Bolivian-Venezuelan Military construction team begins work on TIPNIS highway

Putting new pressure on a polarizing national conflict, the Bolivian government re-started construction work on the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, whose central segment would run through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory. The construction, which began yesterday June 28, is on Segment Three of the highway, stretching 100 kilometers from San Ignacio de Moxos to Santo Domingo, a community within the Park. A joint Bolivian-Venezuelan unit of military engineers will carry out the project, using forty dump trucks. They currently project completion of the project by 2016, although such timelines are often unreliable. The segment is projected to cost US$144 million.Read More »

Bolivia´s indigenous movements march in defense of TIPNIS, 2011 (credit: Communications Commission of the march)

Evo Morales reopens proposal for highway through TIPNIS

Bolivian President Evo Morales has renewed his efforts to build a controversial highway through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), a forested park that is home to over 12,000 indigenous people. The central segment of the highway would bisect the territory and accelerate already high rates of deforestation. Protests spearheaded by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in 2011 and 2012 postponed its construction, while funding by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) was withdrawn. The Bolivian government had previously said it would tackle extreme poverty in the territory before mounting any new effort to build the highway.

On June 4, however, President Morales told an audience in his home base of Villa Tunari, Cochabamba, that the project “will be realized.” His remarks followed on earlier statements leading up to the April regional elections and a May runoff that put the highway back on the official agenda. Now, with an overwhelming victory for Morales’ MAS party in Cochabamba and a very narrow win in the Beni runoff, the national government seems committed to restarting the project. In the president’s words,

On the subject of integration, good voices come from the new governors of Beni [Alex Ferrier] and Cochabamba [Iván Canelas]. The Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos, comrades, will be realized.Read More »

Bringing the Fight over Bolivia’s TIPNIS Road to Washington, DC

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.

Bolivian Constitutional Tribunal shakes up MAS executive with rulings, comments

In a very busy Wednesday, Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal struck down a longstanding law criminalizing “contempt” toward public officials and limited the scope of an anti-corruption law; rounding out the court’s surge into the headlines, justice Gualberto Cusi made biting comments on the government’s failure to abide by the court’s ruling on the TIPNIS consultation.

Contempt law ruled unconstitutional: The Tribunal found, in Judicial Ruling 1250/2012, that the law prohibiting contempt (“desacato” ) towards senior public officials through defamation is an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of expression. The court advised public officials that they may use civil court procedures to deal with slander, and nullified the law in its entirety. Numerous opposition figures, including the center-left Mayor of La Paz, Luis (Lucho) Revilla, and the right-wing Governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, have been indicted under this very broad statute following complaints from the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.

The “Marcelo Andrés Santa Cruz” Anti-corruption Law cannot be applied retroactively: In the first legislative session under the new Constitution, the Movement Towards Socialism supermajority wasted no time in approving a new law criminalizing corruption. The law allows for severe penalties against officials who took bribes or other compensation to change policies. It was designed to give the government room to revise contracts and licenses approved under improper influence, and to recover fortunes which had been pilfered from the government. However, it was also referred to as the “Guillotine Law” (including by the Vice President) for its ability to end the political careers of past government officials. On Wednesday, the court sharply limited this aspect, finding that the law may not be applied retroactively “when the sanction [it imposes] is more severe or the act being judged would not have constituted a crime when it was carried out.”

Gualberto Cusi speaks out on TIPNIS: The Constitutional Tribunal had already ruled on the TIPNIS consultation, insisting that any process establishing the will of the communities in the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory about the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would cut through the region and accelerate already serious deforestation, must occur in a mutually agreed framework. Justice Gualberto Cusi—the judge who received the most votes in last year’s judicial election—denounced the current consultation process as a “disaster” that violates the indigenous inhabitants’ rights. Further, the justice suggested that the TIPNIS indigenous may need to look outside Bolivia for protection of their rights: “I believe that in Bolivia, no[, nothing can be done.] It will have to be the indigenous who appeal these acts to international tribunals. Yo creo que en Bolivia no (se puede hacer algo), tendrán que ser los indígenas quienes apelen a estos hechos en tribunales internacionales.” The most likely forum for international appeals is the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which has been a pathbreaking forum for indigenous rights.

None of these rulings would be particularly exceptional for a high court around the world, but this particular high court is in its first year, and came out of a controversial nominating and election process which was boycotted by multiple opposition forces. For it to strike down major laws embraced by the governing party and publicly embrace human rights standards around freedom of expression, indigenous consultation, and ex post facto laws makes this something* of a Marbury v. Madison moment for the new court.

* The analogy is inexact since a Constitutional Tribunal began operation in 1999.

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?”)

Divides, Smoke, and Mirrors: The new chaotic scene around TIPNIS and CIDOB

  • Please forgive the past three months of quiet on this blog. My April and May were filled with organizing around May Day and the Free University in New York City. June saw a succession of alternately joyous and traumatic personal events. Through it all, I’ve been microblogging at @CarwilJ on Twitter; so please turn there for updates.
  • On two of this blog’s central fixations, Bolivian indigenous movements and contentious protests, this months have been anything but silent in the real world. It would be futile to try to summarize the past 90 days, but you might want to turn to these excellent English-language sources: Andean Information Network on the May protest wave (1 | 2) and on the police protests-turned-mutiny: May 30 | June 25. A compilation of coverage of the Ninth Indigenous March and the TIPNIS conflict is at Dario Kenner’s Bolivia Diary. The blog’s own articles on TIPNIS often provide a great deal of depth.

If there is one defining new aspect of Bolivian political protest in Evo Morales’ second term (since January 2010), it has been counter-mobilization. With the political right thoroughly defeated, many tensions emerged within the grand coalition of social movements that lent their votes and their marching feet to defend the government for the previous four years. When these groups took to the streets (or, as often happens, took over and shut down the streets) with demands that were unpalatable the government, one way for the Morales administration to resist has been to mobilize other sectors in return. Counter-mobilization within the grassroots is sometimes successful, and sometimes only delays negotiations and concession, but it always comes with a price, damaging previous alliances and increasing distrust among former allies.

Since last October’s Eighth National Indigenous March won a law prohibiting construction of the locally-opposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway through the Isiboro–Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, the Morales government has shifted counter-mobilization into high gear on this issue. From December to February, the organization CONISUR—consisting of the now vastly outnumbered indigenous residents of Polygon 7, an area of TIPNIS colonized for coca—led its own march for the highway. Morales conceded to this march a new consultation process, which the Subcentral TIPNIS opposes. In the process, it became clear that CONISUR communities are themselves engaged in coca growing on private plots of land; the organization affiliated itself with the Six Federations of coca growers and was expelled from the lowland indigenous confederation CIDOB.

In March, local TIPNIS organizations rejected the “prior” consultation and began preparations with CIDOB and the highland traditionalist movement CONAMAQ for a Ninth National Indigenous March, in defense of TIPNIS and advancing other indigenous demands. The government began conceding local demands to regional indigenous organizations in April in a bid to lessen support for the march. Indigenous solidarity and the need to advance local agendas for territory, rights, and material support have been put at odds during this process. Still, of the eleven or twelve regionals that signed agreements, just five distanced themselves from the march (count per Emily Achtenberg) and some of their prominent leaders marched anyway.

Since the march began, however, divisions within the CIDOB umbrella have deepened into an institutional crisis. Led most visibly by Rosendo Alpiri, president of Central de Pueblos Étnicos de Santa Cruz (CPESC, the regional organization for Santa Cruz department), leaders who stayed at home during the march have begun a contest for power over CIDOB. In early June, nine regional leaders met and officially suspended CIDOB President Adolfo Chávez. Chávez deemed the meeting illegitimate and CIDOB Vice President Nelly Romero accused the government of intervening in CIDOB’s affairs.

This week, with over 1200 CIDOB and CONAMAQ marchers still encamped in La Paz, the pro-government CIDOB dissidents have begun a Grand National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples (GANPI), a congress that is traditionally the highest decisionmaking body in the organization. The Asssembly of the Guaraní People and the Indigenous Organization of Chiquitanos are both boycotting the gathering. Early signs indicate that the Assembly will fully adopt the government agenda: reintegrate CONISUR and its leader Gumercindo Pradel into the organization, and (one presumes) accept the government’s proposal for consultation in TIPNIS. Meanwhile, Adolfo Chávez and the camped marchers also continue to act as CIDOB. (Mass marches are a longstanding CIDOB tradition, and involve creating a self-organizing community that essentially represents the organization for the period of the march.) Chávez himself returned to Santa Cruz this week and (according to Santa Cruz daily El Día) is currently occupying his own headquarters along with a group of followers. Rosendo Alpiri pledges to install the new leadership in the headquarters and has invited President Morales to attend.

So, as of this week there will be a “new CIDOB” and an old one. Right on cue, the Morales government has demanded that the new CIDOB as well as CONISUR be present in any new negotiations with TIPNIS leaders. The government invitation to dialogue now extends to TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas and Ninth March leader Bertha Bejarano, both of whom have voiced outrage at the recent maneuvers within CIDOB. As Bejarano puts it: The new Grand National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples “is not organic [i.e., representative of the organization] and is a response to the government’s intention to create parallel organizatins and disregard the organic structure of the principal indigenous organization in the country, for entirely political reasons: seeking to construct a highway through TIPNIS and destroy the largest ecological reserve in the country [es inorgánico  y responde a la intención gubernamental de crear organizaciones paralelas y desconocer la estructura orgánica de la principal organización indígena del país para fines enteramente políticos que buscan construir una carretera por el Tipnis y destruir la mayor reserva ecológica del país].”

It’s one thing to deploy a strategy of countermobilization when two groups have very different interests around an issue. For example, it’s no surprise that coca growers who hope to expand their plots into the Isiboro-Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory along the highly disputed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway have marched in support of it.  It’s something very different when countermobilization takes the form of attempting to split, or even break up organizations, bringing down any leader who challenges the government line. When governments stop taking seriously the independence of social movement organizations and instead demand that movement leaders toe the government line, you no longer have what Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera promised would be “a government of social movements.” Instead, you have a corporatist system, a return to the days when presidents like Hugo Banzer headed the national peasant organization and essentially negotiated with themselves.

The tactics for outside control of grassroots organizations are such a big issue that protections against them are written into international indigenous rights standards. The right to “free, prior, and informed consent” by indigenous peoples over projects and  policies that affect them and their territories requires that indigenous peoples’ own freely chosen institutions be the vehicle for that consent. To waver from this requirement, to “persuade” with large gifts, to station troops within communities, or to implant leaders chosen from outside, invalidates the “free”-ness of any consultation process. (Those of us who have been involved in indigenous solidarity for a long time have seen this strategy deployed by governments hostile to indigenous rights and resource extraction companies seeking local cover for their projects. For a detailed example, it’s worth reading about how oil giant ARCO helped to create the indigenous organization DICIP when it grew tired of being criticized by the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, OPIP, in Suzana Sawyer’s book Crude Chronicles.) Unfortunately, tragically, the Evo Morales government, which has long identified with indigenous peoples, is now deploying every one of these tactics in the TIPNIS conflict.