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.

[2014] CONAMAQ in crisis: Pro-government faction seizes headquarters by force

This post was originally written in January 2014, and went unpublished while I was on parental leave with my first child. I’m posting it now to make it available for others to reference.

The highland indigenous movement CONAMAQ entered a profound organizational crisis in December over the organization’s relationship to the Evo Morales government. The group, whose full name means the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, represents over a dozen highland indigenous communities dedicated to restoring self-governance through traditional community structures. It diverged politically with the government in 2011 over the right to exercise free, prior, and informed consent over projects in indigenous territories and its participation in the Eighth National Indigenous March in defense of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). Soon after the march, CONAMAQ withdrew from the government-aligned Pact of Unity. In the past year, it has made preparations to run an independent slate in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

A faction of pro-government leaders within CONAMAQ, led by Hilarion Mamani of Chichas waged a campaign for new leadership of the organization, which included six attempts to occupy its headquarters. In December, Mamani’s faction and the existing leadership held separate gatherings of the Jach’a T’antachawi, a large gathering that is the organization’s highest authority. Late on December 10, after the pro-government gathering elected Hilarion Mamani, a crowd of his supporters burst into the organization’s La Paz headquarters and beat three CONAMAQ leaders and a member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights. Bolivian police took control of the building for the next month, while supporters of the existing leadership maintained a vigil outside the building. Hilarion Mamani’s supporters attacked that vigil and took control of the headquarters on January 14. Both the Defensoria del Pueblo and the UN’s human rights office in Bolivia issued statements of concern following the violent takeover; the UN particularly criticized the failure of the police to safeguard the vigil from physical attack.

The Jach’a T’antachawi aligned with the incumbent leadership elected Freddy Bernabé as the new head of the organization on December 12 and 13. The regional indigenous confederation of the Andes (CAOI) and the Amazon Basin (COICA) recognize him as the leader of CONAMAQ. The government-aligned Pact of Unity, which also include the CIDOB faction led by Melva Hurtado, views Hilarion Mamani as CONAMAQ’s leader. The newspaper Pagina Siete and community radio network Erbol report that grassroots leaders in most of the organization’s base back Bernabe.

For Hilarion Mamani, the split is a repudiation of the incumbent leadership’s political alliances, including with CIDOB, the Green Party, and “free thinking” dissidents within the MAS. Conversely, the incumbent leaders have denounced his actions as nothing more than government interference in the organization. The government claims to distance itself from an “internal” conflict in the organization, but state media immediately recognized Hilarion Mamani as its leader and Vice Minister Alfredo Rada has blamed the split on the government’s critics in the movement. Dissident MAS legislator Rebeca Delgado denounced government interference, citing documentation of Rada’s Vice Ministry paying the logistical expenses for Mamani’s election (see also this signed budget posted online). Since his election, Mamani’s faction has vowed to mobilize for Evo Morales’ re-election as president.

Post-script: CONAMAQ’s headquarters before and after the takeover by the pro-government faction, as tweeted by a Bolivia journalist.

 

Pablo Solón squares off with Bolivian government over El Chepete/El Bala megadam

Pablo Solón Romero was the most important face of the Plurinational State’s environmental and human rights diplomacy from 2006 to 2011. Last week, he became the latest critic of that same government to suddenly face criminal charges. On Friday, June 30, authorities delivered Solón a subpoena in a case against him and journalist Rafael Archondo. The pair had been designated Bolivia’s permanent and alternate representative to the United Nations. Now, they each face two charges of corruption for Archondo’s succession to the role after Solón resigned. The government alleges that Solón’s letter presenting Archondo to the United Nations constituted an unlawful usurpation of the President’s power to designate ambassadors.

For Solón, the investigation is an act of retribution.

In a statement released Monday, he declared:

The news wasn’t a surprise. Due to our critical analysis of the El Bala and El Chepete hydroelectric megadams, various friends had warned me that they would search underneath the stones to find something to accuse me of, to intimidate me, and to make me shut up. […]

I won’t refer at this time to the supposed crimes that we are accused of, since I will refute every one of them in a formal and public manner when I go to declare before the Prosecutor’s Office.

What I can say is that we will continue to think and we will continue to speak. Wherever we find ourselves, we will not renounce our ability to criticize and to state our opinion. It is most lamentable that rather than refute us with arguments, they seek to frighten us with this kind of accusations.

La noticia no fue una sorpresa. A raíz de nuestro análisis crítico de las mega hidroeléctricas de El Bala y el Chepete, varios amigos y amigas me habían advertido que buscarían debajo las piedras para acusarme de algo, intimidarme y hacerme callar.

En esta oportunidad no me referiré a los supuestos delitos de los cuáles se nos acusa ya que de manera formal y pública refutaré cada uno de ellos el día que vaya a declarar a la fiscalía.

Lo que si puedo decir es que seguiremos pensando y seguiremos hablando. Donde quiera que nos encontremos no renunciaremos a nuestra capacidad de criticar y decir lo que opinamos. Es muy lamentable que en vez de refutarnos con argumentos busquen amedrentarnos a través de este tipo de acusaciones. 

Pablo Solon
Pablo Solón speaking in March 2017

Pablo Solón, a Bolivian with a long history of radical and progressive activism, served first as its ambassador to UNASUR and later to the United Nations (Wikipedia biography|2010 Democracy Now interview). When the Bolivian government attacked the 2011 indigenous march in defense of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), Solón was one of several government officials to speak out, urging President Evo Morales to reconsider the proposed highway through the territory, a position he amplified once he stepped out of public service in 2012. After several years at the head of Focus on the Global South, Solón returned to working on Bolivian environmental issues at the La Paz-based Solón Foundation. Now, he has put his expertise to use challenging the government’s drive to build massive energy infrastructure projects in the Bolivian Amazon.

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Bolivian Ombudsman sues to prevent doctors from going on strike

 

Taking one more step in the Bolivian government’s slide away from socialism, the Defensor del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman) has successfully petitioned a court to limit the right of Bolivian workers to go on strike. The workers in question are doctors affiliated with the Colegio Médico, who carried out a two-day work stoppage in protest of a government decree turning medicine into “free affiliation” profession, analogous to anti-union right-to-work laws in the United States.

Defensor David Tezanos Pinto filed the suit in the name of the right of the public to health, but the move cuts against the grain of strong pro-labor elements of Bolivian political culture, some of which date back to 1936. The right to strike was reaffirmed in the 2009 Constitution, and the court ruling that resulted is equivocal on the appropriate balance between that right and the public interest in access to medical services. The ruling stipulates “the Colegio Médico’s obligation to guarantee the right to health in normal conditions for all uses of the public health service when they exercise their ight to strike | El deber garantizar el derecho a la salud en condiciones de normalidad en todos los usuarios del servicio de salud público por parte del colegio médico a tiempo de ejercitar su derecho a la huelga.”

After the ruling,  Tezanos threatened further lawsuits against future protests on May 30, suggesting that transit drivers on strike and protesters using road blockades could be targeted. Blockade of highways are a central form of protest in the Andes, and many other places across Latin America. The current government owes its existence to extensive social unrest using blockades from the 1980s onward in the Chapare and from 2000 to 2005 across Bolivia. More recently, Tezanos has stepped back from his earlier threats, stating on Twitter that “The Constitution protects health services, limiting medical strikes, guaranteeing the right to strike in other sectors.”

Tezanos is the first Defensor appointed from within the Movement Towards Socialism party, which has governed since 2006. Under Bolivia’s previous political turbulence, the long term of the Defensor and the fractiousness of the National Congress has kept this important role somewhat independent of the ruling party. This lawsuit is the latest action leading some Bolivian’s to question whether that independence will continue under Tezanos’ leadership. For Inter-Union Pact leader José Luis Álvarez, the latest action “criminalizes the strike and social protest.”

This week, the Departmental Workers Center has stepped up a campaign to demand Tezanos renounce his action and back the right to strike. An alliance of workers, doctors, neighborhood councils, rural irrigation users, and others is preparing a march on the matter for June 26.

Image: Bolivian medical workers on strike in Cochabamba, April 2011.

 

Bolivian government and opposition coalitions to march on referendum anniversary

A year has passed since Bolivian voters denied President Evo Morales a chance at re-election in the February 21, 2016, referendum. The vote marked the first national defeat for Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in a decade (although local election results have been mixed before). Prior to that vote, critics of the government from the left (on indigenous rights, unkept development promises, corruption, or the centralization of power) had ultimately aligned against the conservative elite. But by holding a referendum that could curtail Morales’ power without replacing him entirely, the MAS generated a de facto alliance between its left and right opponents. (A similar phenomenon contributed to the unprecedented number of blank and spoiled ballots in the 2011 Judicial Elections.)

Despite the 51.3%–48.7% defeat, the MAS has plunged ahead with a national effort to re-elect Morales, offering four strategies to legalize him running for a fourth term:

  1. Convene a constitutional referendum by collecting signatures through citizen initiative.
  2. Re-convene a constitutional referendum through the Plurinational Legislative Assembly
  3. Seek a judgement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal declaring that the president’s term limit is an unconstitutional violation of the public’s right to freely choose their leader.
  4. Have Morales resign six months before the 2019 election to make himself eligible to run again.

Unsurprisingly, these proposals have not gone over well with either left critics or right-wing opponents of the government. With the February 21 referendum as a rallying symbol, organizations in both milieux as well as voters on social media have organized mobilizations “in defense of the vote.” You can get a sense of the tenor of these calls here:

  • afiche_no
    Independent left ‘Bolivia Voted No’ image demands: Respect the citizens’ vote.

    A coalition of left grassroots signatories, including the movements behind the TIPNIS campaign, Potosí regional strikes, Guaraní protests at Takova Mora, and many other organizations put forward this document: Let’s remember why we voted no!

  • Pre-February 21 mobilizations have included this protest in La Paz on February 1.
  • On February 21, mass meetings called cabildos have been called for major plazas in departmental capitals across the country.

Conversely, the government and its close movement allies have been preparing their own counter-mobilizations to occur on the same day (or the previous night).

bolivia_21f_dia_de_la_mentira
Pro-MAS image asks “What happened on February 21? A series of media attacks against Evo Morales.”

These mobilizations will have the slogan, February 21: Day of the Lie. This lie is mainly the false claim by President Morales’ young ex-lover Gabriela Zapata that she and the president had a son together, and (after the referendum) her procuring of a five-year-old boy to claim he was the president’s daughter. The scandal combined sex, paternity, and the whiff of trafficking in government influence: Zapata became the legal representative of Chinese corporation CAMC in Bolivia despite her youth and lack of qualifications. Zapata has been imprisoned since early last year, held on a rotating set of charges including influence peddling, kidnapping (of the presumed child), and fraud. Since their unexpected defeat, the MAS has focused attention on the story, which broke in early February 2016, as the factor that swung voters against them. On Sunday night, February 19, 2017, in a broadcast interview from jail, Zapata put forward the improbable claim that MAS political operative Wálter Chávez and long-time center-right opponent Samuel Doría Medina had invented the story of the child in 2005 to be deployed against Morales at some future date. (Former MAS official Amanda Dávila, Wálter Chávez, and Doría Medina have denied the claim.)

Bolivian politics has been marked by competing mobilizations in favor of and opposed to the government since at least 2004. Demonstrating a capacity to mobilize in large numbers is regarded as a marker of political legitimacy.

Cooperative Mining Protest leaves Vice Minister, Five Protesters Dead in Bolivia

Vice Minister Rodolfo Illanes, in charge of Bolivian security forces within the Ministry of Government, was killed Thursday night after being held captive by protesting cooperative miners. Illanes was part of a negotiating team sent arrange talks with a national protest campaign. He went to Panduro, a town on the La Paz–Oruro highway, Thursday morning, where he was taken hostage by members of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Later in the day, he was brutally beaten to death and then left on the side of the highway. His capture and death came on the second of two deadly days of confrontations between miners and police attempting to disperse their blockades of Bolivia’s principal highways.

Recent confrontations around the government’s effort to clear road blockades by cooperative miners have been unusually violent and intense. Two miners died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday at Sayari (on the Oruro–Cochabamba highway), Fermín Mamani (25 years old) and Severino Ichota (41), according to national government prosecutors who have opened investigations of their deaths. A third, Rubén Aparaya Pillco, was reportedly shot dead on Thursday at Panduro, near where Illanes was being held. At two more miner’s lives were cut short: Freddy Ambrosio Rojas (26) died on Saturday after suffering severe injuries while holding dynamite at the Panduro confrontation. Pedro Mamani Massi (41) suffered a gunshot to the head and suffered brain death in the hospital;  he remains on life support without prospect for recovery. he died on September 1 and was mourned by his family in El Alto.

As part of my research, I have been compiling a database of deaths in political conflict in Bolivia during the current (post-1982) democratic period. This work is still in process, but can help to put current events into context. This week’s events make 2016 the deadliest year since 2008, with 13 fatalities. In February, six municipal workers died in the city hall of El Alto (the nation’s second largest city) as the result of an arson attack by protesters. In January, soldiers beat a trucking worker to death during a pressure campaign by that sector.

Deaths in Bolivian protest have been less common under the presidency of Evo Morales than in the past and killings by state security forces (army and police) make up a smaller fraction of deaths than under Morales’ predecessors. We’ve identified 91 deaths during Morales’ ten years in office (including those this week), and fewer than a third of them were carried out by security forces. Meanwhile, at least twenty-one deaths under the Morales administration have come in conflicts among mineworkers or between mineworkers and community members: 16 in 2006, two in 2008; one in 2012; and two in 2015. Two cooperative miners were killed by police during 2014 protests in Cochabamba, during a confrontation in which police were also taken hostage. Altogether, four members of the police or military have died in political conflicts since 2006. Vice Minister Illanes is the first senior official to be killed.

This confrontation does not herald a general confrontation between state and society or among larger political forces. No other sectors have joined Fencomin’s protests and the group is at odds with waged mine workers who play a key role in the national labor movement. Cooperative miners are longtime allies of the MAS government, backed President Morales’ re-election in 2014, and endorsed another term for him as recently as May.

Since 2009, the most intense conflicts in Bolivian society have occurred within the broad grassroots left coalition that backed the rise of Evo Morales to power. The government has routinely alleged that protests from within the grassroots left have an anti-government political agenda, and did so again this week, but these claims are often unsubstantiated. The 2006-08 conflict between the Morales government and secession-oriented right-wing movements has long since concluded, and is unrelated to the current protests.Read More »