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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.

On July 3, as participants in the Ninth National Indigenous March remained camped outside the Vice Presidency, the Bolivian government flew a set of 45 residents in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) to La Paz. Once there, they met with a group of government ministers on live television. The government accepted these 45 people as representatives of TIPNIS and signed an agreement with them authorizing a consultation process for July 29 to September 2 to approve the segment of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway that passes through TIPNIS. According to the government, these 45 people are Corregidores (a community-level office common among indigenous peoples of the region) conveying the assent of their communities. (Some coverage of the event: La Razón)

TIPNIS representatives rejected the proposed process of consultation in a March 2012 summit of Corregidores and have repeatedly stated their opposition to the construction of the road. The Subcentral TIPNIS, which holds collective title to the indigenous territory, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and many other observers (like Pablo Solón), have criticized the proposed consultation as deeply flawed. Many TIPNIS community members and CIDOB members walked 62 days to La Paz as part of the march to oppose the consultation, and they reacted with outrage to the agreement’s announcement. Meanwhile, CONISUR, a separate organization in the region that represents indigenous communities overrun and now intertwined with coca-growing settlers, has been openly advocating for the road and the new consultation process.

As with the recent maneuvers within CIDOB, which have created a parallel leadership vying for control of the organization, the orchestration of this new “agreement” raises major questions about government interference in the internal workings of grassroots organizations, and about the government’s commitment to make the process of informed consent both free and fair.

Alongside these questions of principle, however, are more troubling questions about who this group of TIPNIS community members are, which communities they represent, and how the government of Evo Morales won their assent to the consultation. While the specific facts of the matter are in sharp dispute, multiple accounts undermine the credibility of the government narrative around this agreement.

  •  The signatories include 18 representatives of CONISUR communities, located outside of the collective title that makes up the indigenous territory. Seven CONISUR communities were recognized as part of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park before, but had their titles divided into individual plots, leaving them outside of the Indigenous Territory. These 18 representatives seem to represent between 11 and 13 communities. (This point is made by Subcentral TIPNIS President Fernando Vargas here.) The government seems ready to treat 13 Conisur communities as part of the consultation, despite the dissent of its own Agrarian Reform Institute (the body charged with land titling in Bolivia). Source: Erbol.
  • Fernando Vargas also testified that only about 20 of the 45 community members are in fact Corregidores recognized by their own communities, while others are merely hand-picked community members selected by the government.
  • Those Corregidores signing in the agreement may have included both titulares (officeholders) and auxiliares or suplentes (alternates), most likely from the same communities. By the count of Benigno Noza, a Corregidor opposed to the road, there were just 18 officeholders among the group authorizing the consultation.

For these three reasons, government representations that “45 of the 63 communities” signed on to the consultation are lies, intended to deceive the media and the public about the situation in TIPNIS. The signers neither represent 45 communities, nor all they all from the 63 recognized communities within the collective title of the park, a number which excludes the CONISUR and coca-grower communities in Polygon 7, where farmers hold individual titles.

  • Adolfo Moye, past president of the Subcentral TIPNIS has also raised grave questions about the way the meeting was organized. Basing his account on family connections (his father-in-law was one of the 45), Moye reported: “The government met them in San Pablo, it was a gathering place from which to transport them. Supposedly, the corregidores had to hand in their [local development] project proposals to the Vice-Ministry of the Environment, but once they there, it became know that they would have to travel to La Paz. But there was resistance, so then the deceptions began with the [threat] of losing their projects and their outboard motors. [El gobierno los reunió en San Pablo, fue un lugar de concentración para llevárselos. Supuestamente los corregidores tenían que entregar proyectos a una comisión del Viceministerio de Medioambiente, pero cuando se encontraron ahí se enteraron que tenían que trasladarse a La Paz. Pero hubo una resistencia, entonces comenzó los chantajes con la pérdida de los proyectos y los motores fuera de borda.]” Later, according to Moye’s account, the government provided its meeting of leaders with alcohol and flew them to La Paz. Moye also claimed that isolation and deception were used to gain support of these community members.

While I cannot verify the details of these claims, it seems obvious that repeating the Morales government’s claim about “45 communities” is taking part in an intentional deception.

It is also clear that the consultation agreement was not representative, and bypassed the local democratic process in TIPNIS. Let me quote Xavier Albó, a Jesuit, intellectual, and anthropologist who worked closely with indigenous movements and the Morales government in crafting Bolivia’s plurinational constitution, on this issue:

It is not evident to me whether the denunciation of Fernando Vargas, that just 18 or 20 of the 45 who signed the agreement with the government are genuine, is true or not. But, having watched on television that entire mediatic ceremony, and all that occurred in the following days, it is clear to methat we are still very far from fulfilling those minimal conditions that would render constitutional this (prior, or justified-after-the-fact) consultation. When Evo and his ministers travel time and again through TIPNIS, laden with gifts (perhaps suitable for [their] development even without a highway) but deliberately avoid speaking as equals with the leaders on the march, and rather denigrate them, what is left of the “good faith” which is necessary for any agreement?  [No me consta si la denuncia de Fernando Vargas de que apenas 18 o 20 de los 45 que firmaron el acta con el gobierno son corregidores genuinos es o no real. Pero, habiendo visto por Tv toda aquella ceremonia mediática, y todo lo ocurrido en los días siguientes, sí me queda claro que estamos aún muy lejos de que se cumplan las condiciones mínimas que harían constitucional una consulta previa o de saneamiento posterior. Cuando Evo y sus ministros viajan una y otra vez por el TIPNIS, llenos de regalos (tal vez idóneos para un desarrollo incluso sin carretera) pero deliberadamente evitan hablar de igual a igual con esos dirigentes marchistas y más bien los denigran, ¿en qué queda la “buena fe” indispensable para cualquier concertación?] (“¿Consulta o cooptación en el TIPNIS?”)

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.

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

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.

Update: More on the Conisur communities and coca added, based on new reporting from Erbol; see below.

The long-promised counter-march from Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), this time in support of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway (wikipedia) began last Tuesday, December 20. Around 300 initial marchers began the journey from Isinuta, on the edge of the park. Reinforced by hundreds more, the marchers should reach Cochabamba tomorrow, and expect to proceed onwards to La Paz. The countermarch is headed by the members of the Indigenous Council of the South (Consejo Indígena del Sur, or Conisur), a local organization of indigenous people inside TIPNIS, but living in the southernmost part of the the territory, entirely in the department of Cochabamba.

The march is understandably surrounded with controversy, and according to the opposition-leaning/center-right Los Tiempos, a lack of public enthusiasm. But rather than attempting to dismiss this countermarch, I write here to explain it.

To understand this (counter)march, it is helpful to understand the organizational structure of TIPNIS indigenous peoples. The oldest and broadest organization in the territory is the Subcentral TIPNIS (indigenous organizations over large regions of the country are called Centrals and this is a smaller portion of a region). The Subcentral TIPNIS was founded in 1988 and received the land title to TIPNIS from Evo Morales in 2009. It pertains to the Central de Pueblos Étnicos Mojeños del Beni. The Subcentral Securé includes nearly all communities on the Securé river itself, and belongs to the Consejo de Pueblos Indígenas del Beni.

Communities in TIPNIS, Conisur highlighted

Map of communities in TIPNIS. Orange arrows signal communities affiliated with Conisur. Purple arrows signal other communities mentioned in pro-highway mobilizations.

Conisur includes most but not all communities in the southernmost part of the territory. The Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) database estimates Conisur’s population at 915 people and lists 14 Conisur communities: Limo del Isiboro, Santa Fe, San Juan del Isiboro, San Juan de Dios, San Benito, Sanandita, Secejsama, Fátima, San Antonio, Mercedes de Lojojota, San Juan de la Angosta, Carmen Nueva Esperanza, San Jorgito, and Puerto Pancho. Conisur affilialtes with the Coordinadora de los Pueblos del Trópico de Cochabamba (CPITCO); [La Razón reports 20 communities]. By comparison, estimates for the indigenous population of TIPNIS as a whole are around 12,500 in 64 communities. CPITCO’s website acknowledges, “CONISUR is an organization basically created and supported by the Cochabamba Prefecture, which serves it as a mechanism for channeling aid to the communities of the south and through this to defend its sovereignty over the area. [CONISUR es una organización básicamente creado y apoyado por la Prefectura de Cochabamba a la cual le sirve como mecanismo para canalizar ayuda a las comunidades del sur y de este modo defender su soberanía sobre el área.]” (The Prefecture—now the Gobernaciónor Governorate—is especially interested because the Cochabamba-Beni border inside TIPNIS is not officially demarcated.)

Map illustrating TIPNIS TCO and Polygon 7

This map shows Polygon 7, the main colonized area, in white at the bottom of TIPNIS.

The communities in Conisur are principally located inside Polygon 7, the region around Isinuta which been colonized since 1970 by outside settlers, principally coca growers. The Polygon is separated from TIPNIS by the Linea Roja (Red Line) which is meant to prevent the advance of further settlement into the park, but in practice has repeatedly been moved to allow just such settlement. Bolivia’s Fundación Tierra estimates that some 20,000 agricultural settlers live in the 100,000-hectare Polygon 7, swamping the local indigenous population whose territory they have largely deforested.

All three of the parent organizations of the TIPNIS indigenous organizations are members of CIDOB. And all three organizations joined in the May 2010 meeting of indigenous residents condemning the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway. However, political opportunities, local relationships with cocaleros, and divergent economic needs have driven Conisur apart from the residents in the rest of the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory.

Politically, as regular readers of this blog are well aware, the highway has become a major priority of the MAS-IPSP party. MAS-IPSP has controlled the departmental government since the 2008 revocation referendum. The party began its meteoric rise in eastern Cochabamba specifically the Chapare province whose capital is Villa Tunari. Governor Edmundo Novillo has made no secret of his support for the highway, and he plays a key role in its promotion committee. Since June, numerous MAS officials including Novillo, President Evo Morales, and Vice President Álvaro García Linera have been frequent visitors to the Conisur-aligned area of TIPNIS. They’re visits have served to rally support for the highway and to put an indigenous face on a project that is being pursued in contravention of the principle of indigenous consultation.

Map of TIPNIS deforestation, 2007

Map of deforestation in TIPNIS as of 2007. Red indicates the deforested area.

Four decades of cocalero settlement have created a variety of relations between them and the indigenous inhabitants of Polygon 7. Fundación Tierra documents intermarriage and indigenous participation in the coca growers’ unions’ standard-sized plots for growing coca. However, according to press visits (like this one by La Razón), relations are not equitable. Instead, indigenous people are often dependent, landless laborers in their own land, earning around 20 Bolivianos (a bit less than US$3) to harvest a coca plot or selling their fish or wild meat to colonists for around 300 Bolivianos (~US$40) a month. Some told the newspaper the cocaleros prevent them from joining in coca planting. Others earn income by authorizing the cutting of timber, and the elimination of the forest on which their lives once depended.

Unlike those living in the intact sections of the park, the indigenous in the colonized areas have already moved from a way of living interdependent with the ecosystems of the park to one that is integrated with the national economy. Right now, they are living at the bottom of the heap in the cash economy, relying on income from the growers of the regions’ key cash crop. This goes a long way to explain why they see a shared economic interest with the coca growers in the road. They also could see both educational and economic benefits from the expansion of formal schooling in their communities. While schools do not have to follow the roads, in practice the Conisur communities are being registered for schools right now. With this registration comes the Juancito Pinto school attendance bonus, 200 Bs paid to parents per student. This new payment may have furthered aligned their interests with the departmental government and thereby the road.

Added, 2 Jan: Further reporting on indigenous coca planting comes from the Cochabamba center-left daily Opinión and the community radio network Erbol. Opinión describes three levels of involvement by indigenous residents: labor in colonists’ coca harvesting, small-scale unofficial coca planting, and membership in coca growers’ unions. Coca is a good cash crop option for those who are enmeshed in the cash economy, but disconnected from the road network: the light coca leaves can be dried, packed up, and carried to larger settlements for sale. However, only union members can sell their leaves in large, official markets, which are controlled by the union federations. Opinión profiled in particular the community of San Antonio as a coca-growing Yuracaré indigenous community. Erbol has now published quotes from an interview “four months ago” with Conisur leader Gumercindo Pradel, confirming that “five to seven” Conisur grow coca: “There are five to seven communities that are dedicated to planting coca and which are affiliated with the Federation of the Tropic [one of the Six Federations of cocaleros]. [Son cinco a siete comunidades que se dedican a la siembra de la coca y que están afiliadas a la Federación del Trópico.]” Since the march began, however, Pradel has insisted that Conisur communities are not coca cultivators. // end update //

Across the world, indigenous rights struggles over development projects often see the fostering or exacerbating of internal divisions by those actors who promote the project. This makes the current counter-mobilization in TIPNIS familiar, even if few expected such a divisive move from the indigenous-identified government of Evo Morales. International and Bolivian standards around free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous have a provision to avoid this problem: an insistence that the pre-existing and recognized structures of governance be the basis of indigenous consultation. While the schismatic history of TIPNIS indigenous organizations complicates this picture, the Morales government clearly recognized the Subcentral TIPNIS as the local authority over the National Park and Indigenous Territory. By changing course when the Subcentral spoke out against its highway project, the MAS government is following in the footsteps of the divide-and-conquer strategies by governments and corporations it once condemned.

Nearly two months after the cross-country Eighth Grand National Indigenous March won a law prohibiting any highway project through the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), construction of the project has finally been suspended, but not stopped. The Brazilian contractor OAS has laid off 80 of its 800 workers, and pulled back its work camps, machinery, and work teams from areas of active construction, reports today’s Los Tiempos (Cochabamba). The layoffs were reported earlier in the Brazilian newspaper Valor (secondary coverage from the Erbol community radio network). Update: OAS now reports that it is laying off 411 additional workers, leaving just 300 on staff “for continuity” of its operations. The worker’s union reports even larger layoffs: 350 on December 14 and another 350 on December 15. (source: “Despido masivo en OAS; la ABC no halla motivos,” Los Tiempos, 15 December). Evo Morales criticized the move and the company. Further Update (January 7): The Brazilian ambassador to Brazil, Marcel Biato confirms a “slowdown” in work, but attributes it to the rainy season, rather than any monetary dispute. The ambassador mediated in the Decemeber impasse between OAS and the Bolivian government, and claims to have resolved it. [Opinión puts it this way: Biato, que había interpuesto sus buenos oficios para superar el impasse, dijo que aquello ya no es tal. ] Biato states that he expects the Bolivian government to renegotiate Segment II, but reiterates there is “no hurry” to do so.

The immediate cause of the paralysis in new work is a dispute between OAS and the Bolivian government over financing. While most of the funds (US$322 million)  for the project are being provided by the Brazilian state development bank BNDES, the Bolivian government share had been set at US$190 million. However, the Bolivian government is now offering just US$143 million, although the reasons for this are unclear.

Workers on the project have offered the Bolivian government a 48-hour deadline to resolve the issue or face mobilizations.

Map of Cochabamba-Beni highway and TIPNIS

A map from the Bolivian Highway Administration illustrating the road project from Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos. The boundaries of TIPNIS appear in yellow. Segment I ends at Insinuta, while Segment III begins at Montegrande.

The Bolivian Highway Administration (ABC) claims to be working within the mandate of Law 180 protecting TIPNIS, but has doesn’t seem to have worked out that the current route of Segments I and III essentially require a cross-TIPNIS connection. ABC official, however, have deferred the issue to Cochabamba Governor Edmundo Novillo (of the ruling MAS party) and the highway booster committee.

Engineers: Alternatives Exist

Meanwhile, the Beni Inter-Institutional Committee and the Cochabamba Association of Emeritus Engineers have worked out alternate routes. The Cochabamban engineers proposed 270- to 300-km routes east of the park or a 749-km route northwest of Cochabamba to Trinidad in Beni. They estimate a cost savings over the current project, but realizing that cost savings requires stopping construction. The Beni group came up with an additional route passing immediately west of TIPNIS.

Political conflict continues

Despite the existence of alternatives, the debate over the future of the highway continues to be a political one. The national government, the MAS party in Cochabamba, and a quasi-independent organization of indigenous in the colonized zone of TIPNIS called Conisur continue to be the heart of the pro-road effort. President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera continue to vocally advocate for construction on the original route. The Bolivian government is pursuing parallel, but opposed tracks on the issue: authorizing regulations protecting the park on one hand and organizing a civil society campaign to overturn these decisions.

Some members of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Mojos Highway Booster Committee, however, have expressed flexibility on the route. And several prominent Bolivian grassroots forces have distanced themselves from the campaign for the road, notably the national colonizer federation (the Union Federation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia) and peasant union founder Genaro Flores.

This week, the Pact of Unity split deepened into two separate meetings on Bolivia’s future agenda. The 1st Plurinational Forum to Deepen the Change met at Cochabamba’s Casa Campestre while CIDOB and CONAMAQ organized their own summit in Santa Cruz. Despite the best efforts of the road-through-TIPNIS campaigners, it seems that the issue will be left for regional Sub-forums to Deepen the Change. The indigenous gathering has reaffirmed defense of territorial rights, including a highway-free TIPNIS as the top of its agenda.

A truncated version of Bolivia’s most prominent grassroots alliance, the Pact of Unity (wikipedia background), met last week in Sucre. The indigenous-campesino Pact has had various versions but generally (since 2006) consists of five nationwide organizations: the campesino federation CSUTCB, the campesino women’s federation known as the Bartolina Sisas, the agrarian colonist federation CSCIB, the lowland indigenous CIDOB, and the highland indigenous traditionalists in CONAMAQ.

Since the divide over the August–October CIDOB-CONAMAQ march in defense of Isiboro Sécure, however, disunity has prevailed. The November 17 to 19 meeting, which hosted President Evo Morales, had just three national participants, the three campesino organizations (or “the triplets”) while CIDOB and CONAMAQ stayed away. (Some Moxeños and representatives of Conisur, an organization of indigenous residents in the colonized area of TIPNIS attended.)

Early reports show no signs of rapprochement on the the TIPNIS issue from the Pact; instead they took an even harder line than the Morales administration by supporting the highway and urging indictments against a human rights activist who repeated the widespread (but unsubstantiated) reports of deaths during the September 25 raid on CIDOB’s march. However, the Pact of Unity continues to have its own agenda independent of the government it supports, and the multifaceted  demands emerging from this week’s gathering serve to illustrate that fact.

Signature Agenda: The Pact of Unity is responsible for major legislation re-envisioning agriculture and environmental policy. These initiatives remain in their early stages. The Law on the Rights of Mother Earth (wikipedia), a general environmental law has become world famous, but its full, operative version has yet to pass the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. On the other hand, the Law of the Productive, Communitarian, and Agricultural Revolution, a plan for massive investment in the agrarian sector, passed in July, but major implementation challenges are ahead.

On both fronts, the Pact has been a combative force and at times a harsh critic of government. With the presence of CIDOB and CONAMAQ, the June meeting of the Pact critiqued “resistances to change, deviations and political errors” within the government, manifesting in “a nationalist bloc within the government that does not want give up the Nation-State, and does not want to build the  communitarian and autonomy-based Plurinational State.” That same meeting placed the Mother Earth and Productive Revolution laws as the foundation for rewriting of Bolivian policy around all types of interaction with the environment, including new laws on consultation, mining, forestry, water, and food sovereignty.

Social control over the state: In the Pact’s June 2011 vision, social movement organizations, indigenous nations, and grassroots communities must watch over the process of change. This week they agreed to form a Supreme Mixed [that is, multi-organization] Council on Monitoring and Social Control to watch over and meet with government Ministers on a monthly basis. This represents the most institutionalized high-level step so far proposed for social movement involvement with governance, although it is unclear whether Morales will accept it. Previously, Morales traditionally held annual (and sometimes quarterly) meetings between Ministers and allied social movements, but broke the tradition before the 2010 gasolinazo.

Critique of Ministers: The La Paz delegation pressed a call for ministerial resignations. In the past the La Paz campesino federation has singled out a few ministers, notably Nemesia Achacolla, for such requests. This time, their delegation called on the entire cabinet to resign. The Pact as a whole kept this to a vague statement referring to ministers “not working for the process of change.”

Gasolinazo: Eleven months after the MAS government’s politically disastrous abandonment of fuel subsidies (quickly reversed by protests), the Pact remain unable to reach consensus on the issue. For now, however, they’re asking the administration to hold off on any new price hikes until the economy approves. Morales acquiesced, while declaring subsidies “a cancer for the country’s economy” which one day the public will ask him to eliminate. No one should hold their breath.

TIPNIS: The Pact embraced a finger-pointing strategy consistent that the movement in defense of the park  and indigenous territory is an attack on the grassroots “process of change” underway in Bolivia. Accordingly, they called for lawsuits against the media; prominent activists (Alejandro Almaraz, Lino Villca, Rafael Quispe were named); and the president of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights. The three activists were blamed for “instigating violence and confrontation among social movements.” Without naming names, the Pact also resolved to expel “all the traitors to the process of change without regard to office or hierarchical rank.” They also now support building the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and the northern highway from La Paz to Pando.

In short, while the TIPNIS issue continues to be divisive, the peasant wing of the Pact of Unity are far from pro-government yes men (and yes women) on other issues. The common agenda they share with their absent counterparts continues to occupy their time and may lead to friction with the Morales government. The future of an alternative development model based on Vivir Bien, long demanded by the Pact of Unity and long promised by Evo Morales, remains undecided. The Pact’s legislative agenda, and tangible actions on extraction projects will be decisive on these issues.

Note: This is (hopefully) now a historical correction. This is assuming that the Morales government carries through its October 21 promise to prohibit any highway through TIPNIS. The misrepresentations of the Morales government on this issue (see below), however, suggest interested journalists and supporters of TIPNIS should stay tuned until the new legislation is finalized. Additionally, the Eighth Indigenous March has fifteen other points of demand, which are currently under negotiations with the Morales government. For comprehensive background on the issue see this briefing paper on the arrival of the march to La Paz (written October 16) and past articles on this blog. Happily, the English-language press has sent some impressive on-the-ground journalists who are covering this, alongside consistent bloggers like Dario Kenner. — CBJ, 21 October

Legislation passed by the Bolivian Chambers of Deputies and under consideration by the Bolivian Senate will not resolve the ongoing conflict over the proposed highway through Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). The indigenous communities of the territory, joined by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the highland National Confederation of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu (CONAMAQ) have led a 59-day protest march in opposition to the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would split the territory and accelerate already significant deforestation. The legislation, like prior government proposals, will not allow the indigenous people of the territory to freely choose the location or the absence of the road, as required by international standards. Nor will the law stop construction on the other two segments of the road, making the final segment a possible fait accompli.

Update, Thursday October 13: The executive branch has weighed in today. Evo Morales, speaking at the fulfillment an international business deal with a Chinese company, unequivocally said that the consultation will be non-binding, in the case of the highway and many other natural resources issues “of state concern.” As reported by the community radio network Erbol, Evo stated:

They ask that the consultation be binding, it’s impossible, that is non-negotiable. Prior consultations, consultations are always guaranteed by the Constitution and by international norms. We will always respect [consultation], but for a group of families to say to us, “Don’t do this,” would mean to paralyze our projects in the electrical and hydrocarbon sectors, and to paralyze our industries.

There are some matters that cannot be negotiated because it is a question of state, it is a question of the Bolivian people. [translation mine]

Nos piden que la consulta tenga carácter vinculante, (eso) es imposible, eso no se puede negociar, las consultas previas, las consultas siempre están garantizadas por la Constitución y por las normas internacionales, siempre vamos a respetar (la consulta), pero que un grupo de familias nos diga que no se haga (eso) significa paralizar todas nuestras obras en el sector eléctrico, en el sector hidrocarburífero, nuestras industrias.

Hay temas que no se pueden negociar porque es una cuestión de Estado, es del pueblo boliviano.

Evo Morales was not the executive official to weigh in today. Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, widely regarded as the figure who urged Evo to retreat on the gasolinazo in December 2010, also spoke out.

Journalist: If they say they don’t want the highway, will that be accepted?

Choquehuanca: That’s it, that’s it. Otherwise, why are what are we doing the consulatation for?

Journalist: So, it will be binding?

Choquehuanca: It must be.

Morales’ statement came hours after Choquehuanca, and he continues to lead the government, so there is no doubt that Evo’s is the official position. However, Choquehuanca continues to be a crucial moral compass for the MAS government.

Note: This fact check is necessary in part because some English-language media (e.g., AFP) uncritically repeated the government’s spin that the road project has been stopped or suspended.

Government Proposal for Consultation Will Be Non-Binding

Legislators from the governing Movement towards Socialism (MAS) are currently advancing legislation on the TIPNIS conflict. While, some of them have claimed this legislation reflects the demands of the Eighth National Indigenous March, a delegation of MAS legislators failed to reach agreement with the marchers or indigenous deputies. On the night of October 8, after nine hours of debate, the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies passed the modified MAS proposal. It requires Senate approval and Presidential signing to become law. The modified MAS proposal does the following:

  • Suspends construction on Segment 2 pending “free, prior and informed consultation of the TIPNIS indigenous peoples, respecting their own norms and procedures in the framework of the Constitution,” ILO Convention 169, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Authorizes a study of alternatives for the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, with alternatives required to “guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples in their territory and the ecological equilibrium of TIPNIS.” (Relevant text appears here)

The indigenous march, and six indigenous deputies who represent lowland indigenous communities have raised several objections to this legislation (see after the jump). However, it has now come to light that the consultation process will not be binding; that is, the repeated indigenous opposition to the project, stated since 2003, may be ignored by the government under the law. Three MAS legislators—Deputy Ingrid Loreto (who helped to draft it), Deputy Emiliana Aiza, and Senator Rhina Aguirre—stated to the press (La Paz daily La Razón) that the legislated consultation does not require the government to carry out its results.

A binding process, rather than mere consultation, is the requirement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the government of Evo Morales incorporated into its national laws. Article 32 of the Declaration states in part, “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.” A recent letter from sixty-one organizations from five continents to President Evo Morales also urged, “We support a free and binding consultation process for the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway and the right of the indigenous people of TIPNIS to say no to this development within the Territory and National Park.” Likewise, an online petition with nearly 500,000 signatures (from Avaaz) calls for a “binding and inclusive” consultation.

Construction continues on the highway

Meanwhile, construction continues on Segments 1 and 3 of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway. The Cochabamba daily Los Tiempos also reports that a bridge from Isinuta (the endpoint of Segment 1) and Puerto Patiño, the first step in Segment 2 inside TIPNIS, is being prepared. The promise of Evo Morales, made in the wake of the September 25 police attack on the march, to suspend construction only applies to Segment 2. The same would be true of the suspension under the proposed legislation. However, as can be seen in the accompanying map, Segment 2 between Isinuta and Monte Grande would have to cross through TIPNIS if the other two segments are built as planned.

Map and other indigenous concerns about the law follow…

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