Indigenous march in defense of Isiboro Sécure arrives in La Paz, challenges Evo Morales government

Background Briefing by Carwil Bjork-James,1 16 October 2011
On Wednesday, October 19, a march of at least 1,200 people, most of them members of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) is expected to arrive to the Bolivian capital La Paz, at the end of a 500-km (300-mi) journey. This Eighth National Indigenous March, puts the defense of the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) from a proposed highway project at the top of its agenda. Due to the critical issues raised by the conflict, and sudden and violent repression of the marchers by police on September 28, this will be a defining moment for the presidency of Evo Morales. The Morales administration has made historic advances in formally recognizing indigenous rights and the integrity of ecosystems, redistributing land to indigenous peoples, and voicing support for an alternative model of development based on Living Well rather than endless accumulation. However, the seriousness of all these commitments is being put to a test in the case of Isiboro Sécure. The Subcentral TIPNIS, holders of collective land title to the territory, have stated and restated their opposition to the building of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway through their land at least 40 times2 since 2003. They were not consulted prior to a series of government actions to make the highway a reality, including its design (2008), a loan from Brazil’s BNDES development bank, a bilateral Brazil-Bolivia agreement on the loan (early 2011), and the start of construction (June 2011). Nor were residents of the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory I consulted about Segment 3 of the roadway, which passes through their territory. Once a local conflict, this issue has become a national issue over the past four months for several different reasons. First, the national indigenous movement, represented by both CIDOB and the National Council of Ayllus and Marcas of Qollasuyu (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Marcas del Qollasuyu; Conamaq), recognized TIPNIS as bellwether case for local control over indigenous territories; the right to free, prior, and informed consent; and the preservation of protected areas. Both groups mobilized nationally for this march. CIDOB and Conamaq began their cross-country march on August 15 from Trinidad, Beni. A second march led by affiliates of Conamaq travelled from Oruro (September 26) to La Paz (October 10), growing from 75 to 220 participants along the way. Second, officials in Morales administration (including the president) also spoke of TIPNIS as a precedent for future road, oil and gas, and development projects. Morales explicitly denied local indigenous communities the right to choose, saying the road would be built “whether the indigenous want it or not.” Third, environmentalists, water rights activists, and other voices proactively spoke out in support of the TIPNIS campaign with increasing frequency since June. Once the indigenous march was blocked from advancing by police and counter-demonstrators on September 20, a new wave of activists mobilized in solidarity. Former Vice-Minister of Lands, Alejandro Almaraz and former factory-worker leader and hero of the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, Oscar Olivera, led a delegation from Cochabamba, La Paz, and Santa Cruz to join the march . 3 Simultaneously, indigenous organizations began a vigil in the San

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 Ph.D.  Candidate,  Anthropology.  Recently  completed  12  months  of  fieldwork  in  Cochabamba,  Sucre,  and  La  Paz,  Bolivia.    According  to  Leonardo  Tamburini  of  the  Ceter  for  Juridical  Studies  and  Social  Investigation  (CEJIS).  Leonardo  Tamburini,  “La   carretera  del  ‘progreso’,”  La  Razón,  July  31,  2011.   3  Participants  also  included  Gustavo  Guzmán  (former  Bolivian  ambassador  to  the  United  States),  Lino  Villca  (former  MAS   senator),  Omar  Fernández  (former  irrigators’  union  leader  in  Cochabamba),  Moíses  Torres  and  Vladimir  Machicado   (Movimiento  Sin  Tierra  or  landless  movement),  feminists,  university  students,  and  El  Alto  community  leaders.  “Cerca  de  50  

Francisco Plaza of central La Paz, which has been joined by prominent historian Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, an influential voice on indigenous politics. This vigil continues in La Paz. Finally, the police repression of the march on September 28 brought the issue to the center of political attention. On that afternoon, police mounted an attack on the camp of indigenous marchers, beating and teargassing them, seeking out and arresting prominent leaders, and leaving behind a chaotic scene of injury, flight, and fear. At least 152 protesters were treated for injuries or high blood pressure in San Borja or Rurrenabaque; a Prosecutor’s Office report in September referred to 74 wounded;4 a legal complaint presented by the marchers asserts 280 were injured. 5 The most severe cases include: Celso Padilla, leader of the Assembly of the Guaraní People, was hospitalized with multiple hematomas from his beating, but rejoined the march; and Wilson Melgar, a grandfather and Sirionó indigenous marcher, who suffered an embolism and who could remain paraplegic from the incident. Those injured have received no government support for their care. 6 Police arrested hundreds of marchers and evacuated them in buses; phone calls from captured marchers claimed they had no water and were not told their destination. The government attempted to fly the indigenous marchers back to the point of origin of the march in Trinidad, Beni, but was stopped by mass protests in the town of Rurrenabaque. Local protesters took over the airport and refused to allow planes to land on the runways. Rather than confront angry crowds, police opted to release the captive protesters. These marchers regrouped together with those who fled to San Borja and decided to continue the march to La Paz. Both groups were re-united at Quiquibey, 36 km closer to La Paz than the site of the standoff and raid, where they restarted the march on September 30. Despite the predictions of possible confrontations with members of the colonos union in the towns of Caranavi and Palos Blancos, the marchers were publicly welcomed. The marchers delayed their arrival in La Paz until this week to allow for a healthy pace on the steep ascent from tropical valleys to the Andean high plains and to refute allegations that they were interfering in the October 16 judicial elections. The MAS and some of its close allies—campesino unions in Cochabamba, Potosí, and Oruro; coca growers; and cooperative miners—organized a march from Calamarca, Oruro to La Paz in support of the highway and “in defense of the process of change” led by Morales. This march converged into a day of mobilization variously termed a counter-march on the TIPNIS issue, a celebration of the Day of Decolonization that has replaced Columbus Day, and an unofficial close to the judicial election campaign. Participants in La Paz numbered in the tens of thousands, but numerous state workers complained of being obliged to attend, sometimes documenting this requirement through copies of official memoranda. Reactions to the September 25 raid Critics of the government from the left and the right reacted with shock and outrage as the raid became known. Within the first week, street protests occurred in eight of nine departmental capitals, a 24-hour general strike of the COB labor union confederation was held in solidarity, and department-wide strike was held in Beni. Opposition parties—from the left-leaning Without Fear Movement (which ran a shared slate with the MAS in 2005 and 2009) to the right-wing National Convergence—criticized the raid. They were joined by prominent members of Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party,

personas  parten  de  La  Paz  a  reforzar  la  marcha,”  Página  Siete,  September  21,  2011,­‐09-­‐ 21/Nacional/Destacados/tipnis2.aspx.   4  “Tras  intervención,  heridos  se  recuperan  por  cuenta  propia,”  Página  Siete,  October  6,  2011,­‐ 10-­‐06/Nacional/Destacados/5Esp00106-­‐10-­‐11-­‐P720111006JUE.aspx.   5  “Indígenas  presentan  demanda  penal  contra  Evo,  Álvaro  y  otros  por  genocidio,”  Erbol  Comunicaciones,  October  15,  2011,   6  “Tras  intervención,  heridos  se  recuperan  por  cuenta  propia.”  

including the resignations of Defense Minister Cecilia Chacón, Vice Minister of Interior Marcos Farfán, immigration service head María René Quiroga, and former Vice Minister of Rural Development Roxana Liendo (who resigned from a different post). Several minority indigenous deputies in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly have warned that they could leave the MAS delegation and form an independent block. Former UN Ambassador and Cochabamba Climate Summit organizer Pablo Solón wrote an open letter to Evo Morales stating, “One cannot speak of defending Mother Earth and at the same time promote the construction of a road that will harm Mother Earth, doesn’t respect indigenous rights and violates human rights in an ‘unforgiveable’ way.” Evo Morales made a televised statement late on September 26, announcing the suspension of Segment 2 of the highway (other than preliminary work on a bridge, it is not clear that any such work had started) and asking the families of those attacked for forgiveness. He has disavowed ordering any violence and started an investigation of the incident. Morales has since reiterated that projects like the Cochabamba–Beni Highway are “questions of state” not subject to a local veto. Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti resigned while also disavowing responsibility for the raid. Legislation On September 25, prior to the police repression, President Morales put forward a new proposal: a referendum on the road across the departments of Cochabamba and Beni. This proposal does not fulfill international or Bolivian standards for prior indigenous consultation, since it ignores indigenous institutions and dilutes the voice of those affected within many hundreds of thousands of voters. The seven minority indigenous members, who are chosen by their communities using traditional methods, threatened to end their affiliation with the MAS in protest of the attack (some deputies were among those targeted by police). Six of them have drafted legislation to permanently protect TIPNIS from highway construction. Legislators from the governing Movement towards Socialism (MAS) have passed legislation on the TIPNIS conflict. While, some of them have claimed this legislation reflects the demands of the Eighth National Indigenous March, a delegation of MAS legislators failed to reach agreement with the marchers or indigenous deputies. The Bolivian Chamber of Deputies passed the modified MAS proposal on October 8; the Senate followed suit on October 13. The legislation does the following: • Suspends construction on Segment 2 pending “free, prior and informed consultation of the TIPNIS indigenous peoples, respecting their own norms and procedures in the framework of the Constitution,” ILO Convention 169, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Authorizes a study of alternatives for the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, with alternatives required to “guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples in their territory and the ecological equilibrium of TIPNIS.”7

The indigenous march and the six indigenous deputies who represent lowland indigenous communities have raised several specific objections to this legislation. However, it now seems likely that the consultation process will not be binding; that is, the repeated indigenous opposition to the project, stated since 2003, may be ignored by the government under the law. President Morales as well as three MAS legislators—Deputy Ingrid Loreto (who helped to draft it), Deputy Emiliana Aiza, and Senator Rhina Aguirre—stated to the press that the legislated consultation does not require the government to carry out its results. On the other hand, Vice President Álvaro García Linera and Chamber of Deputies President Héctor Arce insist that if indigenous opposition is voiced through the consultation, the government will comply with it.


 I  Paredes  and  W  Farfán,  “Se  rompe  el  diálogo  y  el  MAS  da  paso  a  consulta  previa,”  La  Razón,  October  11,  2011,­‐  

A binding process, rather than mere consultation, is the requirement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the government of Evo Morales incorporated into its national laws. Article 32 of the Declaration states in part, “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.” A recent letter from sixty-one organizations from five continents to President Evo Morales also urged, “We support a free and binding consultation process for the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway and the right of the indigenous people of TIPNIS to say no to this development within the Territory and National Park.”8 Construction continues on the highway Meanwhile, construction continues on Segments 1 and 3 of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway. The Cochabamba daily Los Tiempos also reports that a bridge from Isinuta (the endpoint of Segment 1) and Puerto Patiño, the first step in Segment 2 inside TIPNIS, is being prepared. 9 The promise of Evo Morales, made in the wake of the September 25 police attack on the march, to suspend construction only applies to Segment 2. The same would be true of the suspension under the new MAS legislation. However, as can be seen in the accompanying map, Segment 2 between Isinuta and Monte Grande would have to cross through TIPNIS if the other two segments are built as planned.

A map from the Bolivian Highway Administration illustrating the road project from Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos. The boundaries of TIPNIS appear in yellow.


 Available  online  (in  English  and  Spanish).  See­‐solidarity-­‐ statement-­‐with-­‐bolivian-­‐indigenous-­‐march-­‐and-­‐isiboro-­‐secure/   9  July  Rojas  M.,  “Ruta:  OAS  construye  el  tramo  I  sin  interrupción,”  Los  Tiempos,  October  3,  2011,­‐oas-­‐construye-­‐el-­‐tramo-­‐i-­‐sin-­‐ interrupcion_144146_297255.html.  

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