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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.
Update, March 4: The Bolivian Highway Administration’s (ABC) recent call for a “technical debate” on the highway route makes for headlines that sound like this impasse might clear. But the framing continues to exclude all of the meaningful alternatives presented here. ABC administrator José King continues to discuss alternatives for only Segment Two of the highway, between Isinuta and Monte Grande. Isinuta is on the southern boundary of the park (!). (ABC’s map with these cities is here) Of course, he can then insist that other alternatives that start from Isinuta cut through more forest than the proposed route. Meanwhile, despite eight months of demands to suspend construction, ABC continues to build Segments One and Three of the road (the pause, reported here, seem to have been resolved by mid-February). Until that construction stops, the only sensible read of the situation is that the Bolivian government has no intention of consulting the indigenous on the overall route of the road.
This map, produced by Cochabamba daily newspaper Los Tiempos, is the most important omission from the new round of debate on TIPNIS. It was reposted yesterday by Bolivia’s highly respected former Ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón (@pablosolon). The map shows shows four options to the currently under-construction route that will divide the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park in half, and which is protected to accelerate deforestation in the park, leaving 64% of it deforested within 20 years.
Nowhere in the recent debate has the government put these options on the table. The Prior Consultation law, formally promulgated by Evo Morales this week, does not allow a regional discussion on these other paths. Why is the government maintaining such silence? Why is it not interested in other routes? There are three possible reasons: 1. The ink is dry on a the loan-and-construction contracts with Brazil, so the government would prefer to avoid any further complications. 2. Close allies of the government in the cocalero movement will benefit from the soon-to-be-deforested land made accessible by the road, and from a second illicit export route in a way they would not from the alternate routes. 3. The government wants to illustrate that head-on opposition from grassroots groups will not change its policies on economic planning, and so is being rigidly inflexible on re-routing the road outside of TIPNIS.
Solón and TIPNIS communities have both vocally called for alternatives to be placed on the table. It remains to be seen how much mobilization will be required for this to happen.
Update: More on the Conisur communities and coca added, based on new reporting from Erbol; see below.
The long-promised counter-march from Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), this time in support of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway (wikipedia) began last Tuesday, December 20. Around 300 initial marchers began the journey from Isinuta, on the edge of the park. Reinforced by hundreds more, the marchers should reach Cochabamba tomorrow, and expect to proceed onwards to La Paz. The countermarch is headed by the members of the Indigenous Council of the South (Consejo Indígena del Sur, or Conisur), a local organization of indigenous people inside TIPNIS, but living in the southernmost part of the the territory, entirely in the department of Cochabamba.
The march is understandably surrounded with controversy, and according to the opposition-leaning/center-right Los Tiempos, a lack of public enthusiasm. But rather than attempting to dismiss this countermarch, I write here to explain it.
To understand this (counter)march, it is helpful to understand the organizational structure of TIPNIS indigenous peoples. The oldest and broadest organization in the territory is the Subcentral TIPNIS (indigenous organizations over large regions of the country are called Centrals and this is a smaller portion of a region). The Subcentral TIPNIS was founded in 1988 and received the land title to TIPNIS from Evo Morales in 2009. It pertains to the Central de Pueblos Étnicos Mojeños del Beni. The Subcentral Securé includes nearly all communities on the Securé river itself, and belongs to the Consejo de Pueblos Indígenas del Beni.
Conisur includes most but not all communities in the southernmost part of the territory. The Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) database estimates Conisur’s population at 915 people and lists 14 Conisur communities: Limo del Isiboro, Santa Fe, San Juan del Isiboro, San Juan de Dios, San Benito, Sanandita, Secejsama, Fátima, San Antonio, Mercedes de Lojojota, San Juan de la Angosta, Carmen Nueva Esperanza, San Jorgito, and Puerto Pancho. Conisur affilialtes with the Coordinadora de los Pueblos del Trópico de Cochabamba (CPITCO); [La Razón reports 20 communities]. By comparison, estimates for the indigenous population of TIPNIS as a whole are around 12,500 in 64 communities. CPITCO’s website acknowledges, “CONISUR is an organization basically created and supported by the Cochabamba Prefecture, which serves it as a mechanism for channeling aid to the communities of the south and through this to defend its sovereignty over the area. [CONISUR es una organización básicamente creado y apoyado por la Prefectura de Cochabamba a la cual le sirve como mecanismo para canalizar ayuda a las comunidades del sur y de este modo defender su soberanía sobre el área.]” (The Prefecture—now the Gobernaciónor Governorate—is especially interested because the Cochabamba-Beni border inside TIPNIS is not officially demarcated.)
The communities in Conisur are principally located inside Polygon 7, the region around Isinuta which been colonized since 1970 by outside settlers, principally coca growers. The Polygon is separated from TIPNIS by the Linea Roja (Red Line) which is meant to prevent the advance of further settlement into the park, but in practice has repeatedly been moved to allow just such settlement. Bolivia’s Fundación Tierra estimates that some 20,000 agricultural settlers live in the 100,000-hectare Polygon 7, swamping the local indigenous population whose territory they have largely deforested.
All three of the parent organizations of the TIPNIS indigenous organizations are members of CIDOB. And all three organizations joined in the May 2010 meeting of indigenous residents condemning the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway. However, political opportunities, local relationships with cocaleros, and divergent economic needs have driven Conisur apart from the residents in the rest of the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory.
Politically, as regular readers of this blog are well aware, the highway has become a major priority of the MAS-IPSP party. MAS-IPSP has controlled the departmental government since the 2008 revocation referendum. The party began its meteoric rise in eastern Cochabamba specifically the Chapare province whose capital is Villa Tunari. Governor Edmundo Novillo has made no secret of his support for the highway, and he plays a key role in its promotion committee. Since June, numerous MAS officials including Novillo, President Evo Morales, and Vice President Álvaro García Linera have been frequent visitors to the Conisur-aligned area of TIPNIS. They’re visits have served to rally support for the highway and to put an indigenous face on a project that is being pursued in contravention of the principle of indigenous consultation.
Four decades of cocalero settlement have created a variety of relations between them and the indigenous inhabitants of Polygon 7. Fundación Tierra documents intermarriage and indigenous participation in the coca growers’ unions’ standard-sized plots for growing coca. However, according to press visits (like this one by La Razón), relations are not equitable. Instead, indigenous people are often dependent, landless laborers in their own land, earning around 20 Bolivianos (a bit less than US$3) to harvest a coca plot or selling their fish or wild meat to colonists for around 300 Bolivianos (~US$40) a month. Some told the newspaper the cocaleros prevent them from joining in coca planting. Others earn income by authorizing the cutting of timber, and the elimination of the forest on which their lives once depended.
Unlike those living in the intact sections of the park, the indigenous in the colonized areas have already moved from a way of living interdependent with the ecosystems of the park to one that is integrated with the national economy. Right now, they are living at the bottom of the heap in the cash economy, relying on income from the growers of the regions’ key cash crop. This goes a long way to explain why they see a shared economic interest with the coca growers in the road. They also could see both educational and economic benefits from the expansion of formal schooling in their communities. While schools do not have to follow the roads, in practice the Conisur communities are being registered for schools right now. With this registration comes the Juancito Pinto school attendance bonus, 200 Bs paid to parents per student. This new payment may have furthered aligned their interests with the departmental government and thereby the road.
Added, 2 Jan: Further reporting on indigenous coca planting comes from the Cochabamba center-left daily Opinión and the community radio network Erbol. Opinión describes three levels of involvement by indigenous residents: labor in colonists’ coca harvesting, small-scale unofficial coca planting, and membership in coca growers’ unions. Coca is a good cash crop option for those who are enmeshed in the cash economy, but disconnected from the road network: the light coca leaves can be dried, packed up, and carried to larger settlements for sale. However, only union members can sell their leaves in large, official markets, which are controlled by the union federations. Opinión profiled in particular the community of San Antonio as a coca-growing Yuracaré indigenous community. Erbol has now published quotes from an interview “four months ago” with Conisur leader Gumercindo Pradel, confirming that “five to seven” Conisur grow coca: “There are five to seven communities that are dedicated to planting coca and which are affiliated with the Federation of the Tropic [one of the Six Federations of cocaleros]. [Son cinco a siete comunidades que se dedican a la siembra de la coca y que están afiliadas a la Federación del Trópico.]” Since the march began, however, Pradel has insisted that Conisur communities are not coca cultivators. // end update //
Across the world, indigenous rights struggles over development projects often see the fostering or exacerbating of internal divisions by those actors who promote the project. This makes the current counter-mobilization in TIPNIS familiar, even if few expected such a divisive move from the indigenous-identified government of Evo Morales. International and Bolivian standards around free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous have a provision to avoid this problem: an insistence that the pre-existing and recognized structures of governance be the basis of indigenous consultation. While the schismatic history of TIPNIS indigenous organizations complicates this picture, the Morales government clearly recognized the Subcentral TIPNIS as the local authority over the National Park and Indigenous Territory. By changing course when the Subcentral spoke out against its highway project, the MAS government is following in the footsteps of the divide-and-conquer strategies by governments and corporations it once condemned.
Nearly two months after the cross-country Eighth Grand National Indigenous March won a law prohibiting any highway project through the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), construction of the project has finally been suspended, but not stopped. The Brazilian contractor OAS has laid off 80 of its 800 workers, and pulled back its work camps, machinery, and work teams from areas of active construction, reports today’s Los Tiempos (Cochabamba). The layoffs were reported earlier in the Brazilian newspaper Valor (secondary coverage from the Erbol community radio network). Update: OAS now reports that it is laying off 411 additional workers, leaving just 300 on staff “for continuity” of its operations. The worker’s union reports even larger layoffs: 350 on December 14 and another 350 on December 15. (source: “Despido masivo en OAS; la ABC no halla motivos,” Los Tiempos, 15 December). Evo Morales criticized the move and the company. Further Update (January 7): The Brazilian ambassador to Brazil, Marcel Biato confirms a “slowdown” in work, but attributes it to the rainy season, rather than any monetary dispute. The ambassador mediated in the Decemeber impasse between OAS and the Bolivian government, and claims to have resolved it. [Opinión puts it this way: Biato, que había interpuesto sus buenos oficios para superar el impasse, dijo que aquello ya no es tal. ] Biato states that he expects the Bolivian government to renegotiate Segment II, but reiterates there is “no hurry” to do so.
The immediate cause of the paralysis in new work is a dispute between OAS and the Bolivian government over financing. While most of the funds (US$322 million) for the project are being provided by the Brazilian state development bank BNDES, the Bolivian government share had been set at US$190 million. However, the Bolivian government is now offering just US$143 million, although the reasons for this are unclear.
Workers on the project have offered the Bolivian government a 48-hour deadline to resolve the issue or face mobilizations.
The Bolivian Highway Administration (ABC) claims to be working within the mandate of Law 180 protecting TIPNIS, but has doesn’t seem to have worked out that the current route of Segments I and III essentially require a cross-TIPNIS connection. ABC official, however, have deferred the issue to Cochabamba Governor Edmundo Novillo (of the ruling MAS party) and the highway booster committee.
Engineers: Alternatives Exist
Meanwhile, the Beni Inter-Institutional Committee and the Cochabamba Association of Emeritus Engineers have worked out alternate routes. The Cochabamban engineers proposed 270- to 300-km routes east of the park or a 749-km route northwest of Cochabamba to Trinidad in Beni. They estimate a cost savings over the current project, but realizing that cost savings requires stopping construction. The Beni group came up with an additional route passing immediately west of TIPNIS.
Political conflict continues
Despite the existence of alternatives, the debate over the future of the highway continues to be a political one. The national government, the MAS party in Cochabamba, and a quasi-independent organization of indigenous in the colonized zone of TIPNIS called Conisur continue to be the heart of the pro-road effort. President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera continue to vocally advocate for construction on the original route. The Bolivian government is pursuing parallel, but opposed tracks on the issue: authorizing regulations protecting the park on one hand and organizing a civil society campaign to overturn these decisions.
Some members of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Mojos Highway Booster Committee, however, have expressed flexibility on the route. And several prominent Bolivian grassroots forces have distanced themselves from the campaign for the road, notably the national colonizer federation (the Union Federation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia) and peasant union founder Genaro Flores.
This week, the Pact of Unity split deepened into two separate meetings on Bolivia’s future agenda. The 1st Plurinational Forum to Deepen the Change met at Cochabamba’s Casa Campestre while CIDOB and CONAMAQ organized their own summit in Santa Cruz. Despite the best efforts of the road-through-TIPNIS campaigners, it seems that the issue will be left for regional Sub-forums to Deepen the Change. The indigenous gathering has reaffirmed defense of territorial rights, including a highway-free TIPNIS as the top of its agenda.
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.