International solidarity statement with Bolivian indigenous march and Isiboro Sécure

An international sign-on letter has been released in support of the Isiboro-Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory in the Bolivian Amazon and plains, currently threatened by a proposed highway that would cut the territory in two. The letter calls for the Bolivian government to recognize the right of indigenous people to freely accept or reject development projects, including the highway, and to negotiate in good faith with the cross-country indigenous march in its defense.

The signers—sixty-one environmental, human rights, indigenous, health, anti-privatization, and global justice organizations— hail from five continents and identify as supporters of Bolivian social movements and the Plurinational State of Bolivia’s proactive diplomacy on environmental and human rights issues. However, they warn: “the country’s pioneering work on all these issues
also comes with a great responsibility. Bolivia’s continued ability to press forward this vital agenda will be affected by its consistency and moral credibility on matters of human rights and environmental protection.”

The Eighth Grand Indigenous March, which set off from Trinidad in mid-October, has travelled half of its planned route to La Paz, but currently faces a blockade by some members of the Union Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (formerly the Union Confederation of Colonizers, that is agricultural settlers on frontier lands). Both the blockaders and Bolivian police are currently preventing the advance of the march towards La Paz, as well as additional volunteers, food, medicine, and supplies sent from La Paz.

In Spanish after the jump / En castellano después

Read More »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indigenous to confront Bolivian government over highway through Isiboro-Sécure National Park

In the coming weeks, Bolivia’s indigenous movement is organizing a new national march. For the eighth time, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB; the acronym reflects its origins in the Oriente, or East of the country) is preparing a national march on La Paz. The National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), an organization of traditionally organized highland communities has pledged to join CIDOB in this effort. Unlike CIDOB’s past marches, this one brings a single, local struggle to the national spotlight: the planned building of a major inter-departmental highway through an indigenous territory called Isiboro-Sécure.

The Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (known by the Spanish acronym TIPNIS) is supposed to be a new kind of territory. Combining indigenous self-government and environmental protection, TIPNIS is both a protected natural area and a self-governing indigenous territory. These lands lie on the undemarcated frontier between Cochabamba and Beni departments in Bolivia around the Isiboro and Sécure Rivers. They are home to members of the Yuki, Yuracaré, and Trinitario Mojeño peoples, who govern the territory through indigenous community organizations which are federated into the Subcentral of TIPNIS. This novel arrangement was made possible by the first CIDOB march, back in 1990, which put indigenous autonomy on Bolivia’s national radar.

Twenty years later, Bolivia is also supposed to be carrying forward a radical redefinition of its political life around a new agenda. Three pillars of that agenda are indigenous rights, autonomy, and care for the natural world. The government of Evo Morales backed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to its passage by the UN General Assemby in 2007, and was the first government to incorporate its text into domestic legislation. The country’s new constitution, approved by a 2009 referendum, defines the a “Unitary Social State of Plurinational, Community-Based Law, … intercultural, decentralized, and with autonomies,” probably the strongest acknowledgment of decentralization in any national constitution. The Bolivian government’s support for environmental protection on the world stage—at Copenhagen and Cancun, in hosting the Cochabamba climate summit, and at the United Nations—has become almost legendary. The passage of a non-binding “Law on the Rights of Mother Earth” last December attracted enthusiastic praise from outside observers.

On the drawing board for decades, the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway started to become a reality over the past few years thanks to funding from Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). The highway has provoked a string of environmental controversies. At last April’s Cochabamba Climate Summit, the planned road was one of several dozen “megaprojects” discussed by local activists at Mesa 18, the so-called Eighteenth Table of the meeting and the only one devoted to environmental problems within Bolivia itself. In May, a summit of local and regional leaders met in the community of San Miguelito inside TIPNIS. Attending organizations declared:

We are tired of sending letters and resolutions stating our position of rejection against the initiative to construct a highway uniting Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos, which have never been heard and attended to by the current or previous governments; …

We resolve … 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 (full text in English)

Several months later, Vice Minister of the Environment Juan Pablo Ramos resigned rather than approve an environmental license for the highway. Yet, even as President Evo Morales inaugurated the project on June 5 of this year, no consultation has taken place with the peoples living in Isiboro-Sécure.

The objections to the highway, put forward by TIPNIS residents themselves through their Subcentral, should be familiar to anyone who follows the continent-wide story of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Across South America, large “primary actors” like road builders or oil drilling installations have had a disproportionate impact in opening new regions to systematic deforestation. The pattern is simple: one a route is cleared into a region, colonists follow with short-term cropping on cleared forest. Since the rainforest lives atop paradoxically poor soils (heavy rainfall washes the nutrients out of the soil, so the complex, multi-tier ecosystem has evolved mechanisms for preserving as much useful matter above the surface as possible). Often, such colonial agriculture depletes what is left after burning in a decade or two and colonists move on to repeat the cycle. For people who depend instead on the resources and wildlife of the forest for survival, this process is disastrous.  The indigenous peoples of TIPNIS are no exception: they too maintain a livelihood that is built around local self-sufficiency and depends on the forests for food and rivers for transportation. Deforestation is not a hypothetical threat in TIPNIS either. Where dirt and gravel roads have been cleared along the southern part of the proposed highway route, thousands of acres within the Park have been cleared for coca cultivation. New coca farms inside of TIPNIS violate understandings between the the Chapare coca farmers on one side and the international community on the other, and the Morales government has pledged to remove them. However, TIPNIS representatives have signaled that both land for cultivation and concessions for logging are being offered for speculative sale as road construction nears.

In short, the highway has become a key point in the battle over Bolivia’s future, and over the extent to which dreams of ecological sustainability and indigenous self-governance will become a reality. Deforestation, cultural survival, the indigenous right to self determination, and the protection of indigenous territories are all at issue. These broader concerns explain why both CIDOB and CONAMAQ are preparing to march alongside indigenous community representatives from Isiboro-Sécure, in late July or early August. For those around the world who have put hopes in the Morales government for the same reasons, now is a good time to let it know you’re watching.