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…

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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.

Bolivian officials on the TIPNIS highway

Here is a compendium of statements from the Evo Morales government on the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, with Spanish and my English translation side-by-side. What started as a single controversy is rapidly spreading to a defining moment in the Morales presidency, and an illustration of its “paradigm of respect for Mother Earth.” The quotes grow increasingly disconcerting and the stakes get higher as officials repeatedly suggest that further expansion of extraction industries and megaprojects is on their agenda.

June 23: President Evo Morales lamented that other social movements had not persuaded the indigenous “that they are being confused, that they ought to reject the NGOs, the enemies of integration, of the national economy, of the indigenous people who lack electricity. It’s not just on the matter of the road, but also hydroelectric dams and petroleum.”…
“Some [of the indigenous people] want the road to pass through their community, but lamentably there are some NGOs, some foundations that [under] the pretext of conserving the environment want to disadvantage [others],” explained the head of state, arguing that some sectors advance other interests because “it’s a business for them, they live off of it, and they are uninterested in the road for its own sake”
También lamentó que las fuerzas sociales de Cochabamba y del Beni no coadyuven y no persuadan a los indígenas “que están siendo confundidos, que no rechacen rotundamente a las ONG, enemigos de la integración, de la economía nacional, de los pueblos indígenas que no tienen luz. No sólo es el tema del camino, sino de hidroeléctricas y petróleo”

“Algunos (indígenas) quieren que el camino pase por sus comunidades, pero lamentablemente hay algunas ONG, algunas fundaciones que so pretexto de conservar el medio ambiente quieren perjudicar”, explicó el Jefe de Estado y argumentó que algunos sectores buscan otros intereses, porque “es negocio para ellos, viven de ello, a ellos no les interesa el camino por el camino”.
(La Razón, July 13)
June 29: Evo Morales:Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road and we are going to deliver under [my] current administration the Cochabamba-Beni/Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos road.” “Quieran o no quieran vamos construir este camino y lo vamos a entregar en esta gestión el camino Cochabamba-Beni, Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos” (Página Siete, June 30)
Evo Morales, July 12: “Those who oppose the exploration of oil or of gas, or finally the construction of roads are not my indigenous brothers, whether they are from the Chaco, from Isiboro[-Sécure] or other places. How can they oppose themselves?; I cannot understand the indigenous brothers.”  “No son mis hermanos indígenas sean del Chaco, de la zona del Isiboro o de otras zonas que se oponen a la exploración del petróleo o del gas o finalmente a la ejecución de la construcción de caminos. Cómo pueden oponerse, no puedo entender a los hermanos indígenas.” (Erbol community radio network, July 12)
July 12: José Luis Gutiérrez, Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy, opened the possibility of oil exploration in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, where there would be an important hydrocarbon reserve according to inhabitants of the territory itself.  El ministro de Hidrocarburos y Energía, José Luis Gutiérrez, abrió la posibilidad de realizar trabajos de exploración petrolera en el Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS), donde existiría un importante reservorio hidrocarburífero según versión de los propios habitantes de la zona. (Erbol community radio network, July 12)
Evo Morales, July 31 at a meeting of cocaleros in the Chapare: “We will consult, but they should know it will not be a binding consultation. Just because they say no, doesn’t mean it won’t be done.””You, comrades, have to explain, to orient the indigenous comrades—the mayor himself is mobilized—to convince them that must not oppose [the road]”Later, he added, “If I had the time, I would go seduce the Yuracaré female comrades [literally make them fall in love]; so then, youth, you have instructions from the president to [sexually] conquer the Trinitario and Yuracaré female comrades so that they do not oppose the construction of the road. Then he asked, “Approved?” and applause could be heard from the crowd. “Las consultas vamos a hacerlas, pero quiero que sepan que no tienen carácter vinculante. No porque ellos (los indígenas) digan no, no se va a hacer.”“Ustedes compañeras y compañeros tienen que explicar, orientar a los compañeros indígenas, el propio alcalde está movilizado, para convencerlos y que no se opongan”, dijo.Luego, agregó: “Si yo tuviera tiempo, iría a enamorar a las compañeras yuracarés y convencerlas de que no se opongan; así que, jóvenes, tienen instrucciones del Presidente de conquistar a las compañeras yuracarés trinitarias para que no se opongan a la construcción del camino”. Enseguida consultó: ¿Aprobado?” y se escucharon aplausos del público.(La Razón, August 1)
Félix Cárdenas, Vice-Minister of Decolonization, August 4: “The Bolivian people need development and this will not be the only road that will cross through protected areas, there will be many others besides, all with the goal of connecting us internationally, of exploiting our natural resources, and to have a network of communication, in all senses, with other countries.”
Cárdenas repeated that he rejects “the fundamentalism” of environmentalists and indigenous people who “think that the paradigm proposed by the MAS of respect for Mother Earth means that we must care for all of the forests and lands. If that were so, what would we eat?”
El viceministro de Descolonización, Félix Cárdenas, aseguró que “el pueblo boliviano necesita desarrollo y éste (el que divide las tierras protegidas del TIPNIS) no será el único camino que atravesará zonas protegidas, serán muchos otros más, todo con el fin de conectarnos internacionalmente, de explotar nuestros recursos y para tener una red de comunicación, en todo sentido, con los demás países”
Cárdenas repitió que se rechaza “el fundamentalismo” de ambientalistas y originarios que “piensan que el paradigma planteado por el MAS de respeto a la Madre Tierra significa que se debe cuidar todos los bosques y tierras. Si así fuera, entonces ¿qué comemos?”
(La Prensa, August 5)

Resolution by indigenous communities of Isiboro-Sécure rejecting Cochabamba-Beni highway

The following is a translation of the original Spanish text posted here.—C

Summary: Indigenous peoples of the Isiboro-Securé Indigenous Territory and National Park resolved in May 2010:

•    To overwhelmingly and non-negotiably reject the construction of the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway and of any highway segment that would affect our territory, our [collective] big house.

•    To demand that the Government of the Plurinational State and the governments of the world act with consequence and coherence in their respect for the rights of Mother Earth and of Indigenous Peoples.

•    Declare a state of emergency and of permanent and immediate mobilization in defense of our rights, of territorial integrity, and of the rights of Mother Earth.

•    Instruct our traditional authorities and our representatives within the Plurinational State at all levels to realize all necessary actions for the defense of the rights of Mother Earth and of our rights as indigenous peoples before all national and international institutions.

complete text after the jump…Read More »

Bolivia: A Year in Ten Protests

I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

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Bolivia’s Literate Political Culture

While sitting in the midst of the massive coca chew-in in Cochabamba’s central square, the overwhelming mass of people was cris-crossed by two types of vendors: sellers of cloths on which to dry coca leaves, and a ubiquitous Bolivian sight, the hawkers of copies of new laws recently passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. The hot seller of the day was last year’s Law 045, the Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination.

Bolivian laws are a widely circulated commodity. Newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloid, publish copies of both draft laws and their final versions as free supplements. Wednesday’s Los Tiempos had the draft statute of autonomy for Cochabamba Department stuck in alongside the sports and fashion sections. On the streets of downtown La Paz, Cochabamba, or Potosí, you can buy bound versions of all the major laws in Bolivia—the laws on criminal procedure, the labor code, and indigenous legal process, for instance—at all the main newsstands. Just by attending social movement conferences, I’ve accumulated three bound copies of the 2009 Constitution.

And that Constitution is surely the most cited text at Bolivian political rallies. You can count on the text of the constitution being referenced (though rarely directly quoted) when a series of political speakers lines up. Always referred by its formal name, the [New] Political Constitution of the State, it is a touchstone of legitimacy for protesters. It comes up as much as the so-called October Agenda, the combined political demands embodied in the 2003 Gas War, the first protests to topple a neoliberal government.

So, it was most surprising to read how America’s diplomats think about Bolivia’s political literacy, as revealed by the Wikileaks release of cables:

Although the opposition is making a mighty effort across the country to rally against the constitution, the forces of inertia seem to be conspiring against them, particularly in the form of a largely uneducated rural base in the Altiplano. Leading daily La Razon interviewed several community leaders from the Altiplano, and their supporters, and reported on January 18 that neither the leaders nor the supporters had read the Constitution.  Instead, the repeated message was that rural communities would take their marching orders from the MAS, and vote for the constitution. … In the countryside, the number of those reading the constitution is much lower.  Post suspects disinterest, blind faith in Evo Morales’ political project, and illiteracy, despite the Cuban literacy program, all play a role. (Cable 09LAPAZ96)

While the length of the new Constitution—literally hundreds of articles—no doubt limited the number of people who read it through, it’s clear that American diplomats have yet to clue in on Bolivia’s grassroots political culture. No one who has sat through a campesino rally, or the well-attended presentations on technical details of pensions or gas production, or who even sat with coca chewers ready and willing to buy the new anti-racism law, could look down so easily on alleged popular ignorance.

Attendees at World People's Conference on Climate Change—25,000 Bolivians and 9,000 foreigners—snap up a free newspaper

Bolivia’s anti-racism law at the center of face-off with corporate press

Since August, one issue has generated more headlines here in Bolivia than any other: The Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, which was debated and passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (aka, the parliament) in late September.

The remarkably short Law 045 is the Bolivian equivalent of more than a generation of civil rights law in the United States. It bans discrimination by public officials and private businessmen, criminalizes verbal and physical aggressions, charters educational efforts on discrimination, creates a national commission on issues of discrimination, and imposes sanctions on the media for circulating “racist ideas.” The scope of the law is broad, including discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, age, sexual orientation, disability, and pregnancy, among other statuses. A such, it is parallel to American laws from the 1948 integration of the Armed Forces to the 1965 Civil Rights Act to the yet-to-be-passed Employment Non-Discrimination.

So, it would not be shocking if wide range of controversies had emerged over the manifold implications of the law. But this has not occurred. One single controversy, however, has risen to national prominence.

Two articles of the proposed legislation, Articles 16 and 23, have been roundly criticized by the mainstream, privately-owned press. Article 16 makes publications subject to economic fines and even closure for circulating racist ideas. And Article 23 removes any special immunity for members of the press from prosecution under the law. The mainstream press has characterized the articles as the rebirth of a 1980s proposal for prior press censorship, known as the Ley de Mordaza (the Jaws Law, for its ability to crush the press). They led marches across the country as the law was being considered, and coordinated a nationwide protest by in which newspaper covers all read only: “Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy.”

As an (US) American, of course, these provisions are shocking. Our Voltaire (“I detest what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say it”)-to-American Civil Liberties Union tradition of free speech is, however, a globally extremely tolerant position. (I’ve written before about how our notion of the freedom of the press is, on the other hand, a highly restricted vision of public access to the media, essentially limited by press ownership.) Following the nightmares of World War II, the global human rights regime initiated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drew the line on free expression at racism and incitement to war, which it said should be prohibited. International conventions follow these lines by banning “racist incitement.” Germany bans Nazi parties, advocacy of and apology for genocide, and rallies by the racist right. Several other Latin American countries have restrictions on racist media which include prison terms, unlike the Bolivian law. Both the OAS president and the UN human rights representative who have visited in recent weeks have emphasized that the law is appropriate, although the line between racist incitement and free expression must be scrupulously drawn. They’ve also urged the private press to end their boycott of the rule-making process on the legislation.

Strangely, however, the American standard is irrelevant to the debate here. In three months, I have not heard or read a single defense of free *speech* as opposed to free *press* on these issues. No one is suggesting that criminalizing calling someone an “Indio de mierda” (“shitty Indian”) to their face is inappropriate. (Doing so in the United States would of course ignite a national firestorm over “thought police” and be overturned in short order by any competent Federal Court.) There has been a great deal of concern about whether the a TV station filming and disseminating that act would be liable to prosecution (the government regulations proposed on the issue now make it clear that such reporting of others’ speech will not be subject to sanction).

Aside from marches, the press and many media workers’ unions have used a one-day strike, hunger strikes in Santa Cruz, and an immense petition campaign to oppose the law, which sailed through the MAS-controlled parliament. On November 26, they submitted a sample selection of signatures to Vice President Álvaro García Linera. The press claims to have gathered one million signatures, although they are still being sent to a single place to be verified, and the eight books they handed over only come to some 32 thousand. Which brings us to the current impasse: while the new Constitution permits citizen initiatives as part Bolivian democracy, there is no enabling legislation yet to regulate the process. The press is depending on the moral weight of its gathered signatures (one million is a substantial portion of Bolivia’s 10.6 million inhabitants) to kickstart the initiative process. So far, the government seems resistant. And so, a policy controversy seems about to cross over to a crisis of democracy.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is not the only voice on this issue. During the debate, a book was published on racism by the press over the last century in Bolivia. This racism runs up through the media’s overt collaboration with (really, rallying for) attacks on indigenous protesters in Cochabamba in January 2007 and Sucre in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The cocalero movement has declared itself on alert in defense of the law, and marched here in Cochabamba. And a stream of “alternative media” which includes indigenous radio producers, radical working-class publications, and (strangely given the name) workers in the government-owned media, has taken a distinct position calling for professional standards and arguing that racism and free expression are fundamentally different. They’ve also used the anti-racism law as an opportunity to argue for systematic coverage of indigenous issues and use of indigenous languages in the media.

For me, this storyline is a fascinating instance of public debate in the process of rights-making, an opportunity to see the shape of the Bolivian legislating process (very little of which takes place inside the walls of the Legislative Assembly), and another turn in the kaleidoscope of political alliances here in Bolivia. It’s also forcing me to reconsider (although not yet change) my ideas of what free expression is. I’ve conducted some interesting brief interviews with the alternative press on this, and hope to delve more as the story develops.

What’s behind the Potosí regional strike?

As the department-wide strike in Potosí continues to edge into the international press (primarily through its effect on tourists and now upon mining companies that operate in the region), I want to give more of the background on the strike and its demands, so it’s at least understandable why people are blockading and hunger striking there.

“It can be summed up in one single thing: in misery. … We are fighting for a hill that as of yet is not a factory, just a hill; it’s raw material. For the dream that some time we, that the families that live there, might have something. They are places forgotten by the hand of God: they don’t have water. They are using up the water in the wells. There is no electricity. It is misery.”
Saúl Juarez, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

If you are from North America, this use of misery might be unfamiliar to you, but it is common in the language of Latin America. We must first organize, then-Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide once said, to move from misery to poverty. Here in the hemisphere’s second-poorest country (after Haiti), Potosí is the poorest of nine departments. The rate of extreme poverty, which is falling nationwide, is still 66.7%; meaning that two-thirds of Potosinos cannot afford to buy their family’s basic necessities. Of every 1000 live births there, 101 children will die before their fifth birthday. Both of these figures are the highest in Bolivia; in the case of child mortality, the second place departments—La Paz and Chuquisaca—see 63 deaths per 1000 children. It is for this reason that Potosinos have spread to the rest of the country in search of better opportunities.

“We can say that we are fighting for the reactivation of the productive apparatus of Potosí.”
Claudia López, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

Most of the demands advanced by the Potosí mobilization are focused on specific industrial or economic projects, which in the eyes of protesters, have languished for the lack of state interest. The boundary dispute with Oruro centers around two hills that contain limestone, a key ingredient for cement, and a second demand is for a cement plant to earn money and create jobs from that resource. Likewise, Potosinos are calling for the activation of a metallurgy plant and for the creation of an international airport to connect Uyuni and its phenomenal salt flats to international tourists.

Potosí, of course, is not poor for the simple lack of investment from the outside. It has never simply languished in the absence of foreign interest. Instead, it was once the largest the city in the Western world precisely because of the rich attraction its mineral wealth held for the Spanish state and its investors. Immense wealth was symbolized by the Cerro Rico which sits above the city, or simply by the phrase “it’s worth a Potosí.” Every Bolivian, rich or poor, left or right, knows how Bolivian wealth enriched Spain, and through it Europe. And every Bolivian understands that to take part in that wealth requires doing more than extracting minerals from the ground and shipping them out of the country.

More recently, Potosí was hit hard by the shock-therapy program of neoliberal economic restructuring that began in 1985. At the time, the miners who worked for COMIBOL—the national mining company that took over the mines run by three wealthy tin barons in 1952—were the strongest social movement in the country. The government of Paz Estenssoro aimed to break this power, and essentially shut down the government-run mining sector to do so, laying off tens of thousands of workers. Those miners who did not resettle elsewhere in the country became the backbone of the cooperative mining sector, a collection of small scale mining projects that engage in uncoordinated mining of the Cerro Rico, and other mountains like it, in search of rich veins of minerals. Decades of such drilling have brought the Cerro to the brink of structural collapse, posing the threat that the hill—recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—could become a ruin.

“They all come to promise and promise, and to say this and that could be done. The [current] government has done the same: it has promised. But after five years of their rule, of creating new laws and a new constitution, of re-electing them, there is nothing. … So, we want dates; we want concrete responses of when and how; we want specific studies; we want operational plans that establish dates for the processes that are going to happen.”
Claudia López

If one had to choose a symbol of the capacity for delay in pursuing development projects in Bolivia, it might well be Karachipampa, the metallurgical plant that the mobilization is demanding to be activated. This lead and silver smelter was built between 1985 and 1988. It has never operated.

Several years ago, in 2005, the Canadian firm Atlas Precious Metals Inc. entered a shared-risk agreement to invest in the plant. You can see on their web page an optimistic assessment of the plant’s production capacity. As of April, only 20% of the firm’s promised investment had been realized (article in Spanish). Currently, Atlas and COMIBOL are in a legal dispute in which Atlas demands its $12 million investment be repaid, and COMIBOL seeks compensation for the value of the plant, which remains unused. In a letter to the government (es), the Potosinista Civic Committee washes its hands of the whole dispute and demands:

The only thing the Potosí people want is to see, in an immediate manner, the effective functioning of the Karachipampa Plant, whether it is with the [foreign] company or through state intervention.

Beyond all these details, the strongest emotion visible here is simple, exhausted, impatience. Whether the timeline is 21 years for the plant, or 5 years for the MAS government, or three generations for the border dispute (more on that when I can provide a fuller background, or transcribe more of my interview with a Coroma resident), those who have thrown themselves into this protest have run out of patience. Against the experience of delay, they have enacted tactics based on urgency: extended blockades, hunger strikes, and so on. So far, Potosinos themselves, beginning with the hunger strikers have borne most of the costs of these urgent tactics themselves, or imposed them on the surrounding communities. However, they are increasingly enacting or talking about tactics that will cost companies operating in the region substantial losses on a daily basis.