Santa Cruz cabildo: Bolivian fires prompt right-leaning region to mobilize “in defense of the land”

On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.

Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.

But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.

On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.

Now add the fires to the mix.

First, especially in terms of public appearance, Evo Morales and his government have struggled to take the fire crisis as seriously as Cruceños would have wanted. From the beginning, Morales rightly guessed that his government would be blamed for the fires. Even as Morales  conducted a visit to affected regions and order hundreds of soldiers in, he spoke defensively to the press on August 19, asking “What fault is it of mine? After so many years in the life of the nation, there is no equipment to combat the fires.” (This was a bad look for someone in office for fourteen years.) However, as the affected region grew to over one million hectares, the government response grew more proactive: Morales suspended his presidential election campaign, contracted “supertanker” planes to douse the fires, and accepted international aid. Nonetheless, the Morales government refused to declare a “national disaster” over the fires, citing concerns about sovereignty and claiming it was not overwhelmed by the task of fighting the fires. The Cruceño movement, indigenous organizations, and environmentalists all made this declaration into a constant demand.

Moreover, once the story of Morales’ inadequate response got going, while the fires seemed only to get worse, it became all to easy to add near-daily pieces to the puzzle. Someone in the governing MAS-IPSP party was always saying something to downplay the fires or refusing to proactively prevent new ones. This peaked with Morales’ statement in New York that “We are winning the battle with fire, our response has been rapid and effective. | Estamos ganando la batalla al fuego, nuestra respuesta ha sido rápida y efectiva.”

There are credible concerns, which I have expressed on this blog, that policies of the Evo Morales government contributed to the pace of deforestation, burning, and settlement in Santa Cruz department over the past five years and especially (due to new legal changes) this year. At the heart of the matter, however, lies the agribusiness-led Santa Cruz model which is rapidly converting the region’s lands into soy fields and cattle ranches to serve the export market. Some of this takes place through small-farmer intermediaries who stake laand claims to forested land, sell off the timber, clear the territory through fires, and sell their parcels on to domestic and foreign (chiefly Brazilian) agribusiness buyers.

Ironically, this had been an area where the Morales government had moved much closer to the Cruceño movement. Back in 2015, Vice President Álvaro García Linera had declared “The MAS [the governing Movement Towards Socialism party] is no longer the MAS of 2005, … it is not as communitarian anymore, now it has embraced the Santa Cruz model, which is capitalist.” Between 2010 and 2014, the party made a major push for middle-class and Santa Cruz voters, which nearly offset its declining dominance among Aymara voters and in the highland cities.

But the fires provided the Santa Cruz right with a major political opening. They haven’t abandoned their economic model, which the Comité pro Santa Cruz has boldly praised for years (see this 2015 booklet). Instead, they have focused much of the blame on the Quechua and Aymara settlers at the leading edge of colonization. The Santa Cruz departmental government issued a sweeping Ecological Pause Declaration freezing land transactions and prohibiting fires and other land clearing in the fire-affected regions.

Just as significantly, the fires and the defense of the ecology of the region have become part of the public consciousness of the Cruceño movement. Everyday participants in the October 4 cabildo listed these concerns high in their reasons for marching:

So too did Andrea Vaca Barbery, who included poetry in her address to the cabildo:

Nonetheless, there is a lot of slippage in this movement between its federalist political vision and nascent ecological feelings. Are we talking about tierra as land? Or La Tierra, the Earth and its ecological integrity?

Concretely, the cabildo passed a civilian emergency declaration on the fire situation, and issued a number of ultimatums: The national government must abrogate Law 741 and Supreme Decree 3973 in five days, or the Santa Cruz public will treat them as inactive inside the department. It also called upon the National Agrarian Reform Institute to revert titles it had granted illegally to settlers inside of protected areas and national government lands. Further, it threatened to carry out evictions of such settlers once that (incredibly short) timeline had passed. This latter move sets up the ominous possibility of confrontations between the Cruceño movement and indigenous settlers in the future.

However, the most likely consequences of these shifts are electoral. The massive mobilization on Friday names the national government as responsible for a deeply felt regional catastrophe. Whatever the fairness of this characterization, the reactivation of collective feeling is real and powerful. Opposition political candidates Carlos Mesa (Comunidad Ciudadana) and Óscar Ortiz (Bolivia Dice No) have both aligned themselves with the cabildo and stated their openness to new national conversations about federalism. Neither offers a bold agenda on the question of deforestation, according to analysis by Fundación Solón, but they too have made it a rallying cry. As Pablo Solón observed, “The party platforms [of Bolivia’s three main political parties] dedicate little attention to deforestation and prefer to not speak of the structural factors behind it.” Ortiz’s party “proposes to ‘take advantage’ of protected areas and wants to launch an ‘Exporting from the Amazon Plan’ without blinking at its grave environmental consequences.” Meanwhile, former president Carlos Mesa, who as emerged as the leading challenger “speaks of a post-extractive future, without abandoning natural resource exploitation or expanding the agrarian frontier.”

It remains to be seen whether any of the main political forces in Bolivia has the courage to take on the established agribusiness industry and transform its economic model. However, growing ecological consciousness in the public makes this far more likely now than three months ago. A second cabildo, to be held in La Paz on Thursday, may offer signs of the balance between anti-MAS politics and ecological policy change.

Ironically, the MAS-IPSP may find it hardest to make this kind of political transformation, now that it has invested so much in apparently futile alliance building with Santa Cruz elite, a strategy they called “embracing the adversary.” Ahead of the cabildo, Government Minister Carlos Romero reassured the press that the Cruceño business elite remained united behind Morales: To back the cabildo, “would be like scoring an own goal. … What coherence would there be in the Cruceño businessmen, who in the majority are supporting the presidential candidacy of Evo Morales, whether they say so openly or not, [backing the cabildo]. … [They] are strategic, not myopic, and so they know which way to point and which way to go.” Perhaps no other sentences could better sum up this disorienting, kaleidoscopic reshuffling of alliances than these.

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