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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?”)
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.