Bolivia’s Unexpected Blockade: Oruro on strike over “Evo Morales Airport”

Today is the third day of highway blockades in the Department of Oruro, the culmination of what is already 29 days of pressure backed the department’s Civic Committee and its labor federation (the Central Obrera Departamental of Oruro; COD). The form and schedule of the strike follows the standard Bolivian pattern: participants declared themselves on alert to press their demands, and have held 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour general strikes before proceeding to an indefinite period of pressure, which began on Monday. Road blockades are common means of ramping up pressure in the country, and in fact Oruro’s blockades coincide with blockades by peasants in La Paz department, neighborhood organizations in El Alto, and a municipal organization pursuing a border dispute outside the city of Cochabamba.

However, the topic of Oruro’s mobilization is quite unusual. Over four weeks of protests have been waged on what is a symbolic issue: the naming of the newly expanded airport (the expansion and new routes require it to be redesignated as an international airport). The pre-established name, Juan Mendoza Airport honored an aviation pioneer from the department. But on February 7, the region’s parliament chose to honor a different native son, President Evo Morales Ayma, by re-naming the airport after him. Surprise and discontent about the sudden renaming accompanied the airport’s re-opening the next day. The first strikes on the issue took place on February 27 and 28, endorsed by both the COD and the Civic Committee. Unions of miners (notably from the famous mines in Huanuni) and the ever-strident teachers have been vocal participants.

The conflict is particularly surprising given the strong and consistent backing from the region for President Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP) political party. The department gave 79.46% of its votes to the MAS-IPSP in the 2009 general elections, and all but one of its representatives in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly belong to the party. Evo Morales migrated with his family out of Oruro to the Chapare valley region in Cochabamba, but he is a highly respected native son. During the 2010 regional strike by Potosí, Oruro’s Civic Committee was one of the counterweights to a mobilization that was highly critical of the president.

Criticisms from the Civic Committee had already begun by last December, when the national government kicked off construction a museum of the “democratic and cultural revolution” in Morales’ hometown, the village of Orinoca, Oruro. Then, Civic Committee President Sonia Saavedra questioned the  priorities for investment from national government funds:

We need projects that are truly icons for tourist development. I don’t deny the value of the museum that will be built in Orinoca, but we also would like to see that the things that are really necessary to be built are built. What should be more at hand is to ensure that people of the country and from abroad come and see the richness of our department. “Necesitamos proyectos que realmente sean íconos de desarrollo turismo, no desvaloro el museo que se va construir en Orinoca, pero también quisiéramos que se construyan los que realmente van a ser necesarios y están más a la mano para que venga gente del interior y exterior del país para que vean la riqueza de nuestro departamento”

Saavedra urged funds for the Museum in Oruro commemorating the city’s world-famous festival, and suggested that water and irrigation were more important priorities for Orinoca than a stadium with 8,000 seats for a town of 2,000 people.

The past month’s discontent has been met by a series of accusations from the departmental government, who have variously accused “a press bought by the right,” conspiratorial actors intending to produce a coup, and other figures as standing “behind” the campaign. However, many mobilization are attempted in Bolivia, while only a few reach this scale. To gain this level of adherence requires a real willingness of people to stay away from work and join in mass efforts at pressure. However surprising, there is little doubt that this willingness is genuine. Moreover, the region’s political leanings are not in doubt. Rejecting the accusations of right-wing ties, Orureño journalists issued a statement declaring:

We journalists have never been from the right, to the contrary we have always been of the left, but from the humble left, wich fights for justice and equality among all, for seriousness and responsibility; on the other hand, the supposed leftists are taking on the poses of the right: self-important, irrational, and unwilling to dialogue. “Los periodistas nunca hemos sido de derecha, más por el contrario, siempre hemos sido de izquierda, pero de la izquierda humilde, que lucha por la justicia, la igualdad entre todos, la seriedad y la responsabilidad; en cambio, los supuestos izquierdistas están asumiendo poses de la derecha, soberbios, irracionales y faltos de diálogo”

More recently, Saavedra rejected the renaming in this way: “It’s a servile act by the [departmental] Assembly members who want to erase the history of Oruro. Juan Mendoza was the first Bolivian pilot born in this land.” “Es una actitud servil de los asambleístas que quieren borrar la historia de Oruro. Juan Mendoza fue el primer piloto boliviano nacido en esta tierra.”

So the current strike can best be understood as an act of resistance to the symbolic centralization of power, and the beginnings of a personality cult emerging around the president. That this resistance is coming from his own home region reflects the critical and diverse currents that make up Bolivian political culture.

The president himself has tried to remain aloof from the conflict, noting that he had never asked for any public works to bear his name and urging Orureños to work out the conflict among themselves. However, as the conflict enters a second month, national officials have begun to disqualify participants in the protest, repeating local accusations, and suggesting that the preference for Mendoza over Morales has an anti-indigenous, racial component. The Observatorio on Racism reacted skeptically on twitter.

Several proposals have been floated to resolve the conflict, including referring the matter to the Constitutional Tribunal (there are legal restrictions on naming works after living people), naming the airport Juan Mendoza and the terminal after Evo Morales, and simply calling the place Oruro International Airport. Today, however, the strike goes on.

Update: The strike was successful and the government agreed to repeal the re-naming law by March 22, 2013. The airport opened with neither Mendoza nor Morales’s name upon it in 2014, generating an angry reaction from Sonia Saavedra. As of March 2016, the legally approved name of Juan Mendoza still had not been placed on airport signage. The airport sees 32 flight per week. However, its future is clouded by on-the-ground problems: keeping birds and animals off the runways and the nearby presence of a municipal dump. Aviation officials have given the airport until the end of 2017 to resolve these issues or face cancellation of all flights.

Eight deaths in Bolivian political conflicts in 2012

Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensor del Pueblo) reports that 2012 was another busy year for social conflict in Bolivia. The office compiled a list of 500 political disputes that were the subject of protests or direct actions since January 1. (coverage: Erbol). The year is the deadliest in the country’s political life since 2008 with eight people losing their lives in these conflicts. Six of them died from violence by state forces; by my count, this is the most people killed by police responses to political actions in any one year since Evo Morales took power in January 2006.*

Those who died in 2012 were as follows:

  • Abel Rocha Bustamante, 27, and Michael Sosa, 23. Shot by police in the January Yapacaní conflict. (This blog’s coverage: 1|2)
  • Eliseo Rojas, 22. Reportedly electrocuted on a fence while attempting to storm police barracks during the Yapacaní conflict.
  • José Mamani Mamani, protester in Mallku Khota mining dispute, died of bullet wounds to the neck apparently fired by police on July 5.
  • Ambrosio Gonzáles, 45. Died from a police bullet during the July 31 operation to retake the Caranda gas plant, in Buenavista, Santa Cruz, which was seized by protesters demanding that a roadway and bridge be built.
  • FSTMB member Héctor Choque. Killed by an explosion of dynamite during fratricidal protests in La Paz between his union of mining employees and cooperative miners over the disposition of the Mallku Khota mine following its nationalization.
  • Óscar Omar Cruz Mallku, 17, dead from a gunshot, and Oscar Ricardo Gómez Bertón, 27, dead from wounds after a police raid on illegal used car sellers in Challapata, Oruro faced public resistance by the sellers.

*Police killed four protesters in 2007 and 2010. If one excludes the October 2012 Challapata event as a confrontation with criminal entrepreneurs during a raid, then all three years have the same number of police killings in political situations.

Bolivian Constitutional Tribunal shakes up MAS executive with rulings, comments

In a very busy Wednesday, Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal struck down a longstanding law criminalizing “contempt” toward public officials and limited the scope of an anti-corruption law; rounding out the court’s surge into the headlines, justice Gualberto Cusi made biting comments on the government’s failure to abide by the court’s ruling on the TIPNIS consultation.

Contempt law ruled unconstitutional: The Tribunal found, in Judicial Ruling 1250/2012, that the law prohibiting contempt (“desacato” ) towards senior public officials through defamation is an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of expression. The court advised public officials that they may use civil court procedures to deal with slander, and nullified the law in its entirety. Numerous opposition figures, including the center-left Mayor of La Paz, Luis (Lucho) Revilla, and the right-wing Governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, have been indicted under this very broad statute following complaints from the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.

The “Marcelo Andrés Santa Cruz” Anti-corruption Law cannot be applied retroactively: In the first legislative session under the new Constitution, the Movement Towards Socialism supermajority wasted no time in approving a new law criminalizing corruption. The law allows for severe penalties against officials who took bribes or other compensation to change policies. It was designed to give the government room to revise contracts and licenses approved under improper influence, and to recover fortunes which had been pilfered from the government. However, it was also referred to as the “Guillotine Law” (including by the Vice President) for its ability to end the political careers of past government officials. On Wednesday, the court sharply limited this aspect, finding that the law may not be applied retroactively “when the sanction [it imposes] is more severe or the act being judged would not have constituted a crime when it was carried out.”

Gualberto Cusi speaks out on TIPNIS: The Constitutional Tribunal had already ruled on the TIPNIS consultation, insisting that any process establishing the will of the communities in the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory about the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would cut through the region and accelerate already serious deforestation, must occur in a mutually agreed framework. Justice Gualberto Cusi—the judge who received the most votes in last year’s judicial election—denounced the current consultation process as a “disaster” that violates the indigenous inhabitants’ rights. Further, the justice suggested that the TIPNIS indigenous may need to look outside Bolivia for protection of their rights: “I believe that in Bolivia, no[, nothing can be done.] It will have to be the indigenous who appeal these acts to international tribunals. Yo creo que en Bolivia no (se puede hacer algo), tendrán que ser los indígenas quienes apelen a estos hechos en tribunales internacionales.” The most likely forum for international appeals is the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which has been a pathbreaking forum for indigenous rights.

None of these rulings would be particularly exceptional for a high court around the world, but this particular high court is in its first year, and came out of a controversial nominating and election process which was boycotted by multiple opposition forces. For it to strike down major laws embraced by the governing party and publicly embrace human rights standards around freedom of expression, indigenous consultation, and ex post facto laws makes this something* of a Marbury v. Madison moment for the new court.

* The analogy is inexact since a Constitutional Tribunal began operation in 1999.

Pablo Solón speaks out for meaningful consultation on TIPNIS

Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, has been a critical global voice on behalf of the new Bolivia. He worked to secure critical global victories like the UN General Assembly’s recognition of the human right to water and sanitation, and to advance the frameworks of harmony with nature and the rights of indigenous peoples on the global stage. When plurinational Bolivia took a principled stand challenging collective inaction and market-based pseudo-solutions in the Copenhagen and Cancún climate talks, he was the country’s most eloquent voice (see, for example, this op-ed from Cancún). His diplomacy combined the capacity for principled opposition (Bolivia stood among three dissenters in Copenhagen, and alone in Cancún) with tenacious work to build a majority (140 nations joined in backing the right to water). Solón is also committed to diplomacy among movements, supporting indigenous and environmental movements’ access to negotiations in Copenhagen, attending the US Social Forum in 2010, and co-organizing the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba. In September 2011, just after the police raid on the pro-TIPNIS Eighth National Indigenous March, he publicly called on Evo Morales to rethink his position on the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, arguing, “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.”

Now that the TIPNIS conflict has been reframed by the government’s passage of a so-called “prior consultation” law, Solón is adding is his voice on what “consultation” should mean. (Elsewhere, he has emphasized the existence of alternate routes for the highway, as well.) The following is a complete translation of a February 13 blog post by Solón on the subject:

Last Sunday I was at Erbol [Bolivian community radio network] being interviewed by its director Andrés Gómez, and conversing about TIPNIS and the consultation. Suddenly, I said to him: “How about if I come and ‘consult’ with you about amputating your arm.”

He responded, “Ah, no! Not that!”

“And what if I tell you that only in doing that can your life be saved.”

He responded, “Well, that is different”

And I replied, “But then I have to demonstrate to you that the only alternative that would save your life is to amputate the arm”

That’s how it is,” sighed Andrés.

The construction of a highway that cuts through the heart of TIPNIS is like amputating an arm. Before proceeding to consult with you as to whether I should amputate or not, I have to demonstrate that it is the only option, that there is no other choice, that without it any integration whatsoever between Cochabamba and Trinidad is impossible, that any other alternative is riskier, not technically viable, or financially unsustainable. It’s not right for you to accept losing an an arm unless I first put all the options on the table. This is the case with TIPNIS.

They want to have a consultation without first having realized a serious analysis of the alternatives for integration by road.

The obligation that comes before any consultation whatsoever is to bring together a commission in which all participate: the TIPNIS indigenous, the representatives of Cochabamba and Beni, the national government, experts on engineering and the environment. This commission is to bring us in a reasonable period an analysis of all the possible routes for integrating Cochabamba and Trinidad by road, together with their costs, impacts on indigenous communities, and on our Mother Earth. Once we have all these alternatives, then on that basis, it is possible to conduct a responsible consultation.

There are those who say that to go alongside TIPNIS or any other option is not viable. Perhaps they are correct… but this has not been demonstrated. Therefore, what is appropriate is to analyze, without passions or caprice, all the options. The result of the study o the different options will perhaps lead us to the conclusion that there is another option, or there are various other options, and that it is not necessary to conduct a consultation to see if TIPNIS should be cut in half, or it will lead us to a consultation to decide clearly between one option or another, knowing the pros and cons of each one.

What one cannot do is to “consult” with someone as to whether their arm should be amputated or not, without showing them the other options.

TIPNIS road construction finally suspended (over money)

Nearly two months after the cross-country Eighth Grand National Indigenous March won a law prohibiting any highway project through the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), construction of the project has finally been suspended, but not stopped. The Brazilian contractor OAS has laid off 80 of its 800 workers, and pulled back its work camps, machinery, and work teams from areas of active construction, reports today’s Los Tiempos (Cochabamba). The layoffs were reported earlier in the Brazilian newspaper Valor (secondary coverage from the Erbol community radio network). Update: OAS now reports that it is laying off 411 additional workers, leaving just 300 on staff “for continuity” of its operations. The worker’s union reports even larger layoffs: 350 on December 14 and another 350 on December 15. (source: “Despido masivo en OAS; la ABC no halla motivos,” Los Tiempos, 15 December). Evo Morales criticized the move and the company. Further Update (January 7): The Brazilian ambassador to Brazil, Marcel Biato confirms a “slowdown” in work, but attributes it to the rainy season, rather than any monetary dispute. The ambassador mediated in the Decemeber impasse between OAS and the Bolivian government, and claims to have resolved it. [Opinión puts it this way: Biato, que había interpuesto sus buenos oficios para superar el impasse, dijo que aquello ya no es tal. ] Biato states that he expects the Bolivian government to renegotiate Segment II, but reiterates there is “no hurry” to do so.

The immediate cause of the paralysis in new work is a dispute between OAS and the Bolivian government over financing. While most of the funds (US$322 million)  for the project are being provided by the Brazilian state development bank BNDES, the Bolivian government share had been set at US$190 million. However, the Bolivian government is now offering just US$143 million, although the reasons for this are unclear.

Workers on the project have offered the Bolivian government a 48-hour deadline to resolve the issue or face mobilizations.

Map of Cochabamba-Beni highway and TIPNIS
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. Segment I ends at Insinuta, while Segment III begins at Montegrande.

The Bolivian Highway Administration (ABC) claims to be working within the mandate of Law 180 protecting TIPNIS, but has doesn’t seem to have worked out that the current route of Segments I and III essentially require a cross-TIPNIS connection. ABC official, however, have deferred the issue to Cochabamba Governor Edmundo Novillo (of the ruling MAS party) and the highway booster committee.

Engineers: Alternatives Exist

Meanwhile, the Beni Inter-Institutional Committee and the Cochabamba Association of Emeritus Engineers have worked out alternate routes. The Cochabamban engineers proposed 270- to 300-km routes east of the park or a 749-km route northwest of Cochabamba to Trinidad in Beni. They estimate a cost savings over the current project, but realizing that cost savings requires stopping construction. The Beni group came up with an additional route passing immediately west of TIPNIS.

Political conflict continues

Despite the existence of alternatives, the debate over the future of the highway continues to be a political one. The national government, the MAS party in Cochabamba, and a quasi-independent organization of indigenous in the colonized zone of TIPNIS called Conisur continue to be the heart of the pro-road effort. President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera continue to vocally advocate for construction on the original route. The Bolivian government is pursuing parallel, but opposed tracks on the issue: authorizing regulations protecting the park on one hand and organizing a civil society campaign to overturn these decisions.

Some members of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Mojos Highway Booster Committee, however, have expressed flexibility on the route. And several prominent Bolivian grassroots forces have distanced themselves from the campaign for the road, notably the national colonizer federation (the Union Federation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia) and peasant union founder Genaro Flores.

This week, the Pact of Unity split deepened into two separate meetings on Bolivia’s future agenda. The 1st Plurinational Forum to Deepen the Change met at Cochabamba’s Casa Campestre while CIDOB and CONAMAQ organized their own summit in Santa Cruz. Despite the best efforts of the road-through-TIPNIS campaigners, it seems that the issue will be left for regional Sub-forums to Deepen the Change. The indigenous gathering has reaffirmed defense of territorial rights, including a highway-free TIPNIS as the top of its agenda.

FACT CHECK (12 October): New Bolivian Legislation Does Not Block TIPNIS Road; Construction Continues

Note: This is (hopefully) now a historical correction. This is assuming that the Morales government carries through its October 21 promise to prohibit any highway through TIPNIS. The misrepresentations of the Morales government on this issue (see below), however, suggest interested journalists and supporters of TIPNIS should stay tuned until the new legislation is finalized. Additionally, the Eighth Indigenous March has fifteen other points of demand, which are currently under negotiations with the Morales government. For comprehensive background on the issue see this briefing paper on the arrival of the march to La Paz (written October 16) and past articles on this blog. Happily, the English-language press has sent some impressive on-the-ground journalists who are covering this, alongside consistent bloggers like Dario Kenner. — CBJ, 21 October

Legislation passed by the Bolivian Chambers of Deputies and under consideration by the Bolivian Senate will not resolve the ongoing conflict over the proposed highway through Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). The indigenous communities of the territory, joined by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the highland National Confederation of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu (CONAMAQ) have led a 59-day protest march in opposition to the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would split the territory and accelerate already significant deforestation. The legislation, like prior government proposals, will not allow the indigenous people of the territory to freely choose the location or the absence of the road, as required by international standards. Nor will the law stop construction on the other two segments of the road, making the final segment a possible fait accompli.

Update, Thursday October 13: The executive branch has weighed in today. Evo Morales, speaking at the fulfillment an international business deal with a Chinese company, unequivocally said that the consultation will be non-binding, in the case of the highway and many other natural resources issues “of state concern.” As reported by the community radio network Erbol, Evo stated:

They ask that the consultation be binding, it’s impossible, that is non-negotiable. Prior consultations, consultations are always guaranteed by the Constitution and by international norms. We will always respect [consultation], but for a group of families to say to us, “Don’t do this,” would mean to paralyze our projects in the electrical and hydrocarbon sectors, and to paralyze our industries.

There are some matters that cannot be negotiated because it is a question of state, it is a question of the Bolivian people. [translation mine]

Nos piden que la consulta tenga carácter vinculante, (eso) es imposible, eso no se puede negociar, las consultas previas, las consultas siempre están garantizadas por la Constitución y por las normas internacionales, siempre vamos a respetar (la consulta), pero que un grupo de familias nos diga que no se haga (eso) significa paralizar todas nuestras obras en el sector eléctrico, en el sector hidrocarburífero, nuestras industrias.

Hay temas que no se pueden negociar porque es una cuestión de Estado, es del pueblo boliviano.

Evo Morales was not the executive official to weigh in today. Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, widely regarded as the figure who urged Evo to retreat on the gasolinazo in December 2010, also spoke out.

Journalist: If they say they don’t want the highway, will that be accepted?

Choquehuanca: That’s it, that’s it. Otherwise, why are what are we doing the consulatation for?

Journalist: So, it will be binding?

Choquehuanca: It must be.

Morales’ statement came hours after Choquehuanca, and he continues to lead the government, so there is no doubt that Evo’s is the official position. However, Choquehuanca continues to be a crucial moral compass for the MAS government.

Note: This fact check is necessary in part because some English-language media (e.g., AFP) uncritically repeated the government’s spin that the road project has been stopped or suspended.

Government Proposal for Consultation Will Be Non-Binding

Legislators from the governing Movement towards Socialism (MAS) are currently advancing 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. On the night of October 8, after nine hours of debate, the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies passed the modified MAS proposal. It requires Senate approval and Presidential signing to become law. The modified MAS proposal 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.” (Relevant text appears here)

The indigenous march, and six indigenous deputies who represent lowland indigenous communities have raised several objections to this legislation (see after the jump). However, it has now come to light 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. Three MAS legislators—Deputy Ingrid Loreto (who helped to draft it), Deputy Emiliana Aiza, and Senator Rhina Aguirre—stated to the press (La Paz daily La Razón) that the legislated consultation does not require the government to carry out its results.

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.” Likewise, an online petition with nearly 500,000 signatures (from Avaaz) calls for a “binding and inclusive” consultation.

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. 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 proposed 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.

Map and other indigenous concerns about the law follow…

Read More »

Bolivia’s indigenous land revolution: Big gains, but rights in question

Five years into indigenous-led government, what is the most tangible change for the country’s indigenous majority? Despite the many possible examples in the the symbols of government, the clauses of the 2009 Constitution, and the rhetoric of leaders like Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera, I think there is one thing that stands out as the most concrete advance: awarding collective titles over land to self-governing regional indigenous organizations.

Bolivia is not alone in recognizing dramatically larger indigenous land claims as legitimate in the past two decades. Other large examples stretch from the reorganization of a large swath of Canada’s Northwest Territories as Nunavut to constitutional recognition of indigenous self-governance in long-standing Reserves (many of which were originally territories for Church-controlled “civilization” of native peoples) in Colombia and southward through most of South America.

Indigenous land rights have come at the initiative of the hemisphere’s active and intensely networked indigenous peoples’ movement, which has turned a long-repeated call into action over the past four decades. In Bolivia, this goal reached center-stage in national politics long before the rise of Evo Morales and the dramatic revolts of the 2000s. Its leading proponent has been the lowland indigenous confederation CIDOB. CIDOB was founded in 1982 as the Indigenous Confederation of the Bolivian East, and grew to include lowland groups in the Amazon and Chaco in a Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia. In 1990, CIDOB brought the demand for territorial rights to the capital La Paz on the March for Territory and Dignity, the first of many trans-Bolivia marches it would lead. The embrace of CIDOB marchers by tens of thousands of highland peasants was legendary: it marked a coming of age for both CIDOB and the Katarista movement’s call for an ethnically conscious, self-organized peasantry, and the beginning of government recognition of indigenous rights.

In concrete terms, however, the 1990s only yielded a small start to the recovery of indigenous territory. Four so-called Native Community Lands (TCOs) were recognized by decree in 1992, and a formal mechanism for titling the land in such territories was created in the 1996 Agrarian Reform Law. But the “clearing” of land titles (or ”saneamiento”) was a long process, involved extensive bureaucracy and the recognition of titles for third party residents of these lands. Despite promising flourishes of rhetoric, the entire process limped along under the neoliberal governments that ruled Bolivia through 2005: just 2.8 million hectares as of 2000, and a total of 5.7 million by 2005. (data on titling comes from Fundación Tierra‘s recent comprehensive report on Native Community Lands, which are in the process of renaming as Indigenous Originary Campesino Territories).

Following the December 2005 election of Evo Morales, things genuinely changed. With the help of Danish development aid and technical assistance, a massive effort to generate secure titles for hundreds of TCOs advanced. In its first year, the Morales administration titled over 1.9 million hectares, but much more was to come. By February 2011, the Morales administration had nearly tripled the previous decades’ titling work in six years. The total area of Native Community Lands reached 20.7 million hectares, nearly 19% of the entire country.

Why does this matter? In the lowlands, native title has been a revolutionary shift in power. The most dramatic stories come from the Chaco, where the pre-2008 situation was the unpaid servitude of local indigenous peoples on massive ranches. Bolivia’s agrarian reform law allows the full reversion ranches that use forced labor to their liberated workers. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights confirmed this situation:

the Commission finds the existence of debt bondage and forced labor, which are practices that constitute contemporary forms of slavery. Guaraní families and communities clearly are subjected to a labor regime in which they do not have the right to define the conditions of employment, such as the working hours and wages; they work excessive hours for meager pay, in violation of the domestic labor laws; and they live under the threat of violence, which also leads to a situation of fear and absolute dependency on the employer. (report, at paragraph 166)

Caraparicito became the flashpoint of Bolivian agrarian reform in April 2008, when governmental land reform officials were greeted by American ranch owner Ronald Larsen with shotguns in February and April 2008. Speaking of the Vice-Minister of Lands, Alejandro Almaraz, Larsen told La Razón, “I didn’t want this guy making any trouble, so I shut him up with a shot at one of his tires.”

In December 2010, five such ranches (El Recreo, San Isidro, Huaraca-Itacay, Buena Vista-Isiporenda, and Caraparicito I and II) were declared the property of the Alto Parapetí Native Community Lands. While appeals continue at the other five ranches, Larsen’s Caraparicito was turned over. Despite Larsen’s promise to relinquish his land “over my dead body,” he and his family moved out and local Guaraní leader José Yamangay Robles reports its residents have begun planting corn in their free life. The Guaranís’ new school in Caraparicito has been named Yeyora, or freedom. (For multiple reports on the land handover at Caraparicito and Alto Parapetí see CEJIS’ Bolivia Plurinacional of May 2011.)

While this dramatic reversal is hard to equal, the meaning of indigenous access to land has been vital to many agricultural communities. One example is in the lands of the Chiquitano people, as described in this Oxfam report on the significance of their 2007 recovery of lands. Collective ownership through Native Community Lands has spread far beyond the lowlands, largely through the reorganization of many Altiplano communities through the restoration of ayllu-based organizations. Fully 42.3% of titled TCO lands are in the Altiplano or central valleys, organized in 135 separate entities. Collectively governed agricultural communities have been given a big boost across the country. However, title to lands is not everything. For farmers, the materials to make their land productive are just as important, and this process has been slower.

Critical limitations on the territorial rights offered by Native Community Lands throw the value of these titles into question: a TCO can be overlaid by government-authorized concessions of logging rights, oil and gas exploration and extraction zones, and mining concessions. The Seventh CIDOB march’s demand “that forest, mining, and other concessions that affect indigenous peoples and their territories be annulled” was not heeded. TCOs can also come diced up by official recognition of third parties’ de facto control over longstanding indigenous territories, such as cocaleros’ encroachment into the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory and large-scale agribusiness in the Chiquitanía and Gran Chaco.

Finally, the presumed right of indigenous communities to control their own territories is a subject of national political debate in today’s politics. Three simultaneous national debates put this issue front and center. First, the widely discussed Law on the Rights of Mother Earth remains stuck in the Bolivian legislature (a non-operative declaratory “short law” was passed last December). A major point of contention is the right of indigenous people’s to freely consent to or reject megaprojects on their lands. Senator Julio Salazar (MAS) who is in charge of the law’s progress, declared in April that “Our indigenous brothers cannot block taking advantage of natural resources.” An indigenous proposal for a general law on consultation and consent have recently been presented by CONAMAQ to the government. And the conflict over the highway planned through Isiboro Sécure has elicited numerous Morales government statements suggesting that indigenous communities have no right to veto what goes on in their lands.

Will the massive recognition of indigenous land rights result in a massive change in indigenous lives? Will former servants who acquired land title escape from poverty? Can defined boundaries turn back the tide of agricultural colonization and deforestation? Will these territories be vehicles for self-determination or will the use of the lands continue to be decided in La Paz, and in the interest of increasing extraction for the benefit of the national treasury? It’s too early to tell, but lowland and highland indigenous peoples, CIDOB and CONAMAQ, will soon be on the march again: On August 15, the Eighth National March begins. The march’s agenda (full text in Spanish) begins with defending TIPNIS and includes all of the issues discussed here, and many more.