Repost: Bolivia’s 2013 Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples

Recent events—the appearance of indigenous people in voluntary isolation (“uncontacted peoples”) in an oil concession block in the Bolivian Amazon—have thrust the Bolivia’s 2013 Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples (Ley de protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígenas Originarios en situación de alta vulnerabilidad; Ley 450) back into the spotlight. Despite some initial movement in 2014, the Bolivian government has not issued the regulations for Law 450, a required step in its implementation, and “the government institution created by that law and responsible for instituting such measures, the Dirección General de Protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígena Originarios (DIGEPIO), does not exist.”

To provide background on this law, I’m reposting Bolivia Information Forum’s article on the law, archived obscurely here. (Full disclosure: I wrote it.) The full text of the law (es) is available here.

Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples

In November [2013], Bolivia’s legislature passed the Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples. This extends special protection to isolated indigenous peoples, as well as others who face severe threats to their health, territory or capacity to protect their culture. There are seven indigenous cultures that are believed to include people living in isolation, unconnected to the broader society. According to a recent report by the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, as many as 21 indigenous peoples could be termed as being at high risk from ethnocide. While a handful of large indigenous groups make up half of Bolivia’s population, these small groups represent less than 0.3%.

The term “voluntary isolation” describes groups of indigenous peoples who have either never had contact with those outside their culture or who actively refuse any such contact, sometimes by force. In the case of the Araona, the Esse Ejja, the Yuki, the Pacahuara, the Ayoreo and the Yuracaré, only a limited number of families have chosen to live in isolation. As in many countries, most Bolivians who fit this description have had highly traumatic encounters with outsiders, including experiences of enslavement, kidnapping of their children, massacres, and devastating epidemics from diseases previously unknown to them. There were unwanted incursions by missionary expeditions up to the 1980s and more recently by those seeking to exploit raw materials. In 2008 loggers murdered at least two Pacahuaras.

The right to live in voluntary isolation is recognised by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (incorporated into Bolivian law in 2007). The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ordered Peru and Ecuador to take precautionary measures to safeguard the areas where uncontacted groups live from outside threats. The Toromona people in the Madidi National Park have been protected since 15 August 2006. In 2011, a summit convened by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) urged the government to create similar zones for the Ayoreo, Pacahuara, and T’simane people. Most of these zones are threatened not just by the activities of outside individuals but by exploration activities in oil and gas concessions that overlap with their territories.

The law creates a new government agency [Dirección General de Protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígena Originarios-DIGEPIO] charged with protecting indigenous peoples whose “physical and cultural survival is extremely threatened.” Its main task is to develop and implement protection strategies, including exclusion zones, emergency health services and disease monitoring, environmental restoration, and cultural revitalization initiatives. Under the terms of the law, those exploiting natural resources are expected to follow these rules.

Indigenous Bloc in Bolivian Parliament Now a Reality

Six indigenous deputies in Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly stepped forward today to form an Indigenous Bloc (bancada indígena) within the parliament. The bloc consists of Deputies Justino Leaños (Potosí, alternate), Blanca Cartagena (La Paz, alternate), Teresa Nominé (Santa Cruz, alternate), Pedro Nuni (Beni), Bienvenido Zacu (Guarayo people, Santa Cruz), and Cristina Valeroso (Guaraní people, Tarija, alternate). [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that Julio Cortez (Pando) and Bertha Ramallo (Pando, alternate), special indigenous constituency deputies who had affiliated with the right-wing Progress for Bolivia Plan-National Convergence bloc have also affiliated. Initial reports have some discrepancies: La Razón does not include Leaños, while Los Tiempos omits Teresa Nomine. A final count may require a couple days. Página Siete adds Sonia Justiniano (Beni, alternate) and confirms all nine listed here: 3 voting members and six alternates.] The move, endorsed by the National Commission of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), followed a series of announcements since the late September raid on the national indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS.

All members in today’s announcement except Justino Leaños represent special indigenous constituencies and were chosen by community procedures rather than elected to represent the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party. Pedro Nuny, who will lead the bloc, emphasized this allegiance yesterday: “Nos debemos a la CIDOB, por ellos estamos en la Asamblea Plurinacional y si nos ordena votar en contra del gobierno, lo haremos, haremos todo lo que esté a nuestro alcance para proteger nuestros derechos, en especial el territorio indígena” “Our obligation is to CIDOB, it si on their behalf that we are in the Plurinational Assembly and if they order us to vote against the government, we will do that, we will do everything within in our reach to protect our rights, and especially indigenous territory.” (Opinión, 17 January)

Nonetheless, their separation from the MAS has been the most controversial aspect of the move. Indeed, at today’s press conference, the degree of separation to be expected depended on the leader speaking. The following are the disparate statements made:

Adolfo Chávez, President of CIDOB: “Tendrán una responsabilidad de asumir una bancada indígena al interior del seno del Movimiento al Socialismo que significa que no tienen la obligación de abandonar el curul tal como lo habían señalado muchos diputados del oficialismo, ya es una decisión que el diputado Pedro Nuni sea quien asuma la jefatura de bancada de los indígenas.” “They will have the responsibility of becoming an indigenous bloc inside the heart of the Movement towards Socialism, meaning that they are not obliged to abandon their seats as many governing party deputies have signalled. It has already been decided that Deputy Pedro Nuni will assume the leadership of the indigenous bloc.” (Los Tiempos)

“Nuestros hermanos diputados asumen esta gran responsabilidad para hacer cumplir los derechos que corresponden para los pueblos indígenas” “Our deputy brothers and sisters are taking on the great responsibility of ensuring that the rights which belong to indigenous peoples are fulfilled.” (El Día)

Deputy Pedro Nuni, President of the Indigenous Bloc: “Si nos reconoce o no la Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional es otra cosa, pero nosotros trabajaremos y no seremos parte de los 2/3 del oficialismo, porque muchas veces somos objetos de manipulación.” “Whether the Plurinational Legislative Assembly recognizes us or not is another matter, but we will do our work and we will not be part of the governing party’s two-thirds majority, beacuse many times we are objects of [their] manipulation.” (El Día)

The issue of a two-thirds majority has been a prominent issue for press discussions on the Indigenous Bloc. The MAS won 88 of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in December 2009, and has 26 of 36 Senators. However, four La Paz deputies belong to members of the Without Fear Movement (MSM) which ran in alliance with the MAS, but declared its independence in 2010. The Indigenous Bloc subtracts three more voting members from the MAS, leaving them with 82 deputies, or 63% of the lower house, and pushing them below two-thirds of the entire Assembly.

The two-thirds threshold was the subject of an extended controversy in the Constituent Assembly of 2006–2007, but it’s unclear how effective a one-third minority will be in stopping legislation. [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that a 2/3 majority is required both for impeachment and for the approval or modification of laws.] However, indigeneity is a central value of the process of change in Bolivia, and this is one more step that questions whether the MAS is the true standard bearer of that process.

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.