President Evo Morales, “Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road “, 29 June 2011
President Evo Morales, “What will Bolivia live from? In the past our struggle was for electricity and highways, we wanted more economic resources. [Now] in comparison indigenous social movements oppose these plans that generate social and economic development”, 26 July 2011
Development and reducing poverty
maps contradict the government claim the road will link up the indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS because the road would actually not go through the east of the national park where most of the communities are located.The Bolivian government says the highway will lead to development for the indigenous communities living in TIPNIS, the regions of Beni and Cochabamba and for the country as whole. The government maintains that agricultural producers in Beni and Cochabamba will have increased access to markets for their goods and that the highway will increase the integration of Bolivia and access to electricity and public services. However,
The MAS government has a very difficult balancing act to achieve as it seeks to improve living conditions in South America´s poorest country whilst also minimising damage to the environment. This was always going to be extremely difficult when in 2006 the MAS inherited an economy estimated to be 80% based on extractive industries (mining, oil and gas). Meanwhile on the world stage the Morales government has been very vocal in defence of the rights of Mother Earth.
The quandary for the government is that it needs to continue to generate income from somewhere to pay for social programmes to reduce poverty. At present the government is taking advantage of vastly improved contracts re-written in 2006 with the multinational companies who exploit the country´s oil and gas to use the increased tax to pay for targeted social programmes benefiting young children and the elderly. Statistics show that in 2005, 5.71 million of the population lived in poverty, falling to 5.17 million in 2010. Urban poverty fell from 51.5% in 2005 to 41.7% in 2010 while rural poverty fell from 77.6% to 65.1%. In terms of inequality, in 2005 the 10% of people who earned the highest incomes got 128 times the amount of income that the lowest 10% of income earners received. By 2009 this figure was 60 times.
Open to dialogue and criticism of demands
The government has tried on seven attempts to start a dialogue with the indigenous marchers to resolve the conflict. On some occasions the high level delegations sent by the government have been rejected. On others a dialogue has begun, such as in San Borja on 2-5 September where several ministers discussed options for the route of the road (all of which went through the TIPNIS).
The government has also criticised the fact that the 16 demands of the march were only presented once the march had already started (see full set of demands below). They have particularly criticised the demand to “stop all hydrocarbons activity in the Aguaragüe park” as this would reduce the income generated from taxing foreign multinationals which is used for social programmes. The marchers say they are not asking for all hydrocarbons activity to be stopped, what they demand is that unused oil wells are cleared up because they are contaminating local water supplies.
Inconsistent demand? REDD
The government has also heavily criticised the demand to “recognise the right of indigenous peoples in Bolivia to receive a compensation for the mitigation of greenhouse gases due to the environmental function of indigenous territories” – essentially receiving payment for carbon capture by forests. This is the concept behind the initiative called Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), which is a mechanism currently being designed within the United Nations Climate Change negotiations (UNFCCC). The Bolivian government has pointed out the contradiction in demanding compensation via REDD, which it says commodifies forests and is linked to carbon markets, whilst saying the march is in defence of Mother Earth. The government is correct to criticise this inconsistency. It is very likely that this demand was promoted by some leaders within CIDOB who are involved in pilot REDD projects funded by the Conservationist NGO called FAN (Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza). Having had contact with CIDOB on the climate change negotiations I know this is not a CIDOB movement-wide position on REDD.
The government has also claimed that indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS have contracts with illegal loggers and that building the road would increase state presence in the area and help to control deforestation. This claim is very suspect as it does not take an expert to figure out that where a road is built through a forest (e.g. the Brazilian Amazon) there is deforestation. It is already known that there are illegal loggers inside the TIPNIS. But this means the government through the respective agencies such as the Bolivian Agency for Protected Areas (SERNAP) should allocate more resources to investigate and stop this illegal logging.
“Interests” taking advantage of the march
The MAS administration has repeatedly accused other “interests” such as USAID, NGOs and right wing politicians of using the march to attack the government and undermine the process of change. I deal with USAID and NGOs below. What is certain is that right wing deputies, senators and the right wing controlled media are using the indigenous march to launch an all-out attack on the MAS government and its policies. Perhaps the most frequent criticism is that the government is contradicting its own discourse of defence of indigenous peoples and the environment. The irony being that if right wing parties were in government they would never dream of respecting these rights or the environment.
Adolfo Chávez, Head of CIDOB: “Each Bolivian has the right to freedom. But if this government does not know how to respect collective rights then it will definitely not know how to respect individual rights. We have tried many times to contact President Morales and to meet with him to discuss TIPNIS but they never listen to us. It was when they heard the President say, “Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road”, that the brothers demanded the march. We need blankets because it is very cold. We ask for medicines because many have colds. For the children and women we need shoes because it will be very cold when we get to La Paz. This is how we will get through it. The government does not want to listen to us and demonises us.” 24 August 2011
Female marcher interviewed on TV channel UNO: “The President is where he is now because of us. Just like he is there now we can remove him from there. I am suffering, I will march, I might die”. 8 September
Interview on Radio Erbol, Lázaro Tacó CIDOB: “The government does not want to defend indigenous rights. History repeats itself, they want to eliminate indigenous peoples”, 12 September
The march was called by the TIPNIS Subcentral which represents the approximately 12,000 Mojeño, Chiman and Yuracaré indigenous peoples living inside the national park and indigenous territory. The TIPNIS Subcentral is part of the Confederation of Bolivian Indigenous Peoples (CIDOB ) representing 34 indigenous nations mainly from the Amazon. The National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), which represents Aymara and Quechua peoples from the western highlands and central valleys, also joined the march from the beginning.
Rejection of accusations
The position of the marchers is that they are not against development and the building of a highway between Cochabmaba and Beni just as long as it does not go through the TIPNIS. They say they have rejected the government’s numerous attempts to hold dialogue because of its attitude, with daily criticism of the marchers and statements saying that the route of the highway will not change. They want prior consultation to be implemented but for this to happen the road building has to stop.
The marchers’ determination to carry on has been reinforced by the tragedies they have suffered. Three of the marchers have died since 15 August. First, 13 year old Pedro Moye Noza died on 21 August after falling from the car accompanying the march and suffering a fatal head injury. Then, on 5 September, 8 year old Juan Uche Noe died from diarrhoea and intestinal diseases. Finally, almost unbelievably, a plane crashed in the Amazon on 8 September and one of those on board was an indigenous leader called Eddy Martínez.
The marchers have repeatedly rejected the government’s claims that the march is being orchestrated by “interests” and say these are all attempts to publicly undermine the march which has a legitimate cause – the lack of consultation about a project in an autonomous indigenous territory. Guaraní leader Celso Padilla said on Radio Erbol on 21 August, “Only someone with the mind of a Spanish conquistador cannot accept that indigenous peoples have their own initiative to defend their rights”.
Are the United States, USAID and NGOs behind the TIPNIS march?
President Morales caused a scandal on 21 August 2011 when on live TV he showed a log of phone calls that three of the key leaders from the march (Indigenous parliamentarian Pedro Nuni, CONAMAQ leader Rafael Quispe and the wife of Adolfo Chavez, head of CIDOB) had received from the United States Embassy in La Paz. Four weeks later and the government have still not revealed any concrete evidence showing any link between the United States and the march.Despite this the government has debated whether to expel the US official development agency USAID, with the head of the border agency and several parliamentarians calling for this to happen. However, the move to show the log of phone calls was heavily criticised for invasion of privacy and for violating the Constitution – an individual´s phone can only be monitored if there is a court case against them. The CONAMAQ leader Rafael Quispe has threatened to file a case directly against President Morales for violating his privacy and for alleging his guilt before proving he has actually committed a crime.
The government has also repeatedly claimed that NGOs are financing the march – and recently that these NGOs want to form a political party. These claims are not new and have been made by the MAS government before. At the insistence of the government a multi-party commission has now begun to investigate links between NGOs and the march, including funding sources, budgets and bank accounts. There is no secret here. NGOs do fund projects with social movements in Bolivia and supported the founding of both CIDOB (in 1982) and CONAMAQ (in 1997). I don´t think anyone can really be against this support that NGOs gave, which has strengthened the capacity of the 36 indigenous nations represented by CIDOB and CONAMAQ to fight for their rights, as enshrined in international norms such as ILO Convention 169.
However, it is one thing for an NGO to fund institutional development or rural development projects with a social movement, and another to fund this march, which would be an explicitly political act. What the multi-party commission will likely find is that all social movements (including allies of the government) do receive funding for specific projects or their day to day activities. The irony in attacking NGOs is that several ministers in the MAS administration (most prominently Carlos Romero, Minister of the Presidency, ex-director of CEJIS) worked for these same NGOs. That said, it is important to remember that there are different types of NGOs. There are those who always give technical support but never go above the protagonism of social movements. Then there are others who put their name everywhere and try to speak on behalf of social movements. I have met both types and would say the majority of NGOs that directly support social movements are very clear that they facilitate rather than speak in the name of social movements.
The point is that these types of accusations do not change the fact that the reason the march began is that the indigenous peoples who live in TIPNIS have a legitimate cause because their right to consultation had been violated.
This is also why the march is now making 16 demands in total rather than just the issue of the highway. This march has become a symbolic battle for Bolivia´s indigenous peoples (from both the highlands and lowlands) to defend their rights and their territories. This is why the indigenous social movement CONAMAQ from the highlands that has officially recognised indigenous territories in other parts of Bolivia is marching in solidarity with indigenous peoples from the Amazon. For them, if the government succeeds in violating the rights to consultation and for indigenous peoples to decide what happens on their territories in this case, then all indigenous territories in Bolivia will be under threat.
The demands include:
• stopping of hydrocarbon exploitation in the Aguaragüe Park,
• compensation from REDD projects (these two demands are discussed above),
• respect for indigenous territories,
• development of and implementation of the right to be consulted,
• forestry Law,
• legislation on Protected Areas,
• rural development and de-centralisation of budgets,
• consolidate indigenous autonomy,
• an Indigenous University,
• access to health care for indigenous peoples,
• national census,
• housing plans,
• policies to clean up the contaminated Pilcomayo river,
• access to communication and information for indigenous peoples,
• compliance with the agreement made in May 2010 with the Guarani Peoples Assembly.
In addition the marchers have been further angered by a series of farcical and shocking incidents.
The government was criticised again for invasion of privacy after it released images on 29 August of indigenous parliamentarian Pedro Nuni and publicly criticised him for temporarily leaving the march to go to his house and drink alcohol. It turned out he had been athis daughter’s birthday party.
On 6 September Roberto Coraite, head of the biggest social movement in Bolivia the CSUTCB (Committee of the Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers) and loyal ally of the government, caused outrage when he said the highway should be built to stop the indigenous peoples inside the TIPNIS living like “wild animals “. He later said his comments had been misinterpreted but the damage has already been done. It is very unlikely the indigenous social movements (CIDOB and CONAMAQ) will work with the CSUTCB in the immediate future, which would mean a division between Bolivia´s main rural social movements grouped together in the Unity Pact (Pacto de Unidad).
In summary, the marchers have refused to enter into dialogue with the government because it has repeatedly condemned the march, because the work on the highway continues and therefore any prior consultation is invalidated and finally because demands that President Morales dialogues directly with the marchers have not been met. They fear that if they were to accept the repeated invitations by the government to send a commission of representatives to dialogue in the Presidential Palace then the government would use this opportunity to divide the march. When dialogue did start in San Borja the marches ended it because the government only presented them with routes that still went through the TIPNIS.
This article is funded by readers like you
Only with regular support can we maintain our website, publish LAB books and support campaigns for social justice across Latin America. You can help by becoming a LAB Subscriber or a Friend of LAB. Or you can make a one-off donation. Click the link below to learn about the details.Support LAB