. Government announcements that road construction is suspended remain unconfirmed on the ground, while we learned this week that construction of the road inside TIPNIS is well underway. Morales’ pre-raid Sunday morning proposal to hold a referendum on the highway for all residents of Cochabamba and Beni departments is not even close to “indigenous consultation,” much less “free, prior, and informed consent” by the indigenous communities directly affected by the route. Despite the upheavals of past week, Evo Morales and the MAS party remain committed to defeating opposition to this road project, and to avoiding a precedent for a local veto over infrastructure projects. To buttress this position, they are continuing to rally loyal supporters (primarily colono federations, but also some peasant unions) to upcoming marches in Cochabamba and La Paz departments. The possibility of direct confrontation between supporters and opponents of the road (or equivalently, critics of, and loyalists to Evo Morales), or further violent police action “to avoid confrontations” continues to loom large.

While outgoing Peruvian President Alan García’s government negotiated major concessions to Aymara and Quechua protesters who led a 50-day regional strike against polluting mines, he didn’t back down in his rhetoric attacking the value they place on the land. Here’s an English translation of a widely circulating video of García accusing mining opponents of being absurd, uneducated, and backward:

And thirdly, to defeat the absurd pantheist ideologies that believe that the walls are gods and the air is a god. In the end, to return to such primitive forms of religiosity where one is told, “don’t touch this hill because it is an Apu and is filled with millennia-old spirit,” and who knows what else. Well, if we reach that point, we wouldn’t do anything, much less mining. Don’t touch those fish because they are creatures of god and expressions of the god Poseidon. We would return to this, let’s say, primitive animism. Right? I think that we need more education [of these people], but that is long-term work that just can’t be fixed right away.

You can go to whatever place where the population in good faith and in accordance with their education says “No! Don’t touch this here which is our sanctuary,” and one asks of what is this sanctuary, right? If it’s a sanctuary for the environment, fine and good! If it’s a sanctuary because here are the souls of the ancestors, watch out! The souls of the ancestors are surely in paradise; they’re not here! And let them allow you who are alive today to feed yourself and have work through the investment in those hills.

The wave of anti-mining protests in the Puno Region of Peru reached day 50 today. Yesterday, June 24, was a particularly dramatic day, however: the Peruvian government announced that it will annul the mining concession for the proposed Santa Ana silver mine in Huacullani District, near the Bolivian border southeast of Puno; other protesters took over the Manco Capac airport in Juliaca, north of Puno, only to be shot with live ammunition by police. These were both very important events in the seven-week-long protests. But they were also the two kinds of events that the English-language press steps in to cover: economic loss to Western corporations and deadly violence. If it bleeds, it leads is a key phrase for journalism, but if it bites the bottom line, it makes the business pages is just as important.

Unfortunately, the coincidence of these two newsworthy events led a string of English-language outlets to treat one as causing the other. In fact, there is quite a bit of separation: the Santa Ana mine was the lead issue for the primarily Natural Resources Defense Front of the Southern Zone of Puno (Frente de Defensa de los Recursos Naturales de la Zona Sur de Puno), which joined forces with National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affeted by Mining (Spanish: Confederación Nacional de Comunidades del Perú Afectadas por la Minería; Conami). The Defense Front, a predominantly Aymara organization, is based near the border and had organized an earlier regional general strike against the Santa Ana Mine in April. It joined forces with the largely Quechua Conami for a larger regional protest from May 7 to June 1. When protests resumed after the victory of Ollanta Humala, new forces got involved, many but not all also concerned with mining elsewhere in the Puno Region. These include protests in Carabaya province [the Puno region has 13 provinces, divided in 107 districts] against mining concessions and the Inambari hydroelectric power plant; protests in Melgar, Juli, and Sandia over local mines; and Azángaro (whose capital is Juliaca) demanding decontamination of the Ramis river from pollution caused by small-scale mining. Outside of the Defense Front, most peasants in these regions are Quechua-speakers, not Aymaras.

The story is the strike wave, which has rippled across the region. And the other surprising story is the willingness of the government to deal openly with the strikers: even in May, substantial concessions were granted to the protests (including a 12-month delay in the Santa Ana mine and a regional commission to study all mining in southern Puno Region). The possibilities of protest and the limits of resource extraction are being rewritten in Peru. However, it didn’t bleed, so it didn’t lead. Indeed, for English-reading outsiders, it didn’t even get covered. Blame this on editors and the priorities of understaffed media organizations.

However, when things got interesting for the newswires, they assigned the story, apparently to reporters far from the scene. And the results juxtaposed the shootings in Juliaca and the victory in Chuquito Province in ways that distort the truth:

  • Associated Press, “Peru cancels mine after 6 killed in clash” somehow fails to mention the demands of protesters in Juliaca, and gives the false impression that the clash led to the concession.
  • Agence France-Presse, “Peru halts Canada mining operations amid protests“: “Peru suspended a Canadian company’s mining project in the south of the country on Saturday following intense negotiations in the wake of deadly protests by mostly indigenous anti-mining activists, authorities said.” “In the wake of” is fuzzy talk for afterwards without committing to a connection. In fact, the negotiations preceded the deadly violence, with a commitment to annul the Santa Ana mine being made verbally to the Defense Front on Wednesday and Thursday, with confirmation on Saturday. As discussed above, anti-mining protesters in Juliaca have other demands. Later in the article, “Protests have since spread to the provinces of Azangaro, Melgar and now the city of Juliaca.” Juliaca is the capital of Azangaro, and protests occurred there in late May, as well as early June. Nonetheless, AFP did some homework; this is spot on: “They then expanded to include opposition to other area mines, and now include opposition to the Inambari project, an ambitious plan to damn several Andean rivers and build what would become one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in South America.”
  • Voice of America, “3 Killed in Peru Airport Clash“: Contributes one fact: the result of a hospital phone call to Juliaca (“A doctor said the three people killed died from gunshot wounds Friday at Manco Capac airport in the city of Juliaca in Puno state.”), but mis-identifies the protesters as Aymara Indians—0.28% of Azángaro Province is Aymara. The hospital workers, through no fault of their own, understated the death toll by half.

Reporting like this is far less effective than paying translators to read the local press (Los Andes in Puno has been among the most comprehensive; see their chronology) and fact-check one against the other. If you’re reporting on these issues, I’d really like to know your process and point you in the direction of reliable background information. Seriously, where are you and what do you read?

Credit where credit is due: Reuters got the story right, noting “On Friday, hours before the deadly clash at the airport, Garcia’s cabinet revoked the license of Canadian mining firm Bear Creek in a bid to persuade locals residents to end protests that have dragged on for more than a month.”

p.s. A look at the same problem in Bolivia ten months ago: Potosí isolated by 12-day regional strike.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime issued its annual World Drug Report this week. Despite its fluffy image in the United States, the UN and this office in particular are committed to the global drug war. However, the office is also one of the most important factual sources on the production, circulation, and use of drugs.

Participation in the drug war is a vital metric on which the richest countries rate the progress/goodness/aid-worthiness of countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. In Colombia, this has meant American drug enforcers, military trainers, and herbicidal chemicals on the ground for over a decade now. However, the United States’ annual evaluation of countries’ cooperation in the drug war often has more to do with access for these arms of the American state, and rewarding loyal allies while punishing governments that question US foreign policy, than with actual results. In recent years, this has meant annual certification of Peru as effectively carrying out the drug war, while decertifying Bolivia. The main cost of decertification is cutting off drug aid funds and market supports for alternative products grown in coca-producing regions.

Let’s look at some facts provided by the UN to put this in perspective:

  • Coca leaf cultivation by country (p. 99): Back in 1999, coca eradication efforts had peaked in Bolivia, due to the militarization of the Chapare coca-growing region. Lethal clashes had accompanied eradication, but the area of Bolivia where coca is grown reached its low point: 14,600 hectares.  Colombia then dominated coca growing: 163 thousand hectares out of the global total of 221 thousand. In the past decade, coca growing in Bolivia bounced back (to 25,400 hectares in the years before Evo Morales, and since then more slowly to around 31,000 hectares). Meanwhile Peruvian cultivation has shown steady growth (two small annual declines vs. eight years of annual growth), moving from under 39 thousand hectares to around 61 thousand. The big squeeze in Colombia through eradication (including aerial spraying of pesticides and burning of fields) got production there down to about 62,000 hectares.
  • Overall, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia now have a 40-40-20 split of coca production, but only Bolivia is decertified by the United States. Peru, which is open to DEA agents and has been welcoming to US corporations, seems to have gotten a free pass on its doubling coca cultivation.
  • The global burden of cocaine seizures has shifted to police in South America (p. 99-100): Who’s fighting the drug war on cocaine? Measuring by seizures of the drug, it’s primarily South Americans, who accounted for 60% of the 732 metric tons of cocaine captured by drug enforces in 2009. This is a dramatic shift from 30-40% around the turn of the century.
  • Most cocaine consumed in the United States and Europe comes from Colombia: US authorities trace 90% of the US supply to Colombia. European drug seizures with a country of origin are 25% from Colombia, but another 44% comes from primarily Colombian transit markets in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. “Cocaine produced in Peru and the Plurinational State of Bolivia, in contrast, is used more within South America, notably in countries of the Southern Cone.”
  • All of these seizures are failing to put any economic squeeze on cocaine use: The cocaine industry is the deadliest in terms of trafficking related violence, but this death and the drug war have not diminished overall use. As with production, we see a move in the centers of use. In this case, however, there’s no overall reduction. US consumption has slumped over the past twelve years, but European usage doubled from 1998 to 2006 and stayed steady since. (by the way: Despite these shifts, US users are still more common and consume more total cocaine than European users.)

Events in all three producer countries are linked to increased questioning of the role of coca eradication in the drug war. While Bolivia’s case is the most dramatic—the current president leads a union of coca-growing farmers—the traditional importance of coca leaves to Andean cultures is a shared factor in all three countries. The Plurinational State of Bolivia is committed to a formal expansion of the legal area for cultivation to include part of the Chapare. It has invested in the commercialization of products other than the ancient uses of coca leaves for chewing and brewing mate, such as coca candies, liquor, and foods. It also is interested in exporting leaves for traditional use by the 1-2 million Bolivians living in Argentina.

In Peru, President-Elect Ollanta Humala has expressed support for greater freedom for traditional cultivation and concerns about Peru’s eradication policy. And Colombia withdrew its initial objections and backed the removal of coca chewing as a penalized activity under the 1961 Vienna drug convention. And Colombia’s high court ruled Thursday that indigenous peoples must be consulted about coca eradication on their lands.

It’s important to note that none of these policies constitute a general open growing policy. In Bolivia, “social control” of coca cultivation which limits acreage per family and continues eradication outside authorized regions is the policy of the day. Social control policies are backed by the European Union, and Brazil has stepped in to replace US funds for drug control measures.

Finally, Ollanta Humala’s election offers a new test of the politicization of US drug war certification. Will the new government take the blame for Peru’s rising coca production, while friendlier governments have gotten a pass for the past decade? If the US moves to decertify Peru this year, blaming Humala for Alan Garcías failed policies, it will be a clear case of making drug aid a political stick to attack critics of American economic policies.

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