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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.

Fernando Vargas and Adolfo Chávez speak in Washington, DC

Fernando Vargas, president of the Subcentral TIPNIS, speaks alongside Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in Washington, DC. The two leaders were on a five-day trip to draw attention to human rights violations in the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park in Cochabamba and Beni departments of Bolivia.

  • 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, 29 March: My full English translation of Resolution 1 now appears after the jump.

The traditional leadership of 40 or 41 communities in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) met this past weekend in Gundonovia, a community inside TIPNIS. With their offer to Evo Morales to attend and negotiate rejected, the meeting focused on their strategy to respond to the after-the-fact consultation law (Law 222) passed in January.

Two key decisions emerged from this weekend. First, TIPNIS communities will participate in a Ninth National Indigenous March, under the leadership of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, which is set for April 20, and whose starting point and route will be chosen in a CIDOB meeting on March 25–26. Second, the TIPNIS communities are essentially declaring Law 222 null and void for being passed without their consultation, for violating the constitution, and being destructive to their rights. Or, in the words of their resolution:

To reject Law 222 and to emphatically reject its implementation, for being a norm that was not consulted and that is illegal and unconstitutional, which violates the rights of indigenous peoples, the territorial and collective rights established in various national and international norms that form part of the Constitutionality Block established in the [Bolivian] Political Constitution of the State.

Further, the assembled indigenous communities rejected both the new government military presence in TIPNIS and the strategy of official gift-giving that seems to be a campaign to approve the road. They contrast the process with the national and international norm of free, prior, and informed consent:

That this law [222] was not previously consulted with the three peoples who inhabit TIPNIS; is not free, but rather is being imposed by force; is not informed, insofar as there is manipulation of information concerning the reach and effects of this law, which are hidden by the state; and that same state never shared with us all the information about this project, and does not deal in good faith because the State seeks to include persons who have renounced their rights to decide over [the fate of] the lands collectively titled to the communities of TIPNIS, and finally does not seek any accord or consent.

Most significantly, they formalized a pledge to resist the law’s implementation from their communities, warning that “vessels and means of transport … will be subject to decommissioning and consequent destruction by the corregidors and communal authorities.”

The meeting was slightly smaller than expected for two reasons: difficulties in representatives of 15 communities arriving due to government restrictions on boat fuel (the government classifies it as a “cocaine precursor” and obstructed sale) and other unspecified pressures from the government. TIPNIS leaders expect these fifteen communities to fully participate in the march and local resistance. The remaining eight communities seem on the verge of ending collective land rights, dividing up their territory, and joining the cocalero-union affiliated communities in CONISUR.

full resolutions (in Spanish) after the jump

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As the Bolivian government sat down with CONISUR in La Paz, there was a crucial missing party: the Subcentral TIPNIS, the titleholder to the collective lands that make up all of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory except for the colonized Polygon 7. The Bolivian government was unwilling to formally exclude the Subcentral and its national parent organization, CIDOB, but instead invited it to send representatives within 48 hours (CIDOB did offer to meet in Trinidad, in 20 days). The Subcentral’s absence from these negotiations is perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of the latest turn of this kaleidoscopic conflict, but it has a simple, practical explanation.

While CONISUR marchers advanced towards La Paz, the Subcentral TIPNIS and CIDOB were on their own tours through the communities of the National Park. One delegation headed by CIDOB President Adolfo Chávez travelled the Isiboro River; a second, headed by Subcentral President Fernando Vargas visited communities on the Ochoa River; and a third went along the Sécure River. Last week they made a preliminary report that 32 of the communities they visited were firmly against the proposed Cochabamba–Beni highway crossing through TIPNIS, three others supported the road, while Oromono and Ushve, located in the north section of the territory were divided on the issue. The Subcentral-CIDOB tours also are laying the groundwork for a new national march (CIDOB’s Ninth National March) in protest of the highway. Fernado Vargas reported that there are 31 communities left to visit, eight of which are in the colonized southern region.

The results so far refute claims by the MAS government that CIDOB and the Subcentral lack contact with base communities, and far surpass the government’s assertion that they represent just 20 of the 64 communities in TIPNIS. The logistical coordinator of last year’s march has also confirmed that residents of 64 communities participated in the long trek to La Paz, although some may have joined after the march’s departure from Trinidad due to organizational difficulties. The results are also consistent with radio-transmitted interviews with TIPNIS communities conducted by the Erbol community radio network following the passage of Law 222.

The logistics of this poll are also a reminder of the existing methods of transport inside of TIPNIS and of the pace required for a comprehensive consultation of its communities on anything. River transport is the predominant form of contact between TIPNIS communities, one which is adapted to the landscape and geographic placement of communities. While proponents of the interdepartmental road have suggested that access to health, education, and development will come from ending TIPNIS communities’ isolation, the road will not in fact reach most communities directly. Indeed, when the pro-road CONISUR marchers met with Evo Morales, [he rebuffed their requests for local branch roads] that will connect their communities to the highway, citing a lack of funds. Accessible health care and education require not a highway (which will also bring deforestation and increased narcotrafficking), but meaningful state investment in facilities that are accessible by the TIPNIS indigenous’ own highways, the rivers that flow through the Territory.

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.

The campaign by Evo Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party to resume construction of a controversial new highway (background: 1 2 3 wikipedia) through the protected Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory enters a critical phase today. While a pro-highway march has just reached Caracollo (Oruro), a six-day march away from the capital, the Bolivian Plurinational Legislative Assembly will take up consideration of the march’s demands today. The march, officially led by CONISUR, an organization of indigenous people living in the southern, colonized zone of TIPNIS, has had open support of the MAS from the start. Its legitimacy has also been called into question by the national indigenous confederation CIDOB and a wide swath of Bolivian media from the right to the independent left, including the community radio network Erbol.

Erbol has an informative run-down today of the “five MAS strategies to achieve the construction of the TIPNIS highway” since it signed an agreement with the Subcentral TIPNIS, CIDOB, and CONAMAQ to shelve the project in October. These strategies are:

  • A December 9 rally in Cochabamba in support of construction, organized by the Governor’s office of Cochabamba. Work hours throughout the department were adjusted to assure attendance, and government officials spoke out about being obliged to attend.
  • The CONISUR march, begun December 19/20 at Isinuta, on the edge of TIPNIS.
  • The December 16 suspension of Beni governor Ernesto Suarez Sattori, indicted for governmental financial irregularities. Suarez had been the most prominent official in the region to criticize the project and showed a willingness to support alternate routes for the road. His successor, Haisen Ribera Leigue, is a right-wing legislator who has since been disavowed by his party for joining the MAS vote to suspend Suarez. Ribera has joined the call to annul the law protecting TIPNIS, and build the road.
  • The Plurinational Encounter to Deepen the Change, a three-part “consultation with civil society” on the part of the Bolivian executive branch, included the highway in its agenda for Cochabamba and Beni. The meeting was boycotted by the indigenous federations CIDOB and CONAMAQ as part of the fracturing of the Pact of Unity (wikipedia).
  • The effort to annul the law in the legislature, which will begin today. Eleven legislators who met with the CONISUR marchers will make their report today, after which relevant legislation will be gestated in committee. The MAS Cochabamba delegation has already pledged to support reversing the protection of TIPNIS. Senate President René Martínez claims to have a 2/3 majority in support of the iniciative, a claim that others contest in light of indigenous and Without Fear Movement legislators withdrawing from the MAS delegation.
  • Plus (not cited by Erbol): The government continues to stall on its agreement with the CIDOB and Subcentral TIPNIS to put forward official regulations for the law protecting the territory.

While no vote is expected today, the engagement of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly on the issue of reversing the protection of TIPNIS marks a culminating moment in the MAS strategy to go ahead with the road. The government continues to ignore alternate routes for connecting Cochabamba and Beni that fall outside of the indigenous territory and national park, and continues to make winning this fight a political priority. The time for environmental and indigenous rights supporters to turn their attention back to this issue is now.

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.

I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

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I visited the national indigenous march being led by CIDOB (the Confederation of [Lowland] Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia) across the country yesterday, as it made its way to La Senda, a town in central Santa Cruz department. I’ll have a more detailed report soon, but there are some photos in this flickr set.

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