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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.
The following is a 6 January 2012 pronouncement by the indigenous peoples of the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory, of Beni, and of the lowlands as a whole, denouncing the pro-highway march, defining their relation with CONISUR, and critiquing how the march was organized. In Spanish only for now.
“Ante una difusión mal intencionada de una marcha de pueblos indígenas contra los acuerdos del TIPNIS,La Ley N’ 180 y la representación de los comunarios de los Pueblos Indígenas, las organizaciones del movimiento de las Tierras Bajas dirigidas por la CIDOB [Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia], e integradas por la CPEM-B [Confederación del Pueblo Etnico Mojeño–Beni]. CPIB [Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Beni]. CMIB [Confederación de Mujeres Indígenas de Beni]. G.C.T.s. (Gran Concejo de Tsimane). [Subcentral] TIPNIS. Sub central Sécure. hacen conocer a los ciudadanos bolivianos:”
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.
An international sign-on letter has been released in support of the Isiboro-Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory in the Bolivian Amazon and plains, currently threatened by a proposed highway that would cut the territory in two. The letter calls for the Bolivian government to recognize the right of indigenous people to freely accept or reject development projects, including the highway, and to negotiate in good faith with the cross-country indigenous march in its defense.
The signers—sixty-one environmental, human rights, indigenous, health, anti-privatization, and global justice organizations— hail from five continents and identify as supporters of Bolivian social movements and the Plurinational State of Bolivia’s proactive diplomacy on environmental and human rights issues. However, they warn: “the country’s pioneering work on all these issues
also comes with a great responsibility. Bolivia’s continued ability to press forward this vital agenda will be affected by its consistency and moral credibility on matters of human rights and environmental protection.”
The Eighth Grand Indigenous March, which set off from Trinidad in mid-October, has travelled half of its planned route to La Paz, but currently faces a blockade by some members of the Union Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (formerly the Union Confederation of Colonizers, that is agricultural settlers on frontier lands). Both the blockaders and Bolivian police are currently preventing the advance of the march towards La Paz, as well as additional volunteers, food, medicine, and supplies sent from La Paz.
In Spanish after the jump / En castellano después
Five years into indigenous-led government, what is the most tangible change for the country’s indigenous majority? Despite the many possible examples in the the symbols of government, the clauses of the 2009 Constitution, and the rhetoric of leaders like Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera, I think there is one thing that stands out as the most concrete advance: awarding collective titles over land to self-governing regional indigenous organizations.
Bolivia is not alone in recognizing dramatically larger indigenous land claims as legitimate in the past two decades. Other large examples stretch from the reorganization of a large swath of Canada’s Northwest Territories as Nunavut to constitutional recognition of indigenous self-governance in long-standing Reserves (many of which were originally territories for Church-controlled “civilization” of native peoples) in Colombia and southward through most of South America.
Indigenous land rights have come at the initiative of the hemisphere’s active and intensely networked indigenous peoples’ movement, which has turned a long-repeated call into action over the past four decades. In Bolivia, this goal reached center-stage in national politics long before the rise of Evo Morales and the dramatic revolts of the 2000s. Its leading proponent has been the lowland indigenous confederation CIDOB. CIDOB was founded in 1982 as the Indigenous Confederation of the Bolivian East, and grew to include lowland groups in the Amazon and Chaco in a Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia. In 1990, CIDOB brought the demand for territorial rights to the capital La Paz on the March for Territory and Dignity, the first of many trans-Bolivia marches it would lead. The embrace of CIDOB marchers by tens of thousands of highland peasants was legendary: it marked a coming of age for both CIDOB and the Katarista movement’s call for an ethnically conscious, self-organized peasantry, and the beginning of government recognition of indigenous rights.
In concrete terms, however, the 1990s only yielded a small start to the recovery of indigenous territory. Four so-called Native Community Lands (TCOs) were recognized by decree in 1992, and a formal mechanism for titling the land in such territories was created in the 1996 Agrarian Reform Law. But the “clearing” of land titles (or ”saneamiento”) was a long process, involved extensive bureaucracy and the recognition of titles for third party residents of these lands. Despite promising flourishes of rhetoric, the entire process limped along under the neoliberal governments that ruled Bolivia through 2005: just 2.8 million hectares as of 2000, and a total of 5.7 million by 2005. (data on titling comes from Fundación Tierra‘s recent comprehensive report on Native Community Lands, which are in the process of renaming as Indigenous Originary Campesino Territories).
Following the December 2005 election of Evo Morales, things genuinely changed. With the help of Danish development aid and technical assistance, a massive effort to generate secure titles for hundreds of TCOs advanced. In its first year, the Morales administration titled over 1.9 million hectares, but much more was to come. By February 2011, the Morales administration had nearly tripled the previous decades’ titling work in six years. The total area of Native Community Lands reached 20.7 million hectares, nearly 19% of the entire country.
Why does this matter? In the lowlands, native title has been a revolutionary shift in power. The most dramatic stories come from the Chaco, where the pre-2008 situation was the unpaid servitude of local indigenous peoples on massive ranches. Bolivia’s agrarian reform law allows the full reversion ranches that use forced labor to their liberated workers. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights confirmed this situation:
the Commission finds the existence of debt bondage and forced labor, which are practices that constitute contemporary forms of slavery. Guaraní families and communities clearly are subjected to a labor regime in which they do not have the right to define the conditions of employment, such as the working hours and wages; they work excessive hours for meager pay, in violation of the domestic labor laws; and they live under the threat of violence, which also leads to a situation of fear and absolute dependency on the employer. (report, at paragraph 166)
Caraparicito became the flashpoint of Bolivian agrarian reform in April 2008, when governmental land reform officials were greeted by American ranch owner Ronald Larsen with shotguns in February and April 2008. Speaking of the Vice-Minister of Lands, Alejandro Almaraz, Larsen told La Razón, “I didn’t want this guy making any trouble, so I shut him up with a shot at one of his tires.”
In December 2010, five such ranches (El Recreo, San Isidro, Huaraca-Itacay, Buena Vista-Isiporenda, and Caraparicito I and II) were declared the property of the Alto Parapetí Native Community Lands. While appeals continue at the other five ranches, Larsen’s Caraparicito was tired over. Despite Larsen’s promise to relinquish his land “over my dead body,” he and his family moved out and local Guaraní leader José Yamangay Robles reports its residents have begun planting corn in their free life. The Guaranís’ new school in Caraparicito has been named Yeyora, or freedom. (For multiple reports on the land handover at Caraparicito and Alto Parapetí see CEJIS’ Bolivia Plurinacional of May 2011.)
While this dramatic reversal is hard to equal, the meaning of indigenous access to land has been vital to many agricultural communities. One example is in the lands of the Chiquitano people, as described in this Oxfam report on the significance of their 2007 recovery of lands. Collective ownership through Native Community Lands has spread far beyond the lowlands, largely through the reorganization of many Altiplano communities through the restoration of ayllu-based organizations. Fully 42.3% of titled TCO lands are in the Altiplano or central valleys, organized in 135 separate entities. Collectively governed agricultural communities have been given a big boost across the country. However, title to lands is not everything. For farmers, the materials to make their land productive are just as important, and this process has been slower.
Critical limitations on the territorial rights offered by Native Community Lands throw the value of these titles into question: a TCO can be overlaid by government-authorized concessions of logging rights, oil and gas exploration and extraction zones, and mining concessions. The Seventh CIDOB march’s demand “that forest, mining, and other concessions that affect indigenous peoples and their territories be annulled” was not heeded. TCOs can also come diced up by official recognition of third parties’ de facto control over longstanding indigenous territories, such as cocaleros’ encroachment into the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory and large-scale agribusiness in the Chiquitanía and Gran Chaco.
Finally, the presumed right of indigenous communities to control their own territories is a subject of national political debate in today’s politics. Three simultaneous national debates put this issue front and center. First, the widely discussed Law on the Rights of Mother Earth remains stuck in the Bolivian legislature (a non-operative declaratory “short law” was passed last December). A major point of contention is the right of indigenous people’s to freely consent to or reject megaprojects on their lands. Senator Julio Salazar (MAS) who is in charge of the law’s progress, declared in April that “Our indigenous brothers cannot block taking advantage of natural resources.” An indigenous proposal for a general law on consultation and consent have recently been presented by CONAMAQ to the government. And the conflict over the highway planned through Isiboro Sécure has elicited numerous Morales government statements suggesting that indigenous communities have no right to veto what goes on in their lands.
Will the massive recognition of indigenous land rights result in a massive change in indigenous lives? Will former servants who acquired land title escape from poverty? Can defined boundaries turn back the tide of agricultural colonization and deforestation? Will these territories be vehicles for self-determination or will the use of the lands continue to be decided in La Paz, and in the interest of increasing extraction for the benefit of the national treasury? It’s too early to tell, but lowland and highland indigenous peoples, CIDOB and CONAMAQ, will soon be on the march again: On August 15, the Eighth National March begins. The march’s agenda (full text in Spanish) begins with defending TIPNIS and includes all of the issues discussed here, and many more.