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Bolivia, the country that became synonymous with indigenous and environmental rights on the global diplomatic stage, is about to approve a Mother Earth Law that lacks the blessing of the country’s leading indigenous organizations and undermines indigenous communities’ rights to prior consultation. Thursday (August 23), the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu (CONAMAQ) publicly walked out of the Chamber of Deputies’ drafting session on the “Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well” (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien).  CONAMAQ Spokesman David Crispin explained the walk out: “We in CONAMAQ dave decided to withdraw from the drafting because we do not want to be complicit, alongside the Plurinational Assembly, in building a Law of Integral Development that will damage the Pachamama/Mother Earth. nosotros del CONAMAQ hemos decidido retirarnos del tratamiento porque no queremos ser cómplices, juntamente con la Asamblea Plurinacional, en construir una Ley de Desarrollo Integral que va dañar a la Pachamama” The government had already broken off contact with the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the government-backed alternate leadership of the organization does not appear to be involved in the drafting process.

Readers of the English-language press may be thoroughly confused at this point. Doesn’t Bolivia already have a Mother Earth law, the strongest in the world? Many in the international environmental community know that Bolivia that introduced the concept of the Rights of Mother Earth to the world, hosted a global conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth [past coverage: 1|2|3] in April 2010, and passed the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth [Wikipedia] in December 2010.

What is less widely known is that the law that was passed was only a rough statement of principles—a declaratory “short law”—with no legal force behind it. Even the short law featured just 10 of the 12 principles worked out by the grassroots organizations in Bolivia’s Pact of Unity: right of indigenous people’s to freely consent to or reject megaprojects on their lands was cut at the last minute. In April 2011, Senator Julio Salazar (MAS) who is in charge of the law’s progress, declared, “Our indigenous brothers cannot block taking advantage of natural resources.”

Bus ad at Cochabamba Climate Summit'

“We, the peoples, are the voice of Mother Earth” reads a bus placard at the Cochabamba eco-summit, sponsored by the state-owned gas company YPFB.

Salazar’s position, embraced by the Evo Morales government as a whole, has been influential over the past two years. As highlighted by the TIPNIS controversy, the Bolivian government has prioritized national economic development over local indigenous choices; publicly vowed to ignore local opposition to transport, hydrocarbon, and mining projects; and backtracked from guarantees of indigenous rights to free, prior, and informed consent regarding projects on their territories. Alongside other left governments in the region, these policies tie continued mining, drilling, and pumping of natural resources to greater social spending, a combination called “neo-extractivism.” The transformation of the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth into a Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development reflects all of these trends.

The draft law (complete text), already fully approved by the Bolivian Senate, declares a governmental obligation to “Promote the industrialization of the components of Mother Earth,” while surrounding this objective with extensive promises about respecting the rights and development of indigenous nations and peoples, safety monitoring, clean technologies, and so on. In short, “Integral Development” in the proposed Bolivian law is about conditioning industrial extraction on environmental compliance (the environmental policy framework embraced throughout the West, from the Clean Air Act to the World Bank), not about rethinking the extractive model.

In a letter to Rebecca Delgado, the President of Chamber of Deputies, CONAMAQ argues:

The draft only keeps “Living Well as an alternative civilizational horizon to capitalism” and “Equilibrium with Mother Earth” by way of proclamation (i.e., propaganda). The Draft Law does not propose a change in the structural basis of the capitalist system, nor reconfiguration of the nation-state.

El proyecto solo conserva el “Vivir Bien como horizonte civilizatorio alternativo al Capitalismo” y el “Equilibrio con la Madre Tierra” de manera enunciativa (propaganda). El Proyecto de ley no propone un cambio de las bases estructurales del sistema Capitalista, ni una reconfiguración del Estado nación.

In CONAMAQ’s analysis, “‘Integral Development’ is introduced as a framework of processes and rights” that conflict with one another. The rights of Mother Earth, rights of indigenous peoples, rights of peasants, right to development, and the right to escape from poverty are all intermixed. CONAMAQ argues the law “incorporates the ‘right to development and the right to esacape from poverty’ so as to justify a developmentalist, extractive, and industrializing vision. [Incorpora el “derecho al desarrollo y el derecho a salir de la pobreza” para justificar un visión desarrollista, extractiva e industrializadora]” In my analysis (and here I’ll put my environmental policy degree on the line), combining these rights into a single mix will allow future Bolivian governments to decide on which right gets prioritized. Under the aegis of “integral development,” governments can decide to value oil revenues spent on antipoverty programs over an indigenous people’s rights to refuse drilling on their territory. (And the public statements of the Morales government make it clear they have every intent to make just that choice.)

The proposed law is also weaker than its well-known (but inoperative) predecessor on three key points:

  • Legally enforceable rights of the Earth and “life systems” — These rights are first the responsibility of the government itself, although “affected persons and collectivities” may intervene in court as well. However, these rights are limited to “the framework of Integral Development for Living Well,” limiting any ecological rights independent of the overall economic plan. In cases where a government agency and a private entity both step in to defend these rights, the case will be consolidated, perhaps making it difficult for independent critics to gain the ear of the courts. (It’s worth noting that the  original law was weaker than realized. The concept “life systems” that include human societies and ecosystems in a single interwoven package sounds intellectually innovative, but makes ecosystem protection much more complicated than a straightforward law like the US’s Endangered Species Act.)
  • Mother Earth Defender’s Office unspecified — Both the new law and the December 2010 call for the creation of a Defensoría de la Madre Tierra, equivalent in rank to the Human Rights Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo, often called the Human Rights Ombudsman). However, other than a one-year deadline, no specifics are included in the new law.
  • Indigenous free, prior, and informed consent— As expected, the new law does not explicitly recognize indigenous communities’ right to approve or reject projects on their territories, as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Bolivia incorporated into its national laws. The term ”free, prior, and informed consultation” does appear in a subordinate clause:“Generation of the necessary conditions for the use and appropriation of the components of Mother Earth in the framework of sustainable life systems which integrally develop the social, ecological, cultural and economic aspects of the Bolivian people, taking into account the knowledge of each indigenous, native, peasant, intercultural, and Afro-Bolivian nation and people, in the framework of free, prior, and informed consultation. Generación de condiciones necesarias para el uso y aprovechamiento de los componentes de la Madre Tierra en el marco de sistemas de vida sustentables que desarrollen integralmente los aspectos sociales, ecológicos, culturales y económicos del pueblo boliviano tomando en cuenta los saberes y conocimientos de cada nación y pueblo indígena originario campesino, comunidad intercultural y afro boliviana, en el marco de la consulta previa, libre e informada.

This verbiage makes indigenous consultation into just another phase of the approval process for “using and appropriating Mother Earth.” The protections for indigenous rights and the idea of a new relationship with the Earth and its ecosystems have been shelved for now in the Bolivian legislature.

Here is a compendium of statements from the Evo Morales government on the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, with Spanish and my English translation side-by-side. What started as a single controversy is rapidly spreading to a defining moment in the Morales presidency, and an illustration of its “paradigm of respect for Mother Earth.” The quotes grow increasingly disconcerting and the stakes get higher as officials repeatedly suggest that further expansion of extraction industries and megaprojects is on their agenda.

June 23: President Evo Morales lamented that other social movements had not persuaded the indigenous “that they are being confused, that they out to reject the NGOs, the enemies of integration, of the national economy, of the indigenous people who lack electricity. It’s not just on the matter of the road, but also hydroelectric dams and petroleum.”…
“Some [of the indigenous people] want the road to pass through their community, but lamentably there are some NGOs, some foundations that [under] the pretext of conserving the environment want to disadvantage [others],” explained the head of state, arguing that some sectors advance other interests because “it’s a business for them, they live off of it, and they are uninterested in the road for its own sake”
También lamentó que las fuerzas sociales de Cochabamba y del Beni no coadyuven y no persuadan a los indígenas “que están siendo confundidos, que no rechacen rotundamente a las ONG, enemigos de la integración, de la economía nacional, de los pueblos indígenas que no tienen luz. No sólo es el tema del camino, sino de hidroeléctricas y petróleo”

“Algunos (indígenas) quieren que el camino pase por sus comunidades, pero lamentablemente hay algunas ONG, algunas fundaciones que so pretexto de conservar el medio ambiente quieren perjudicar”, explicó el Jefe de Estado y argumentó que algunos sectores buscan otros intereses, porque “es negocio para ellos, viven de ello, a ellos no les interesa el camino por el camino”.
(La Razón, July 13)
June 29: Evo Morales:Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road and we are going to deliver under [my] current administration the Cochabamba-Beni/Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos road.” “Quieran o no quieran vamos construir este camino y lo vamos a entregar en esta gestión el camino Cochabamba-Beni, Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos” (Página Siete, June 30)
Evo Morales, July 12: “Those who oppose the exploration of oil or of gas, or finally the construction of roads are not my indigenous brothers, whether they are from the Chaco, from Isiboro[-Sécure] or other places. How can they oppose themselves?; I cannot understand the indigenous brothers.”  “No son mis hermanos indígenas sean del Chaco, de la zona del Isiboro o de otras zonas que se oponen a la exploración del petróleo o del gas o finalmente a la ejecución de la construcción de caminos. Cómo pueden oponerse, no puedo entender a los hermanos indígenas.” (Erbol community radio network, July 12)
July 12: José Luis Gutiérrez, Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy, opened the possibility of oil exploration in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, where there would be an important hydrocarbon reserve according to inhabitants of the territory itself.  El ministro de Hidrocarburos y Energía, José Luis Gutiérrez, abrió la posibilidad de realizar trabajos de exploración petrolera en el Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS), donde existiría un importante reservorio hidrocarburífero según versión de los propios habitantes de la zona. (Erbol community radio network, July 12)
Evo Morales, July 31 at a meeting of cocaleros in the Chapare: “We will consult, but they should know it will not be a binding consultation. Just because they say no, doesn’t mean it won’t be done.””You, comrades, have to explain, to orient the indigenous comrades—the mayor himself is mobilized—to convince them that must not oppose [the road]“Later, he added, “If I had the time, I would go seduce the Yuracaré female comrades [literally make them fall in love]; so then, youth, you have instructions from the president to [sexually] conquer the Trinitario and Yuracaré female comrades so that they do not oppose the construction of the road. Then he asked, “Approved?” and applause could be heard from the crowd. “Las consultas vamos a hacerlas, pero quiero que sepan que no tienen carácter vinculante. No porque ellos (los indígenas) digan no, no se va a hacer.”“Ustedes compañeras y compañeros tienen que explicar, orientar a los compañeros indígenas, el propio alcalde está movilizado, para convencerlos y que no se opongan”, dijo.Luego, agregó: “Si yo tuviera tiempo, iría a enamorar a las compañeras yuracarés y convencerlas de que no se opongan; así que, jóvenes, tienen instrucciones del Presidente de conquistar a las compañeras yuracarés trinitarias para que no se opongan a la construcción del camino”. Enseguida consultó: ¿Aprobado?” y se escucharon aplausos del público.

(La Razón, August 1)

Félix Cárdenas, Vice-Minister of Decolonization, August 4: “The Bolivian people need development and this will not be the only road that will cross through protected areas, there will be many others besides, all with the goal of connecting us internationally, of exploiting our natural resources, and to have a network of communication, in all senses, with other countries.”
Cárdenas repeated that he rejects “the fundamentalism” of environmentalists and indigenous people who “think that the paradigm proposed by the MAS of respect for Mother Earth means that we must care for all of the forests and lands. If that were so, what would we eat?”
El viceministro de Descolonización, Félix Cárdenas, aseguró que “el pueblo boliviano necesita desarrollo y éste (el que divide las tierras protegidas del TIPNIS) no será el único camino que atravesará zonas protegidas, serán muchos otros más, todo con el fin de conectarnos internacionalmente, de explotar nuestros recursos y para tener una red de comunicación, en todo sentido, con los demás países”
Cárdenas repitió que se rechaza “el fundamentalismo” de ambientalistas y originarios que “piensan que el paradigma planteado por el MAS de respeto a la Madre Tierra significa que se debe cuidar todos los bosques y tierras. Si así fuera, entonces ¿qué comemos?”
(La Prensa, August 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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