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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?”)

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.

Following the arrival of the CONISUR march in La Paz, the governing MAS party shifted its public position towards being an arbiter between indigenous groups in TIPNIS. After welcoming CONISUR march, President Evo Morales and MAS legislative leaders backed away from CONISUR’s proposal to simply revoke Law 180 protecting TIPNIS. Instead, they coalesced around a new legislative initiative: a “prior consultation” law on the issue.

Prior consultation is a fundamental principle of indigenous rights, and an important part of the environmental review process. In the case of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway, currently under construction, consultation with indigenous communities has been anything but prior. Indeed, no consultation was pursued at all on Segments I and III of the highway, despite some complaints from the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory I, which is crossed by Segment III. Negative environmental reviews were avoided by the firing of Vice-Minister of the Environmental Juan Pablo Ramos in 2010, and the official responsible for TIPNIS in the National Protected Area Service, Vladimir Ortolini, in October 2011.

Now with Segments I, III, and a small portion of Segment II under construction, the government proposes a public consulatation with indigenous peoples inside of TIPNIS. The consultation is to be authorized under a new law, which has already passed the Senate and has been reviewed without change by the Chamber of Deputies’ Constitution Committee. The consultation will be organized by the independent electoral branch of the Bolivian government, be conducted under the norms and procedures of indigenous governance, and take place in five languages. The issues at hand are:

  • “Consideration and definition of whether the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park is an intangible zone, and about the construction of the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway.” Consideración y definición sobre si el Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure – TIPNIS, es zona intangible o no, y sobre la construcción de la carretera Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos;
  • “Consideration and decision concerning the safeguard measures for protecting the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, as well as those measures to prohibit and remove immediately illegal settlements within the demarcating line, and to determine the measures to maintain the zoning specified in the TIPNIS management plan.” Consideración y decisión sobre las medidas de salvaguarda para la protección del Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure – TIPNIS, así como las destinadas a la prohibición y desalojo inmediato de asentamientos ilegales, dentro de lal ínea demarcatoria, y determinar los mecanismos para mantener la zonificación establecida en el Plan de Manejo del TIPNIS.

In effect, this gives TIPNIS indigenous communities, from the Subcentral and CONISUR a round of consultation, lasting up to 120 days. There have been no statements offering to suspend construction during this time. These issues are precisely those addressed by last October’s Law 180, and agreed between the Subcentral and the government in late November. Apparently, that agreement will go unimplemented.

Evaluations of the law

The proposed consultation has been widely critiqued for its timing, which clearly is not prior to the project in question. The Andean Information Network argues that this model for consultation is “potentially viable,” but comes too late for TIPNIS where “it is improbable that this initiative will alleviate tensions or resolve protracted friction.”

The Subcentral TIPNIS and CIDOB are not impressed by this new consultation, and are preparing to re-mobilize should it pass. Yolanda Herrera, president of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights in Bolivia; the Bolivian Forum on the Enviornment; and Adolfo Moye of the Subcentral have all spoken out against the proposed law. Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena warned that the “unilateral” drafting of the law would “increase the resulting divisions within the lowland indigenous movement and affect its unity and strength, as well as [unleash] a series of probable conflicts at the national level” “aumentar los eventuales desencuentros al interior del movimiento indígena de tierras bajas y afectar su unidad y fortaleza, además de una serie de probables conflictos a nivel nacional.”

Left by the wayside again are alternate proposals for the highway route. As has been noted here before, leaving Segments I and III in their current locations makes a deforestation-inducing route through TIPNIS inevitable. However, numerous engineering groups have proposed alternate routes for a Cochabamba–Beni highway, and will do so again tonight in La Paz (webcasted, even). In the US context, where environmental impact assessment (but not prior consultation) has long been a required part of every “major Federal action” (under the National Environmental Policy Act), the presentation of genuine alternatives is the required first step for meaningful assessment. Bolivia would do well to follow that model.

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