About Conisur, organization of TIPNIS indigenous in the colonized areas

Update: More on the Conisur communities and coca added, based on new reporting from Erbol; see below.

The long-promised counter-march from Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), this time in support of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway (Wikipedia) began last Tuesday, December 20. Around 300 initial marchers began the journey from Isinuta, on the edge of the park. Reinforced by hundreds more, the marchers should reach Cochabamba tomorrow, and expect to proceed onwards to La Paz. The countermarch is headed by the members of the Indigenous Council of the South (Consejo Indígena del Sur, or Conisur), a local organization of indigenous people inside TIPNIS, but living in the southernmost part of the the territory, entirely in the department of Cochabamba.

The march is understandably surrounded with controversy, and according to the opposition-leaning/center-right Los Tiempos, a lack of public enthusiasm. But rather than attempting to dismiss this countermarch, I write here to explain it.

To understand this (counter)march, it is helpful to understand the organizational structure of TIPNIS indigenous peoples. The oldest and broadest organization in the territory is the Subcentral TIPNIS (indigenous organizations over large regions of the country are called Centrals and this is a smaller portion of a region). The Subcentral TIPNIS was founded in 1988 and received the land title to TIPNIS from Evo Morales in 2009. It pertains to the Central de Pueblos Étnicos Mojeños del Beni. The Subcentral Securé includes nearly all communities on the Securé river itself, and belongs to the Consejo de Pueblos Indígenas del Beni.

Communities in TIPNIS, Conisur highlighted
Map of communities in TIPNIS. Orange arrows signal communities affiliated with Conisur. Purple arrows signal other communities mentioned in pro-highway mobilizations.

Conisur includes most but not all communities in the southernmost part of the territory. The Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) database estimates Conisur’s population at 915 people and lists 14 Conisur communities: Limo del Isiboro, Santa Fe, San Juan del Isiboro, San Juan de Dios, San Benito, Sanandita, Secejsama, Fátima, San Antonio, Mercedes de Lojojota, San Juan de la Angosta, Carmen Nueva Esperanza, San Jorgito, and Puerto Pancho. Conisur affilialtes with the Coordinadora de los Pueblos del Trópico de Cochabamba (CPITCO); [La Razón reports 20 communities]. By comparison, estimates for the indigenous population of TIPNIS as a whole are around 12,500 in 64 communities. CPITCO’s website acknowledges, “CONISUR is an organization basically created and supported by the Cochabamba Prefecture, which serves it as a mechanism for channeling aid to the communities of the south and through this to defend its sovereignty over the area. [CONISUR es una organización básicamente creado y apoyado por la Prefectura de Cochabamba a la cual le sirve como mecanismo para canalizar ayuda a las comunidades del sur y de este modo defender su soberanía sobre el área.]” (The Prefecture—now the Gobernaciónor Governorate—is especially interested because the Cochabamba-Beni border inside TIPNIS is not officially demarcated.)

Map illustrating TIPNIS TCO and Polygon 7
This map shows Polygon 7, the main colonized area, in white at the bottom of TIPNIS.

The communities in Conisur are principally located inside Polygon 7, the region around Isinuta which been colonized since 1970 by outside settlers, principally coca growers. The Polygon is separated from TIPNIS by the Linea Roja (Red Line) which is meant to prevent the advance of further settlement into the park, but in practice has repeatedly been moved to allow just such settlement. Bolivia’s Fundación Tierra estimates that some 20,000 agricultural settlers live in the 100,000-hectare Polygon 7, swamping the local indigenous population whose territory they have largely deforested.

All three of the parent organizations of the TIPNIS indigenous organizations are members of CIDOB. And all three organizations joined in the May 2010 meeting of indigenous residents condemning the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway. However, political opportunities, local relationships with cocaleros, and divergent economic needs have driven Conisur apart from the residents in the rest of the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory.

Politically, as regular readers of this blog are well aware, the highway has become a major priority of the MAS-IPSP party. MAS-IPSP has controlled the departmental government since the 2008 revocation referendum. The party began its meteoric rise in eastern Cochabamba specifically the Chapare province whose capital is Villa Tunari. Governor Edmundo Novillo has made no secret of his support for the highway, and he plays a key role in its promotion committee. Since June, numerous MAS officials including Novillo, President Evo Morales, and Vice President Álvaro García Linera have been frequent visitors to the Conisur-aligned area of TIPNIS. They’re visits have served to rally support for the highway and to put an indigenous face on a project that is being pursued in contravention of the principle of indigenous consultation.

Map of TIPNIS deforestation, 2007
Map of deforestation in TIPNIS as of 2007. Red indicates the deforested area.

Four decades of cocalero settlement have created a variety of relations between them and the indigenous inhabitants of Polygon 7. Fundación Tierra documents intermarriage and indigenous participation in the coca growers’ unions’ standard-sized plots for growing coca. However, according to press visits (like this one by La Razón), relations are not equitable. Instead, indigenous people are often dependent, landless laborers in their own land, earning around 20 Bolivianos (a bit less than US$3) to harvest a coca plot or selling their fish or wild meat to colonists for around 300 Bolivianos (~US$40) a month. Some told the newspaper the cocaleros prevent them from joining in coca planting. Others earn income by authorizing the cutting of timber, and the elimination of the forest on which their lives once depended.

Unlike those living in the intact sections of the park, the indigenous in the colonized areas have already moved from a way of living interdependent with the ecosystems of the park to one that is integrated with the national economy. Right now, they are living at the bottom of the heap in the cash economy, relying on income from the growers of the regions’ key cash crop. This goes a long way to explain why they see a shared economic interest with the coca growers in the road. They also could see both educational and economic benefits from the expansion of formal schooling in their communities. While schools do not have to follow the roads, in practice the Conisur communities are being registered for schools right now. With this registration comes the Juancito Pinto school attendance bonus, 200 Bs paid to parents per student. This new payment may have furthered aligned their interests with the departmental government and thereby the road.

Added, 2 Jan: Further reporting on indigenous coca planting comes from the Cochabamba center-left daily Opinión and the community radio network Erbol. Opinión describes three levels of involvement by indigenous residents: labor in colonists’ coca harvesting, small-scale unofficial coca planting, and membership in coca growers’ unions. Coca is a good cash crop option for those who are enmeshed in the cash economy, but disconnected from the road network: the light coca leaves can be dried, packed up, and carried to larger settlements for sale. However, only union members can sell their leaves in large, official markets, which are controlled by the union federations. Opinión profiled in particular the community of San Antonio as a coca-growing Yuracaré indigenous community. Erbol has now published quotes from an interview “four months ago” with Conisur leader Gumercindo Pradel, confirming that “five to seven” Conisur communities grow coca: “There are five to seven communities that are dedicated to planting coca and which are affiliated with the Federation of the Tropic [one of the Six Federations of cocaleros]. [Son cinco a siete comunidades que se dedican a la siembra de la coca y que están afiliadas a la Federación del Trópico.]” Since the march began, however, Pradel has insisted that Conisur communities are not coca cultivators. // end update //

Across the world, indigenous rights struggles over development projects often see the fostering or exacerbating of internal divisions by those actors who promote the project. This makes the current counter-mobilization in TIPNIS familiar, even if few expected such a divisive move from the indigenous-identified government of Evo Morales. International and Bolivian standards around free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous have a provision to avoid this problem: an insistence that the pre-existing and recognized structures of governance be the basis of indigenous consultation. While the schismatic history of TIPNIS indigenous organizations complicates this picture, the Morales government clearly recognized the Subcentral TIPNIS as the local authority over the National Park and Indigenous Territory. By changing course when the Subcentral spoke out against its highway project, the MAS government is following in the footsteps of the divide-and-conquer strategies by governments and corporations it once condemned.

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)

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.

Alan García: Mining opponents must be educated out of their “absurd, pantheist ideologies”

While outgoing Peruvian President Alan García’s government negotiated major concessions to Aymara and Quechua protesters who led a 50-day regional strike against polluting mines, he didn’t back down in his rhetoric attacking the value they place on the land. Here’s an English translation of a widely circulating video of García accusing mining opponents of being absurd, uneducated, and backward:

And thirdly, to defeat the absurd pantheist ideologies that believe that the walls are gods and the air is a god. In the end, to return to such primitive forms of religiosity where one is told, “don’t touch this hill because it is an Apu and is filled with millennia-old spirit,” and who knows what else. Well, if we reach that point, we wouldn’t do anything, much less mining. Don’t touch those fish because they are creatures of god and expressions of the god Poseidon. We would return to this, let’s say, primitive animism. Right? I think that we need more education [of these people], but that is long-term work that just can’t be fixed right away.

You can go to whatever place where the population in good faith and in accordance with their education says “No! Don’t touch this here which is our sanctuary,” and one asks of what is this sanctuary, right? If it’s a sanctuary for the environment, fine and good! If it’s a sanctuary because here are the souls of the ancestors, watch out! The souls of the ancestors are surely in paradise; they’re not here! And let them allow you who are alive today to feed yourself and have work through the investment in those hills.