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In the second week of February, the federation of street vendors (or Gremialistas, which literally means “guild members”) in Bolivia’s capital La Paz carried out a brief campaign against a street redesign project that would rework the busy intersection known as the Garita de Lima. In the course of this struggle, elderly vendor Teodora Velasco de Quispe died.

The Garita de Lima is a congested intersection in central La Paz (a photo search for the site yields an image titled “vehicular chaos”). It’s also a workplace: over 200 people sell food and goods from stalls on the sidewalks, streets, and central island, while the municipality counts 299 different transport routes, most of them served by vans or small buses, that pass through the intersection. Under two administrations led by a center-left political party, the La Paz municipality has combined  concrete, traffic engineers, architects, and savvy searching for funds to solve “problems” like the Garita de Lima. Their proposed redesign continues this strategy, remaking the current oval into a bridge between two plazas. The logic of the redesign is simple and clear: reduce travel delays and uncontrolled pedestrians crossing into the street while maximizing public space. To do this, they used the vertical dimension for crossovers while expanding open space horizontally.

Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia

Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia

The gremialistas are one of hundreds of sectoral organizations in La Paz. A trade unions for workers without an employer, they mobilize collectively in much the same way a union does, although they must use vigils, shop closures, blockades, and building takeovers where employees could use strikes and pickets. Solidarity and compulsory collective action are the backbone of their influence. The ghostly absence of their working-class presence—the tarps they string up, the blankets they sit on, their large pleated skirts, and gregariously space-taking bodies —from the architectural rendering shows the social distance that separates them from those who organized the project. Like many poor Bolivians, the gremialistas are accustomed to fighting for the marginal space on which they eke out their living. No wonder that they looked at this project with suspicion. As organizer Julia Manuela Hilarión said, “It is by fighitng that we have won our vending posts and now we are surprised that they are kicking us out of this place. [Luchando hemos conseguido nuestros puestos de venta y ahora nos dan esta sorpresa en la que nos están botando del lugar].”

On February 11, over a hundred vendors protested outside City Hall. They vowed, as per Bolivian tradition, to “go forward unto to the final consequences” in their protest, and put forward the maximum demands as their first bargaining position: no seller should be moved from her (or his) post. A conflict broke out with the local neighborhood association, who requested and backed the project; the local neighborhood association leader was injured. Vendors put up signs rejecting the project and sellers went on hunger strike at their posts. One of them was Teodora Velasco de Quispe. Early on the morning of February 13, she died of a heart attack.

Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)

Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)

Fourteen associations of gremialistas from across La Paz marched on City Hall, carrying forward the struggle and memorializing Teodora Velasco (video). Forty of them began a sit-in demanding negotations with the municipality. Some city officials were unable to leave and pledged they wouldn’t hold talks under such pressure. Nonetheless, four days later they met with Mayor Luis Revilla himself. He pledged none of them would lose the ability to sell in the zone, and the city’s markets coordinator offered to explain the logistics involved. They also agreed to a new process of public comment (or “socialization”) of the project before it was implemented.

This is not the first such project to occasion temporary displacement of vendors in La Paz, or to cause them to fear for their livelihoods. Two downtown markets (the Central and Camacho markets) were built in the last decade, both bringing about conflicts and city-funded temporary housing for shops during construction. These experiences do not seem to have made the city sufficiently proactive or the vendors more patient or less strident in their initial demands. Even now, their opposition to the new Garita de Lima has not been dropped, although history suggests they will get along with the planners and reopen for business during and after construction.

Was Teodora Velasco de Quispe’s death necessary? Almost certainly not. The question of who is responsible for this loss is more complex. Her passing in the middle of the night is one of a significant number of deaths that accompany Bolivian protest without being caused by violent or consciously lethal actions, but which are nonetheless an inseparable part of protesters’ experience. Others have started vigils and marches their bodies were not prepared to survive, or been trapped on the wrong side of a blockade from the medical assistance they needed, or died of cold, exposure, or disease while their community was mobilizing. Such losses of human life stand alongside deaths that provoke outrage and generate cries for official investigations. They do, however, galvanize the commitment of those who lived and struggled beside them. Almost like martyrs, but different, the burden of their deaths is carried by their comrades who struggle on.

This is an expanded and hyperlinked version of an article I contributed to Bolivia Information Forum’s News Briefing service. Please support BIF’s appeal for funds to continue its valuable work.

Bolivia’s record on human rights came up for review by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee* during its October session. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bolivia submits a report on its performance every five years. The Committee looked at that report and submissions from numerous human rights organizations in drafting a series of recommendations (Concluding Observations [es] | all documents from the process). In the UN committee’s view, the state of political freedom and social equality in the country is an uneasy balance between ambitious new legislative protections and inadequate practical implementation of national and international norms.

The Bolivian government has passed new laws to guarantee rights and combat discrimination, including norms against racism and other forms of discrimination (2010), violence against women (2013), and gendered political harassment (2012). While some regional commissions on racism are operating, the regulations to protect women from violence are still pending. A law on consultation with indigenous communities is also pending. The Committee criticized Bolivia for failing to respect the right to free, prior, and informed consent on projects and laws that affect indigenous peoples and their territories.

The Committee’s strongest criticisms refer to Bolivia’s overwhelmed criminal justice system. Investigations and prosecutions are slow, while prisons are overcrowded to 230% of their capacity. Four out of five people in Bolivia’s jails are awaiting trial, and the Committee suggested that alternatives like house arrest and location monitors could see many of them released. It said that those who remain should have the right to be housed separately from convicted criminals. A government amnesty plan is underway, but progress remains slow. Delays in prosecution are also creating a situation of impunity for those responsible for racist attacks perpetrated in 2008, the murder of two women council members in 2012, and police repression at Chaparina and Mallku Khota, among others. The Committee also urged further action to combat lynchings, as well as corporal punishment carried out in the family and traditional spheres of the justice system.

The Bolivian armed forces and police were singled out in a number of observations.  A series of revelations of brutal treatment of conscripts and of beatings of prisoners have generated controversy, but there have been few successful prosecutions.  The Committee also urged opening military records from the dictatorship era (between the mid 1960s and early 1980s), and the creation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Finally, the UN Committee urged expanded protection of rights on several fronts.  It argues that the current obligation for women seeking a legal abortion (in cases of rape, incest, and medical necessity) to get a judge’s backing contributes to maternal mortality and should be eliminated. It also urged new action to free hundreds of Guaraní families still trapped in servitude, and to criminalize violence against sexual minorities and transgender people.

* This Human Rights Committee is a body established by article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

While facing an election next year, Bolivian President Evo Morales is thinking about his legacy. As the strong front-runner in national politics, his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, feels confident it will be in power for a long time to come. This self-confidence is driving the drafting of a 2025 Patriotic Agenda. Alongside the formal process, the president has spoken off the cuff of his desires for the future. And like any dreams, they provide an insight into the mind and orientation of the dreamer. In his oratory, Morales long seemed to equally embrace two visions: sovereignty through claiming natural resources for the nation and reorientation of society towards ecological harmony with Mother Earth. Now, however, he has discarded the Pachamama-centered rethinking of exploitation and dreams of technologies long criticized for their environmental destructiveness.

At the end of October, Morales declared nuclear power to be a long-term goal of the Bolivian state. Speaking at a government-organized summit called Hydrocarbon Sovereignty by 2025, he revealed that he had asked the governments of Argentina and France for assistance in launching a Bolivian nuclear power program. “We are going to advance, dear students,* we are not far off, we have the raw materials. It is a political decision that has to be made. [Vamos a avanzar queridos estudiantes, no estamos lejos, tenemos materia prima (el óxido de uranio es la principal materia prima utilizada en los procesos radioactivos), es una decisión política que hay que tomar.]” Soon after, he called it a dream: “Bolivia has all the conditions to exploit this form of energy, there are raw materials and studies, and I want you to know that alongside our brother Vice President, I am already dreaming of having atomic energy, and we are not so far from it. [Bolivia tiene todas las condiciones para explotar esa energía, hay materia prima, hay estudios y quiero que sepan que con nuestro hermano vicepresidente ya soñamos contar con energía nuclear atómica y no estamos tan lejos.]” (El País) By the middle of November, Morales had convened thirty scientists to sketch out a Nuclear Energy Commission.

In fact, the road to nuclear energy is a very long one. France has clarified that it has done no more than listen to Bolivia’s aspirations. The Argentine cooperation so far consists of scholarships for students of nuclear medicine. The country lacks both adequately trained scientific and technical personnel and the necessary infrastructure. Bolivia’s uranium remains in the ground. The complex network of processing facilities, construction capacity, and minimal safeguards would have to be built from the bottom up. Luis Romero, director of the Bolivian Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (Instituto Boliviano de Ciencia y Tecnología Nuclear; IBTEN) estimates the process could take thirty years. Meanwhile, solar power is practical over 97% of the tropical country’s surface and renewable generation could overcome the country’s biggest energy limitation: the lack of reliable electrical connections to vast rural areas.

Meanwhile, Bolivia is set have its first communication satellite this month. Named Túpac Katari, after the late eighteenth-century indigenous rebel, it will be launched by China and controlled from Bolivia. Its transmission capabilities will save the country tens of millions of dollars a year in expenditures. Like the Hydrocarbon forum, this launch has set the Bolivian president to dreaming “of the next one”:

Some developed countries seem to have a x-ray image of our territory. They know what we have but they never tell us. And why shouldn’t we be able to have a prospecting satellite to know what we have in this Mother Earth who give us so many resources? [Algunos países desarrollados parece que hacen como una radiografía a nuestro territorio. Saben qué tenemos, pero nunca nos informan. ¿Y por qué nosotros no podemos tener un satélite de prospección para saber qué tenemos en esta madre tierra que nos da tantos recursos?] (infolatam)

While satellite imagery can be used to assess surface minerals, this x-ray idea is a fantasy.** What’s revealing about it, however, is the idea of making the entire country’s minerals, oil, and gas immediately visible to the state. Today’s Evo Morales still dreams of Mother Earth, but she always gives up her resources for the good of the economy. Those who put protecting their ancestral lands on the agenda have a different vision of territory, in which the right to preserve environmental integrity sometimes conflicts with accelerating extraction.

* The event highlighted the French oil giant Total’s awarding scholarships to future petroleum engineers.

** Much, if not all, of the NASA data is freely available.

Honor Brabazon and Jeffery Webber have just released a new research article on the state of agrarian reform in Bolivia under the government of Evo Morales. The paper, available as a pre-print from the Journal of Agrarian Change, offers a disconcerting look at the state of land redistribution six years after Morales signed a law promising community-led “redirection of the Agrarian Revolution.” The paper is compelling because it puts the experiences and views of the Bolivian Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST; the same initials as its better-known Brazilian counterpart) alongside hard data on the redistribution of land produced by the La Paz-based research unit Centro de Estudios para el Desarollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA).

I’ve previously covered the most dramatic shift in Bolivian land tenure on this blog, the dramatic reordering of large swaths of land into “Native Community Lands,” (TCOs) collectively controlled indigenous territories throughout the country that now constitute nearly a fifth of the country. The same process of clarification of land title was promised to yield a revolution in the prospects of landless and near-landless peasants. The data presented and translated by Brabazon and Webber shows that promise was not to be.

The story of land reform in Bolivia has long been a regional one. The sweeping 1953 Land Reform Decree was the product of rural uprisings across the Altiplano and the central Valleys which left the vast eastern lowlands essentially untouched. There, a relatively small number of landowners built vast export-oriented monocultural plantations over the next five decades. Both the predominantly lowland MST and Evo Morales spoke of these large holdings as ”latifundio,” oversized properties that deserve to be redistributed for the common good. However, land reform requires one of two causes to take away land from its owner. Either the field is used for illegal labor exploitation, or it is failing to fulfill its “economic and social function.” The latter term essentially applies to fields left in disuse for long periods. As it turned out, neither cause applies to the agribusinesses of the east:

the types and delimitations of latifundio designated for expropriation by the MAS government through the LRCRA and official policy documents are not those that predominate in the structure of the Bolivian agrarian economy; therefore, the large capitalist landowners who obtain rent from the land, along with the agrarian capitalist enterprises that obtain their profits through the exploitation of their salaried workforce, have not and will not be affected by the ‘agrarian revolution’. (19)

A small number of farms have been expropriated ”due to the presence of bonded labour, semi-slavery, slavery or other illegal labour practices,” but just 54,734 hectares. Another 855,823 hectares owned by medium- and large-propertyholders were incorporated into TCOs. But when the government speaks of “land redistribution,” it pulls out far larger numbers. As Brabazon and Webber point out, “the overwhelming bulk of these redistributed lands were transfers from various forms of state-owned lands (tierras fiscales) to TCOs” or even the re-categorization from one form of collective ownership to another. Meanwhile, “one-third of the [national] territory will remain in the hands of the medium and large agro-industrial firms.”

Brabazon and Webber provide a sobering conclusion: “The same social class that ruled over agricultural production in 2005 continues to rule today in 2012” (21).

In honor of #NewResearchThursday / #NRTh, one attempt to increase the content to signal ratio on social media.

In the first three months of 2013, two deeply disturbing crimes brought the problems of sexual and domestic violence to the forefront of public attention in Bolivia. Bolivian feminists have been denouncing these issues—and the general incapacity of the state and police to effectively respond to them—for years. In making their case they have cited facts and figures like the following, time after time:

While a 1996 law provides specialized institutions to receive denunciations of physical abuse, assault and violence, a climate of impunity often prevails. Of 442,056 cases brought to authorities from 2007 to 2011, just 27,133 even made it to prosecutors, and just 9.13% had resulted in guilty verdict or plea by mid-2012 (La Razón). Stated another way, just one of ever 178 complaints yielded a conviction. This builds upon the fact that justice is almost always delayed in the Bolivian justice system: of over 100,000 domestic violence cases begun in 2012, just 51 were closed by February 2013.  Even when domestic violence escalates to murder, accountability does not increase; none of the 120 gender-related murders in 2012 have yet resulted in a conviction (Erbol).

(trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical violence, and one deeply offensive denial are included after the jump)

Read the rest of this entry »

Bolivian indigenous leaders denounce human rights violations in Isiboro-Sécure case in Washington

(This blog post also appears at Amazon Watch’s Eye on the Amazon blog.)

Subcentral TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas Mosua and Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), addressed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Friday, March 15. The hour-long hearing was the culmination of a weeklong trip aimed at putting the Isiboro Sécure situation on the hemispheric human rights agenda. The visit came in the third year of high-profile campaign to prevent the Bolivian government from building a highway through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS; past coverage).

Since their march to La Paz in 2011, residents of TIPNIS have experienced restricted freedom of movement. Military detachments, variously labeled an “environmental brigade,” an anti-narcotics measure, and part of “integrating the territory under state control,” restrict access and have hampered the activities of external organizations. Boat fuel, the essential ingredient of mobility on the rivers, has been tightly regulated as a “narcotics precursor.” Meanwhile the Bolivian government backed its own parallel leadership for CIDOB and assisted in evicting Adolfo Chávez and the rest of its elected officers from their headquarters in Santa Cruz. Domestic and Amazon Basin-wide indigenous organizations continue to recognize his leadership.

At the headquarters of the Organization of American States, the indigenous representatives offered a wide-ranging presentation concerning all of the events since the inauguration of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway project. Adolfo Chávez introduced his compatriot and to ask that indigenous and individual rights be protected by the IACHR. Fernando Vargas described the territory and the project and presented the struggle of his people as a defense of the territory, of their rights, and the natural environment. “We cannot be accomplices,” he said, “to the destruction of the environment and global warming.”

The leaders called the IACHR’s attention to a series of violations of the collective and individual rights of the sixty-four indigenous communities. Their community structures, including local traditional leaders called corregidores and the territorial organization Subcentral TIPNIS, have been bypassed by the government as decisions are made about the route for a Cochabamba-Beni highway. Police officers and military troops attacked and imprisoned hundreds of members of a pro-TIPNIS indigenous march on September 25, 2011. Despite formal complaints and the presentation of forensic reports on injuries to seventy protesters, the official investigation into abuses that day remains stalled.

At the conclusion of the 2011 march, the government capitulated and passed Law 180, designed to permanently protect the territory as an “intangible zone.” However, a December 2011 agreement between the government and the indigenous communities to implement the law was never put into effect. Instead, the government has unilaterally declared that “intangibility” means that nearly all economic activities – including eco-tourism, sustainable nut and cacao harvesting, and other projects previously approved – must be suspended until the communities accept the construction of the highway.

In 2012, the Bolivian government approved a Law 222 allowing for a community consultation on the future of the territory. However, the terms of this consultation were never coordinated with the local indigenous organization, despite an order from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal that the consultation would only be legal if agreed to. The government’s consultation went ahead despite multiple institutions complaining that it failed to meet the most basic of international standards. The “consultation” was accompanied by the public bestowing of gifts and development assistance that were explicitly conditioned on acceptance of the highway. Late last year, a joint survey team led by the Catholic Church and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, found that the consultation was neither free, nor informed, nor prior – the essential conditions of its legitimacy.

Fernando Vargas sought the Commission’s presence to clarify the facts, its intervention to maintain in force Law 180, and its determination that the Bolivian government’s obligations to protect the TIPNIS indigenous’ collective rights have not been met.

The Bolivian government brought a sizable delegation to the Commission, led by Minister of Government Carlos Romero. For its part, the Bolivian government’s presentation reviewed another version of the TIPNIS story that focused on who should represent the interests of the indigenous community. Most of its allotted time was given to pro-government indigenous leaders, Melva Hurtado, Pedro Vare, Carlos Fabricano, and Gumercindo Pradel. Respectively, they come from the parallel CIDOB leadership elected while the 2012 indigenous march was still in La Paz, a Beni indigenous organization, and communities on the Sécure River and in the colonized zone of TIPNIS who are affiliated with the coca grower’s movement. . The strategy of the government had two sides: bringing these allies to speak on one hand, and on the other hand treating their demands as totally independent of its campaign to promote the highway. In response, Adolfo Chávez offered another point of view by saying that these figure’s presence was the best illustration of the division among indigenous communities created by the government, and of the lack of respect it has for indigenous people’s own processes of self-government.

In his presentation, Minister Romero denied that any highway project yet exists in TIPNIS, continuing to claim that Segment Two of the highway is entirely independent of Segments One and Three. With the annulling of the government’s contract with the Brazilian construction firm OAS, he said, the project which had begun is now “merely a possible road” in the future. Therefore, he claimed, the 2012 consultation is now a “prior consultation” as required by international standards. He said the current government is more indigenous than any previous one, describing the representation of indigenous people in the national executive and legislature and the titling of Native Community Lands like TIPNIS.

With a session of just one hour, and the lengthy presentation by the government (finally cut short by the Commission), little time remained for questions from the dais. But two members of the commission offered some. What was the form of environmental impact statement generated before the consultation process? What were the norms that regulated that consultation? What was the specific evaluation offered by the indigenous of the likely environmental and social impact of a highway?

The Bolivian indigenous leaders brought with them abundant documentation ranging from their legal title to the territory to detailed community-by-community documentation of the flawed consultation process of the government. They extended an invitation to the Commission to visit the territory and to take a stand on the legality of government actions over the past two years. A full response from the Commission is expected in the months to come.

During their trip, the indigenous leaders also aired their concerns with the American Bar Association,  American diplomatic officials, legislators in the House and Senate Human Rights caucuses, and Georgetown Law School.

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.

Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensor del Pueblo) reports that 2012 was another busy year for social conflict in Bolivia. The office compiled a list of 500 political disputes that were the subject of protests or direct actions since January 1. (coverage: Erbol). The year is the deadliest in the country’s political life since 2008 with eight people losing their lives in these conflicts. Six of them died from violence by state forces; by my count, this is the most people killed by police responses to political actions in any one year since Evo Morales took power in January 2006.*

Those who died in 2012 were as follows:

  • Abel Rocha Bustamante, 27, and Michael Sosa, 23. Shot by police in the January Yapacaní conflict. (This blog’s coverage: 1|2)
  • Eliseo Rojas, 22. Reportedly electrocuted on a fence while attempting to storm police barracks during the Yapacaní conflict.
  • José Mamani Mamani, protester in Mallku Khota mining dispute, died of bullet wounds to the neck apparently fired by police on July 5.
  • Ambrosio Gonzáles, 45. Died from a police bullet during the July 31 operation to retake the Caranda gas plant, in Buenavista, Santa Cruz, which was seized by protesters demanding that a roadway and bridge be built.
  • FSTMB member Héctor Choque. Killed by an explosion of dynamite during fratricidal protests in La Paz between his union of mining employees and cooperative miners over the disposition of the Mallku Khota mine following its nationalization.
  • Óscar Omar Cruz Mallku, 17, dead from a gunshot, and Oscar Ricardo Gómez Bertón, 27, dead from wounds after a police raid on illegal used car sellers in Challapata, Oruro faced public resistance by the sellers.

*Police killed four protesters in 2007 and 2010. If one excludes the October 2012 Challapata event as a confrontation with criminal entrepreneurs during a raid, then all three years have the same number of police killings in political situations.

  • 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.

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.

Map of four options to the Cochabamba-Beni highway through TIPNIS

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.

Pablo Solon tweets for alternate route for TIPNIS highway

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