In the field: Building a database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict

Earlier this month, I spent ten days in La Paz working on Ultimate Consequences: A database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict during the democratic era. This project is a compilation of detailed information about the human cost of political struggle in the country I have been research and writing about for over a decade. It includes people killed when movements challenged the state and the state responded with violence—the initial spark for my research—but also a variety of deaths associated with coca erradication and resistance to it, deaths caused and endured by guerrilla and paramilitary forces, prolonged inter-ethnic conflict (mainly the “war of the ayllus” between the Laymi and Qaqachaka communities), political assassinations (both due to partisan politics and patriarchal rejection of women coming to forma leadership), and the times when self-sacrificial protest (hunger strikes and prolonged marches under adverse conditions) claimed the lives of protesters and their children.

As of today, we have 512 deaths recorded, 477 of them with names. It has been a grim, if captivating tour through recent Bolivian history. While I’ve had the collaborative support of two research assistants over the course of the project, I think I’ve read every story of death, and the process has been at turns sobering, enraging, frustrating, and deeply informative.

Right now, I am focused on getting two things done with this database: ensuring that our dataset is as complete as we can make it, and making several of the many variables that we are recording—starting with location and the role of the state—as completely specified as possible so that we can share complete summary data, maps, and other statistical visualizations with the public. In La Paz, this meant taking my camera on a lot of trips to the Archive of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, which has decades of Bolivian newspapers bound into massive volumes, and coordinating with colleagues in a Bolivian NGO on a graphic visualization front-end for the database.

Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Bolivia’s Organic Grassroots

Just published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Bjork-James, Carwil. 2018. Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Boliva’s Organic Grassroots (full text). Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 23, no. 2 (July): 363–82. Abstract: Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical […]

Blockade: The Power of Interruption

Think of this as the trailer for my ethnography, photography, and the book I’m revising for publication…

On June 23, 2008, three of us ascend an eerily empty highway from the tropical town of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Foreigners, we stare at the majestic valley below as we pass above the line where the tropical tree cover of the Yungas gives way to pure rock. The so-called Death Highway has been rebuilt on a more secure footing, but it is still marked by hairpin turns, intruded upon by fallen boulders of a terrifying scale, and undermined by landslides. Its predecessor, once calculated as the world’s deadliest roadway, has been preserved as a downhill biking path for tourists seeking “100 percent adrenaline.” Where the road has fallen or washed out, drivers let their wheels dig tracks into the mud and gravel tracks, and peer over the edges of their vehicles to avoid falling off the side.

Today, however, both roads are nearly silent. None of the half dozen minibus unions are operating their vehicles, bike tours are cancelled, and the taxi we found cruises over empty roads and easily steers clear of both the rock faces and the treacherous edges. Once finally inside La Paz however, it comes to a stop at the cause of all the earlier silence: an urban road blockade. Residents of the northeastern District 13, organized through 46 neighborhood councils, have plugged the main arteries through their neighborhood with stones and their collective presence. They are calling on the municipality to meet an eight-point platform of demands concerning crime, public works, and water provision. Taxis like ours can approach the protest zone but only to discharge their passengers. Dozens of men and women walk—their goods stacked on their heads, bundled in fabric on their backs, or dragged along in suitcases—across the vehicle-free stretch of urban pavement, littered with stones and occupied by protesters who gather in the middle.

Every point along the road we have travelled is a potential chokepoint. Since the main road from La Paz to the Yungas passes through this district, a single blockade is enough to cut off all traffic to Coroico, the Yungas, Caranavi, and the northern Bolivian Amazon. Whether accomplished by simply sitting down in the street, dragging in boulders and tree limbs, or coordinating crowds of thousands to take over key thoroughfares, road blockades bring a sudden urgency to political protest. By blocking the circulation of people and goods, they ensure that the impacts of protest ripple across an entire region.

Read more at Limn Magazine…

Bolivia moves to decriminalize some early-term abortions, sparking misogynist outbursts

Bolivia is on the verge of a mild liberalization of its abortion laws after the Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved changes this week. On Wednesday, December 6, the Bolivian Senate approved a rewrite of the article of the country’s penal code that deals with abortion. While the code continues to treat abortion as a crime, and to threaten women who have them with one to three years in jail, it carves out new exceptions for some women who terminate their pregnancies within the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Women who are parents or caregivers to elderly or disabled members of their household, or who are students, may seek abortions without penalty. Perhaps more importantly, the revised law replaces a system that required pregnant women to seek judicial authorization for abortion with a simple form to be filled out within a medical setting. The simpler process will also be available under cases that were already permitted: abortion to protect the life or health of the mother, in the cases of rape, incest, or assisted reproduction without the woman’s consent; detection of fetal abnormalities that are fatal, and if the woman is a minor. The governing MAS-IPSP party backed the changes and President Evo Morales is expected sign them into law.

Bolivia’s current abortion law (es), enacted in 1973 under dictator Hugo Banzer, has been a public health disaster. Since it required authorization from a judge, and provided a very narrow set of circumstances to do so, it made seeking a legal abortion into a slow, uncertain, and costly process. In a recent two and half-year period, Bolivian hospitals recorded performing just 120 legal abortions, an average of fewer than 50 per year. Meanwhile, some 200 women seek clandestine abortions each day, according to a March 2017 Health Ministry estimate. Of these, around 115 seek follow-up care in hospitals for the side effects of abortion-inducing drugs or in recovery from clandestine surgeries. Over forty women died from the side effects of clandestine abortion in 2011, making unsafe abortion a major contributor to the country’s alarmingly high maternal mortality rate (National Study of Maternal Mortality (es), using 2011 data). Abortion led to 8% of all deaths of pregnant or post-partum women, and 13% of deaths under obstetric care.

The revisions to the law will not change the overarching framework surrounding abortion in Bolivia: criminalization. They do, however, acknowledge the ways that limiting family size and ending unwanted pregnancies can support women’s roles as caregivers and as students. These roles are the ones foregrounded by the Bolivian campaign group

Bolivian feminists continue to demand that the state “Decriminalize my decision.”: “Our demand is the decriminalization! (It) is an… advance in the context of a conservative onslaught… we continue moving towards decriminalization.” (translation by Telesur)

https://twitter.com/monicanovillo/status/938408989934669824

For Elizabeth Salguero, former Minister of Cultures and prominent MAS-IPSP politician, the changes mark “a great step forward for sexual and reproductive rights.”

The yearlong debate on this bill has been marked by protest from the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical Christian groups who frame their opposition in terms of defending life. The Plataforma por la Vida y la Familia (Platform for Life and the Family) is calling on President Evo Morales to veto the legislation. However, the opposition campaign has been marred by impolitic outbursts from within its own ranks. As the Senate bill was being voted upon (eventually backed 23–9), opposition Senator Arturo Murillo shocked the audience by saying:

Kill yourselves. Let those women who say they want to do whatever they want with their bodies kill themselves. Do it, commit suicide, but don’t kill the life of another.

Mátense ustedes, mátense las mujeres que dicen que quieren hacer lo que les da la gana con su cuerpo, háganlo, suicídense, pero no maten una vida ajena

It was a phrase that stripped away all pretense of religious conviction, and the sanctity of human life, from his opposition to abortion. Yet Murillo’s apology “to those I offended” demanded “respect for my principles and my way of thinking about this sensitive topic.”

Senator Perez was not the first abortion opponent to be moved to a public outburst during this debate. Back in April, Jesuit priest and Radio Fides personality Eduardo Pérez Iribarne complained on the morning show Cafe de la Mañana that the president’s cabinet was unqualified to speak to family issues like abortion:

In the cabinet, I would like to ask who, besides [Vice President] Álvaro García Linera and his wife, lives with their family? Starting with Evo, [they are] divorce women and men, living separately, here and there. And this cabinet of people displaced for life is going to set the standard for how to have abortions?!

En el gabinete me gustaría preguntar, fuera de Álvaro García Linera y su esposa ¿qué miembros del gabinete tienen una convivencia familiar? Empezando de Evo, divorciadas, divorciados, separados, con aquí allá. Y ese gabinete de gente desplazada por la vida va a dar pautas sobre cómo hay que hacer los abortos.

If this weren’t enough, Father Pérez also piled on to Health Minister Ariana Campero (Wikipedia), a single woman who became the Bolivia’s younger cabinet member at age 28. Since then, she has endured cringe-inducing on-stage sexual harassment from a gubernatorial candidate and the Vice President, as well as a presidential admonition not to become a lesbian. On the same morning as his comments about divorcées in the cabinet Pérez effectively suggested that Campero was unqualified and had slept her way onto the cabinet:

Excuse me, miss, I don’t dare call her doctor, I don’t dare! It could be because I am gay man, but I don’t dare call her a doctor, I prefer to call her the Minister of Health. And why are you the Minister? I don’t know, I have been told rumors, but I don’t want to broadcast them because they are gossip.

¡Discúlpeme, señora, no me atrevo a llamarla médica, no me atrevo! Será porque soy un maricón, pero no me atrevo a llamarle médica, prefiero llamarla Ministra de Salud. ¿Por qué está de ministra? No sé, me han contado chismes, pero no quiero difundir porque son chismes.

576px-Protesta_papa_abortoMinister Campero responded in an op-ed: “Surely for you my six sins are being a woman, young, a doctor who studied medicine in Cuba, feminist, communist, and single; that is why you said what you said. Seguramente para usted mis seis pecados sean ser mujer, joven, médica graduada en Cuba, feminista, comunista y soltera; por ello dijo lo que dijo.

The abortion debate has long revolved around the question of whether restrictions on abortion are born of concern for the sanctity of life, as one side claims, or about restricting the behavior of women who simply can’t be trusted. In this year’s Bolivian debate, the mildest steps to liberalize access to abortion have set off extreme attacks on women from abortion opponents, reinforcing the pro-choice claims that anti-abortion politics is rooted in misogyny.

Photos: Panel: National Pact for Depenalizing Abortion (Cambio newspaper). Abortion hat photo by Stéphane M. Grueso (El Perroflauta Digital).

Bolivian Senate approves law to de-protect TIPNIS amid protests across the country

The Bolivian Senate has approved Law 266, which allows for the construction of highways and exploitation of resources within the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). Their vote came less than six hours after the law was brought to the Senate. In so doing, they set the stage for Bolivian President Evo Morales to abrogate Law 180 of 2011, legislation won by the Eighth National Indigenous March of the same year which declares TIPNIS to be an “intangible zone” and prohibits any highways from crossing it. The government has already secretly contracted with two contractors to build the controversial Segment II of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and journalists and residents have confirmed the presence of building equipment and construction parts inside the park.

Protests occurred throughout the last week in La Paz, Trinidad, Santa Cruz, San Ignacio de Moxos, and Cochabamba, organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, the Fundación Solón—led by former UN Ambassador Pablo Solón–, environmentalists, feminists, and indigenous solidarity activists. Protests continue today in La Paz, coinciding with the scheduled opening of the Senate session; with vigils in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Trinidad (Beni Department), and in Cochabamba. Activists will gather for a “direct action” demonstration in Cochabamba at 7 pm local time.

Read More »

Emergency protests as Bolivian legislature considers bill to allow TIPNIS highway (live-blogging)

This morning, Thursday August 3, the Chamber of Deputies of Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly is considering a bill that would authorize the country’s most controversial infrastructure project, the Cochabamba–Beni highway, to be built through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory.

Ramona Moye and Patricia Chávez, two MAS-affiliated Deputies in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, introduced the legislation on July 3, and it recently passed out of committee, and will be considered today. The bill, called the “Ley de Protección, desarrollo integral y sustentable del Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure – Tipnis” (Law for the Protection, Integral and Sustainable Development of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory) would repeal and replace Law 180, the 2011 law that protects the territory, declares it an “intangible zone,” and prohibits any highway project from passing through it. That law was the fruit of the a national march led by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia and a wave of nationwide support of the cause of protecting the territory.

Where can I get a quick overview of the TIPNIS conflict?

If you understand Spanish, watch this documentary:

Other overviews in English are in Emily Achtenberg’s article Contested Development: The Geopolitics of Bolivia’s TIPNIS Conflict (2012), and Rob Key’s documentary The Dividing Line – TIPNIS and Bolivia’s Road (2013). An up-close look of the arduous path of resisting the highway comes is offered by this recent Mongabay profile of Fernando Vargas (in Spanish), the former President of the Subcentral TIPNIS.

What is the current state of construction of the highway?

The original funder of the highway, Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development, withdrew all funds from the project in 2012. Since then, the Bolivian government has funded the northern and southern segments of the project, located north of the park and inside the colonized Polygon 7 at the south end. Both of these segments have been troubled by delays and adverse construction conditions, but the southern Segment I was opened in 2016.

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 3.52.38 PM Despite the legal prohibition on Segment II, TIPNIS community members have recently shared photographic evidence that the government is actively building bridges inside of the Territory that would become part of the highway.

TIPNIS-Unauthorized Construction-July17 170998

Emergency Protests in Defense of TIPNIS

On Wednesday, August 2, activists in La Paz marched and set up an encampment (plantón) in Plaza Camacho opposing the new law. Here is a half-hour video of their demonstration. Present in the video are Fabián Gil and Marqueza Teco from the Subcentral TIPNIS and a representative of CONAMAQ Orgánico.  Press coverage: Página Siete.

A protest is being held on Thursday, August 3 in Cochabamba.

Resources for following the controversy:

Live coverage today

  • The press service Agencia Nacional Fides is covering the debate live on Twitter: Follow @noticiasfides
  • The government line within the Plurinational Legislative Assembly is being live tweeted at @Diputados_Bol
  • Twitter hashtags: TIPNIS, #TIPNISenEmergencia

Tense session in the Assembly

Fides reports Fides reports that security has prevented three opponents of the highway from entering the chamber during debate: Rafael Quispe, former head of CONAMAQ and currently an alternate deputy in the Assembly; Senator Edwin Rodríguez, head of the UD delegation; and Fernando Vargas, leader of the 2011 March and former President of the Subcentral TIPNIS. Vargas was later admitted into the gallery.

Inside the session, one opposition tactic was deputies wearing masking tape over their mouths to recall the police use of the same tape on captured members of the pro-TIPNIS march in September 2011. Another was protest signs within the session.

The debate included extended statements from MAS-IPSP deputies Patricia Chávez and Ramona Moye (indigenous seats, Cochabamba), Gabriel Montaño (Santa Cruz), Juana Quispe (Chimoré in the Chapare), and Emilio Vilche (alternate deputy and an affiliate of CONISUR). The official Twitter feed of the Chamber of Deputies (@Diputados_Bol) broadcast these statements but not those of opponents of the legislation. Opposition deputy Shirley Franco (UD) complained about a lack of parity in participation, but Montaño counted 16 opposition speeches, which she claimed lasted over 4 hours out of 11 hours of debate so far.

In the end, the Chamber of Deputies approved both the overall bill and the detailed text as presented.

Even before this approval, the Senate’s Committee on Land, Territory, Natural Resources and Environment put the legislation on its agenda (see image to the right). Minutes later, a vote in that committee resulted in a tie vote. A rapid-fire consideration of the bill is well underway. Late in the evening, Senate President José Alberto “Gringo” Gonzalez stated publicly that the chamber as whole will take up the bill next Tuesday morning, August 8, at 11am.

 

 

Video: TIPNIS leaders speak out against law that threatens their territory

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Press conference featuring leaders of the Subcentral TIPNIS
Conferencia de prensa dirigentes de la Subcentral TIPNIS

Marqueza Teco, President of the Subcentral of Women of TIPNIS
Fabián Gil, President of the Subcentral TIPNIS (elevated from Vice President by community resolution repudiating Domingo Nogales’ role in supporting the proposed law)

Available as Facebook live video segments: 1 | 2 (es)

Documentary offers local perspective on TIPNIS conflict: “The rivers are our road.”

If you’re new to the re-emerging conflict over the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), or if you simply want a visual look at the lush environment that is being fought over, there is no better place (for Spanish-speakers) to start than the 2016 documentary El camino es el río [The River is the Road]. Beautifully shot in the TIPNIS communities of Nueva Lacea and Puerto San Lorenzo, it is also co-narrated by Marquesa Teco, the President of the Women’s Subcentral of TIPNIS and one of the most important voices within the territory in 2017.

The name of the documentary says a lot. For proponents of running the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway through TIPNIS, connecting the territory to outside markets offers the promise of development. However, as the documentary shows, these promises run counter to the actual needs of longtime Tsimané, Yuracaré, and Mojeño-Trinitario residents, whose communities are linked by rivers that generally flow from east to west.

“We the Yuracarés and the Trinitarios are people who live on the rivers, we make our communities by their banks,” Silverio Muiba, a Mojeño-Trinitario resident of Santíssima Trinidad observed to Sarela Paz a generation ago. “On the other hand, the Quechuas always live were there is a road: where the road runs out, so do the collas [highland indigenous people].”[1] The different needs of Quechua- and Aymara-speaking cocaleros, who have steadily turned the forests of TIPNIS into new plots for growing coca connect readily to the highway. Their livelihoods are built around a cash crop that serves distant markets.

Should the highway be built, it will literally pass by (and far away from) most indigenous communities. They will feel its effects in the increased deforestation of the interior of the park without ever receiving transportation benefits.

CEDIB-Carretera, Comunidades
Graphic by CEDIB illustrates how few indigenous communities (magenta dots) are connected to the proposed (dark grey) highway. source

[1] Sarela Paz Patiño, “El Limite Yuracaré,” Facetas, July 24, 1994, sec. Datos e Análisis, http://www.bibvirtual.ucb.edu.bo/etnias/digital/106000425.pdf.

Image above: still from El camino es el río.