The saga of Bolivia’s most controversial road project, the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), took a long-anticipated turn this month. As I observed in 2013:
The 2012 events of the TIPNIS conflict have added manylayers of complexity to the story, but the essential government stance is simple. Where once it said the highway would be built “whether the indigenous like it or not,” since November 2011, the message [now] is that the highway will be built precisely because the indigenous like it. (Bjork-James 2013:278)
On July 3, Ramona Moye and Patricia Chávez, two MAS-affiliated Deputies in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, introduced legislation that would open the territory to a highway that is projected to leave it mostly deforested within fifteen years of completion. The text of the law had been circulated to TIPNIS communities in February and March of this year. The legislative assembly event was headlined by Domingo Nogales, who was elected presidente of the Subcentral TIPNIS in December; Diego Roca, President of Conisur; and Carlos Fabricano. In their press communiqué announcing the event (cached here), the MAS claimed the draft law was “their draft law, which was worked out in consensus with the communities that make up the reserve su anteproyecto de ley, el mismo que fue trabajado en consenso con las comunidades que conforman la reserva ubicada entre Cochabamba y Beni.”
Prior and subsequent events belie that description. Ramona Moye and Carlos Fabricano, who are married, have been publicly repudiated by indigenous community members within for their involvement in the 2012 pro-highway march and affiliation with the pro-road MAS party. In April 2015, Moye had her visit to TIPNIS disrupted by a traditional leader and a young community member who allegedly stole her outboard motor to prevent her from campaigning for Beni gubernatorial candidate Alex Ferrier. Moye complained to the press: “How is it that I can’t enter my territory? … they prohibit me, and take away my motor, and threaten that I’ll never be able to return there again. Cómo pues yo no voy a poder entrar a mi territorio, si he nacido allá, si soy de allá, soy una indígena de allá y que ellos me prohíban y que me quiten el motor así con robo y amenazas porque eso fue lo que ellos me hicieron a mí, me amenazaron que nunca más podía volver a allá (a Nueva Lacea), por lo tanto me hicieron un robo.” The Subcentral Sécure has been divided into factions led by Carlos Fabricano and Emilio Noza since at least 2012; Fabricano’s wing took over the organization’s office in Trinidad, Beni in 2014.
Since the December 2016 gathering of affiliates of the Subcentral TIPNIS, the new leader of the Women’s Subcentral, Marqueza Teco, has taken the lead in opposing the highway project, while the newly elected male leader Domingo Nogales Morales has had a lower profile in the press. In April, the women’s organization reportedly occupied the office of the Subcentral Sécure within the park.
The early July announcement has prompted new reactions from opponents of the highway through TIPNIS. Fernando Vargas, past president of the Subcentral TIPNIS has spoken out against the legislation (video|La Razón) Then, on July 12, representatives of at least ten indigenous communities and the Women’s Subcentral occupied the Subcentral TIPNIS and publicly de-recognized Domingo Nogales as their leader (video|Los Tiempos). “He is no longer president of TIPNIS because he committed such a serious crime within the territory and its communities; therefore, they have elevated the vice president of the subcentral [Fabian Rocha] to president of the Subcentral TIPNIS | Ya no es presidente del Tipnis por haber cometido un delito tan grave dentro del territorio y las comunidades, por lo cual le suben al vicepresidente como presidente de la subcentral del Tipnis,” Emilio Noza told reporters by phone.
Such changes of leadership in Bolivian organizations are often precursors to mobilization. In this case, they match calls by both Fernando Vargas and Marcial Fabricano (a founder of the Subcentral TIPNIS and former president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia) to reorganize the indigenous movement. As we enter the seventh year of the controversy, the TIPNIS highway continues to be a flashpoint for indigenous and environmental mobilization in Bolivia.
Image: Women’s Subcentral of TIPNIS President Marqueza Teco at indigenous territories summit in May 2017.