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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.

Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, has been a critical global voice on behalf of the new Bolivia. He worked to secure critical global victories like the UN General Assembly’s recognition of the human right to water and sanitation, and to advance the frameworks of harmony with nature and the rights of indigenous peoples on the global stage. When plurinational Bolivia took a principled stand challenging collective inaction and market-based pseudo-solutions in the Copenhagen and Cancún climate talks, he was the country’s most eloquent voice (see, for example, this op-ed from Cancún). His diplomacy combined the capacity for principled opposition (Bolivia stood among three dissenters in Copenhagen, and alone in Cancún) with tenacious work to build a majority (140 nations joined in backing the right to water). Solón is also committed to diplomacy among movements, supporting indigenous and environmental movements’ access to negotiations in Copenhagen, attending the US Social Forum in 2010, and co-organizing the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba. In September 2011, just after the police raid on the pro-TIPNIS Eighth National Indigenous March, he publicly called on Evo Morales to rethink his position on the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, arguing, “One cannot speak of defending Mother Earth and at the same time promote the construction of a road that will harm Mother Earth, doesn’t respect indigenous rights and violates human rights in an ‘unforgiveable’ way.”

Now that the TIPNIS conflict has been reframed by the government’s passage of a so-called “prior consultation” law, Solón is adding is his voice on what “consultation” should mean. (Elsewhere, he has emphasized the existence of alternate routes for the highway, as well.) The following is a complete translation of a February 13 blog post by Solón on the subject:

Last Sunday I was at Erbol [Bolivian community radio network] being interviewed by its director Andrés Gómez, and conversing about TIPNIS and the consultation. Suddenly, I said to him: “How about if I come and ‘consult’ with you about amputating your arm.”

He responded, “Ah, no! Not that!”

“And what if I tell you that only in that will can your life be saved.”

He responded, “Well, that is different”

And I replied, “But then I have to demonstrate to you that the only alternative that would save your life is to amputate the arm”

“That’s how it is,” sighed Andrés.

The construction of a highway that cuts through the heart of TIPNIS is like amputating an arm. Before proceeding to consult with you as to whether I should amputate or not, I have to demonstrate that it is the only option, that there is no other choice, that without it any integration whatsoever between Cochabamba and Trinidad is impossible, that any other alternative is riskier, not technically viable, or financially unsustainable. It’s not right for you to accept losing an an arm unless I first put all the options on the table. This is the case with TIPNIS.

They want to have a consultation without first having realized a serious analysis of the alternatives for integration by road.

The obligation that comes before any consultation whatsoever is to bring together a commission in which all participate: the TIPNIS indigenous, the representatives of Cochabamba and Beni, the national government, experts on engineering and the environment. This commission is to bring us in a reasonable period an analysis of all the possible routes for integrating Cochabamba and Trinidad by road, together with their costs, impacts on indigenous communities, and on our Mother Earth. Once we have all these alternatives, then on that basis, it is possible to conduct a responsible consultation.

There are those who say that to go alongside TIPNIS or any other option is not viable. Perhaps they are correct… but this has not been demonstrated. Therefore, what is appropriate is to analyze, without passions or caprice, all the options. The result of the study o the different options will perhaps lead us to the conclusion that there is another option, or there are various other options, and that it is not necessary to conduct a consultation to see if TIPNIS should be cut in half, or it will lead us to a consultation to decide clearly between one option or another, knowing the pros and cons of each one.

What one cannot do is to “consult” with someone as to whether their arm should be amputated or not, without showing them the other options.

In the coming weeks, Bolivia’s indigenous movement is organizing a new national march. For the eighth time, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB; the acronym reflects its origins in the Oriente, or East of the country) is preparing a national march on La Paz. The National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), an organization of traditionally organized highland communities has pledged to join CIDOB in this effort. Unlike CIDOB’s past marches, this one brings a single, local struggle to the national spotlight: the planned building of a major inter-departmental highway through an indigenous territory called Isiboro-Sécure.

The Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (known by the Spanish acronym TIPNIS) is supposed to be a new kind of territory. Combining indigenous self-government and environmental protection, TIPNIS is both a protected natural area and a self-governing indigenous territory. These lands lie on the undemarcated frontier between Cochabamba and Beni departments in Bolivia around the Isiboro and Sécure Rivers. They are home to members of the Yuki, Yuracaré, and Trinitario Mojeño peoples, who govern the territory through indigenous community organizations which are federated into the Subcentral of TIPNIS. This novel arrangement was made possible by the first CIDOB march, back in 1990, which put indigenous autonomy on Bolivia’s national radar.

Twenty years later, Bolivia is also supposed to be carrying forward a radical redefinition of its political life around a new agenda. Three pillars of that agenda are indigenous rights, autonomy, and care for the natural world. The government of Evo Morales backed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to its passage by the UN General Assemby in 2007, and was the first government to incorporate its text into domestic legislation. The country’s new constitution, approved by a 2009 referendum, defines the a “Unitary Social State of Plurinational, Community-Based Law, … intercultural, decentralized, and with autonomies,” probably the strongest acknowledgment of decentralization in any national constitution. The Bolivian government’s support for environmental protection on the world stage—at Copenhagen and Cancun, in hosting the Cochabamba climate summit, and at the United Nations—has become almost legendary. The passage of a non-binding “Law on the Rights of Mother Earth” last December attracted enthusiastic praise from outside observers.

On the drawing board for decades, the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway started to become a reality over the past few years thanks to funding from Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). The highway has provoked a string of environmental controversies. At last April’s Cochabamba Climate Summit, the planned road was one of several dozen “megaprojects” discussed by local activists at Mesa 18, the so-called Eighteenth Table of the meeting and the only one devoted to environmental problems within Bolivia itself. In May, a summit of local and regional leaders met in the community of San Miguelito inside TIPNIS. Attending organizations declared:

We are tired of sending letters and resolutions stating our position of rejection against the initiative to construct a highway uniting Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos, which have never been heard and attended to by the current or previous governments; …

We resolve … To overwhelmingly and non-negotiably reject the construction of the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway and of any highway segment that would affect our territory, our [collective] big house (full text in English)

Several months later, Vice Minister of the Environment Juan Pablo Ramos resigned rather than approve an environmental license for the highway. Yet, even as President Evo Morales inaugurated the project on June 5 of this year, no consultation has taken place with the peoples living in Isiboro-Sécure.

The objections to the highway, put forward by TIPNIS residents themselves through their Subcentral, should be familiar to anyone who follows the continent-wide story of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Across South America, large “primary actors” like road builders or oil drilling installations have had a disproportionate impact in opening new regions to systematic deforestation. The pattern is simple: one a route is cleared into a region, colonists follow with short-term cropping on cleared forest. Since the rainforest lives atop paradoxically poor soils (heavy rainfall washes the nutrients out of the soil, so the complex, multi-tier ecosystem has evolved mechanisms for preserving as much useful matter above the surface as possible). Often, such colonial agriculture depletes what is left after burning in a decade or two and colonists move on to repeat the cycle. For people who depend instead on the resources and wildlife of the forest for survival, this process is disastrous.  The indigenous peoples of TIPNIS are no exception: they too maintain a livelihood that is built around local self-sufficiency and depends on the forests for food and rivers for transportation. Deforestation is not a hypothetical threat in TIPNIS either. Where dirt and gravel roads have been cleared along the southern part of the proposed highway route, thousands of acres within the Park have been cleared for coca cultivation. New coca farms inside of TIPNIS violate understandings between the the Chapare coca farmers on one side and the international community on the other, and the Morales government has pledged to remove them. However, TIPNIS representatives have signaled that both land for cultivation and concessions for logging are being offered for speculative sale as road construction nears.

In short, the highway has become a key point in the battle over Bolivia’s future, and over the extent to which dreams of ecological sustainability and indigenous self-governance will become a reality. Deforestation, cultural survival, the indigenous right to self determination, and the protection of indigenous territories are all at issue. These broader concerns explain why both CIDOB and CONAMAQ are preparing to march alongside indigenous community representatives from Isiboro-Sécure, in late July or early August. For those around the world who have put hopes in the Morales government for the same reasons, now is a good time to let it know you’re watching.

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