Mural-Mensaje-Uwa

Indigenous voices echoed by Papal Encyclical on the environment

With the release of the Papal Encyclical on the environment, I am reminded of how indigenous peoples have been offering spiritual and practical guidance on the global ecological crisis for decades. These two statements seem particularly relevant to me:

Our cultural principles include the defense of the right to a dignified life, respect for mother earth and the environment, essential and sacred elements that we should leave as an inheritance to our children, grandchildren and their descendents. Read More »

The State of Human Rights in Bolivia: The UN View

This is an expanded and hyperlinked version of an article I contributed to Bolivia Information Forum’s News Briefing service. Please support BIF’s appeal for funds to continue its valuable work.

Bolivia’s record on human rights came up for review by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee* during its October session. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bolivia submits a report on its performance every five years. The Committee looked at that report and submissions from numerous human rights organizations in drafting a series of recommendations (Concluding Observations [es] | all documents from the process). In the UN committee’s view, the state of political freedom and social equality in the country is an uneasy balance between ambitious new legislative protections and inadequate practical implementation of national and international norms.

The Bolivian government has passed new laws to guarantee rights and combat discrimination, including norms against racism and other forms of discrimination (2010), violence against women (2013), and gendered political harassment (2012). While some regional commissions on racism are operating, the regulations to protect women from violence are still pending. A law on consultation with indigenous communities is also pending. The Committee criticized Bolivia for failing to respect the right to free, prior, and informed consent on projects and laws that affect indigenous peoples and their territories.

The Committee’s strongest criticisms refer to Bolivia’s overwhelmed criminal justice system. Investigations and prosecutions are slow, while prisons are overcrowded to 230% of their capacity. Four out of five people in Bolivia’s jails are awaiting trial, and the Committee suggested that alternatives like house arrest and location monitors could see many of them released. It said that those who remain should have the right to be housed separately from convicted criminals. A government amnesty plan is underway, but progress remains slow. Delays in prosecution are also creating a situation of impunity for those responsible for racist attacks perpetrated in 2008, the murder of two women council members in 2012, and police repression at Chaparina and Mallku Khota, among others. The Committee also urged further action to combat lynchings, as well as corporal punishment carried out in the family and traditional spheres of the justice system.

The Bolivian armed forces and police were singled out in a number of observations.  A series of revelations of brutal treatment of conscripts and of beatings of prisoners have generated controversy, but there have been few successful prosecutions.  The Committee also urged opening military records from the dictatorship era (between the mid 1960s and early 1980s), and the creation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Finally, the UN Committee urged expanded protection of rights on several fronts.  It argues that the current obligation for women seeking a legal abortion (in cases of rape, incest, and medical necessity) to get a judge’s backing contributes to maternal mortality and should be eliminated. It also urged new action to free hundreds of Guaraní families still trapped in servitude, and to criminalize violence against sexual minorities and transgender people.

* This Human Rights Committee is a body established by article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Big Plans: Scientists, indigenous people urge new frameworks for development

Last week, a group of scientists and development experts and the Colombian indigenous confederation each urged a fundamental rethinking of the priorities for planning “development”* in the twenty-first century. The technical experts published their perspective in a commentary in the prestigious journal Nature,Sustainable development goals for people and planet,” while the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia published a report called Another Vision, Indigenous Peoples and the Millennium Development Goals. (coverage from Intercontinental Cry). Both texts are intervening in the global discussion on the next version of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Outside of the United States (where this kind of international planning is treated as purely a foreign policy matter that won’t affect our future), the MDGs are taken as a general yardstick for directing aid and setting policy objectives, with goals like achieving universal access to primary school and eliminating extreme poverty that may change hundreds of millions of lives. Since I write from the USA, however, let’s pretend that this is just an intellectual discussion for how to think about the world. Even from that perspective, the scientists and the indigenous people raise some really important questions.

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Bolivia’s new Mother Earth Law to sideline indigenous rights

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.

Bolivian government bypasses local organizations, misrepresents facts in “agreement” on TIPNIS consultation

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?”)