This is Bolivia 2015.
Unprecedented ambition is transforming the landscape into a source of new exports, an ambition that is measured more in dizzying numbers than individual projects. A feasibility study begins for a dam, El Bala, that would submerge the heart of Madidi National Park to produce 1600 to 4800 MW of electricity, but in announcing the contract, President Evo Morales speaks of a potential 48,000 MW of new projects across the country. Government aspirations for energy production also include investing US$2 billion in a nuclear power plant in Viacha, a still-hypothetical prospect that would place the vast El Alto–La Paz metropolis at risk in the event of a major accident. When exploratory drilling in the Lliquimuni petroleum block in the northern Bolivian Amazon is inaugurated, Morales proposes building an improbable but possible oil refinery to commoditize oil from a cluster of oil fields underneath the rainforest. At an agricultural policy forum, co-hosted by the government, the peasant confederation CSUTCB, and big agribusiness (the Chamber of Agriculture of the East), the government proposes quintupling the land under cultivation in the next decades, mostly by expanding mechanized monoculture. While the peasants are partners in the summit, it is the Chamber who drafts the legislation that follows. Speaking to the European Union, the president vows that global South governments “will not be park rangers” on behalf of the global North. He returns home to sign a decree authorizing oil and gas extraction in National Parks as a national strategic priority. In public speeches, Morales has also pledged that NGOs and foundations that stand in the way of using Bolivia’s natural resources face expulsion from the country.
This was the country I visited for the past three weeks. I’m at a point of inflection in my research agenda from studying how movements build power and exert pressure to looking at the how conflicts between indigenous peoples and extractive industries will evolve under the Plurinational State. In part because of the power built by indigenous movements, Bolivia is a place where indigenous territories and rights have some of the most extensive protections in written law. Those legal commitments contradict equally formal commitments by the government to fulfill oil, mining, and logging contracts, and the government’s drive for new revenues to fund its anti-poverty social agenda. Conceptualized from afar, this should be a complex story of uncertainty and contradiction, of the indigenous state official who is pulled in two directions, of hard choices and ambivalences. But as the list of extractivist plans makes clear, the government of the Plurinational State is anything but ambivalent on this issue.
During my trip, I met with indigenous movement activists, politically engaged researchers, officials and staffers within the government, environmentalists, and Bolivians whose political participation is focused on issues other than resource extraction. On this visit, I heard one response to questions that I hadn’t heard since 2008: “Can we talk about this somewhere else?” For certain Bolivians—especially in government service—natural resource extraction has become something you might worry about talking about in front of the wrong people.
For others, the concern isn’t about being overheard, but about the difficulties involved in getting one’s voice out to the world. Government-backed interventions at two of the national indigenous coalitions, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the Confederation of Ayllus and Markas of Qullusuyu (CONAMAQ), split these organizations into pro-government and “organic” factions. The organic leaders—who critiqued the government on megaprojects and the community consent process for them—have literally been locked out of their offices, and shunted out of direct negotiations with the government. The expulsion of Danish aid group Ibis, whose last publication in Bolivia was a manual on the right to free, prior, and informed consent, has deterred other aid groups from offering direct assistance to critical indigenous voices. The Indigenous Fund, theoretically meant to provide independent financing for indigenous community needs, has been racked by revelations that its funds went to the personal accounts of national leaders, were squandered, and were diverted to other government priorities. Indigenous communities have faced difficult choices since the pro-government leadership controls access to the government and the only independent source of funds. People I met with described the situation as “severe,” “difficult,” and “depressing.”
And yet, there is still ongoing activity questioning resource extraction. The far-flung members of the Assembly of the Guaraní People (APG) have gathered weekly to issue critiques of new presidential decrees. This week they suspended talks on new oil drilling in protected areas and sent a delegation to La Paz to demand negotiations. Indigenous community members from TIPNIS traveled to Santa Cruz to bring their opposition to a controversial highway to visiting Pope Francis. Leaders and technical experts within the organic CIDOB and CONAMAQ continue their work, even as itinerant voices without their traditional headquarters. They joined with APG to announce a legal challenge to Decree 2366 opening parks to oil and gas activity. The Defensoría del Pueblo (an independent human rights ombudsman’s office within the state) is mounting its own legal challenge, empowered by its constitutional role. On a more daily level, human rights and environmental experts continue to map and document threatening projects and mount campaigns in the streets. If some organizations have softened their voices after the presidents’ threats, the traditional backbone of Bolivia-based researchers in organizations like CIPCA, CEDLA, CEDIB, Fundación Tierra, and CEJIS—to name some prominent examples—have not. These groups have long documented corporate, landlord, and governmental power and long supported grassroots movements with vital information.
In community assemblies and in modest offices, there are Bolivians getting up daily and working tirelessly in defense of lands and communities. Given the pace of new projects, there’s always something more to do. And while the going is sometimes difficult, several told me, “This is our role, and we will keep at it.” While sometimes rethinking their best points of leverage, they show no signs of giving up.