No, TIPNIS solidarity isn’t a “conveyor belt” for US-backed regime change

An article published Monday in CounterPunch has resurfaced a narrative that frames Bolivian indigenous and environmentalist movements (particularly the campaign in defense of TIPNIS) as a stalking horse for United States-backed efforts to remove and replace the Evo Morales government. The accusation is false, although like many conspiratorial narratives it weaves together facts, half-truths, inventions, and genuine moral feelings into a plausible narrative. Since the particular narrative involves a solidarity letter that I largely drafted, and it keeps cropping up even after six years, I will address it here.

The allegation that opposition to the Evo Morales government is coordinated by the United States (or the domestic right-wing opposition) is rooted in a real history. US government opposition is real and well-known. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) and Morales’ Chapare cocalero base were principal targets of a US-backed drug war, which they resisted. When the MAS-IPSP emerged as a political force, the United States government acted to resist its rise, supported his opponent in the 2005 presidential election, and encouraged establishment political forces when they regrouped in a separatist movement governing between four and six of Bolivia’s nine departments. That campaign fell apart in the September 2008 political crisis. So, wariness of the US government as a nexus of opposition is understandable.

However, the Bolivian government has indiscriminately accused large mass mobilizations from below and from the left of being right-wing- or US-controlled fronts. In 2010 and 2011 alone, the government alleged that the CIDOB indigenous confederation, the Potosí regional strike (in a region that voted over 70% for the MAS-IPSP), and the general strike by the Bolivian Workers Central (the national trade union confederation) were all covert attempts at a coup and fronts for anti-Evo conspiracies. A Google search for “Evo Morales” “ve conspiración” derecha reveals more recent examples of allegedly conspiring groups: cooperative miners, Achacachi peasants, opponents of the election procedures for the judiciary, and former Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena.

Given the president’s life story, I empathize with his tendency to see a conspiracy behind every opponent. But empathy is not validation.

Here’s why these charges are baseless in this case:

The lowland indigenous movement was not, and is not engaged in regime change, nor has it ever posed an existential threat to the Morales government. This should go without saying, but a movement whose force is primarily moral self-sacrifice, demonstrated through arduous cross-country marches, hunger strikes, and vigils is not going to expel Morales from power. The solidarity efforts that paralyzed several regions of the country with general strikes in late September and early October 2011 were aimed at winning a protection law for TIPNIS, legislation that required votes from MAS-IPSP representatives. There’s no regime change here at all.

The notion of outside control over a highly arduous form of protest like the CIDOB/CONAMAQ marches has always been absurd. The risks and effort involved cannot be bought, certainly not by the kind of organizational training initiatives that USAID provided to CIDOB well before the march. The decision to begin the march, and to continue with the march in the face of tear gas and mass arrest, was made by these movements themselves.

The United States government, alleged by this narrative to be coordinating opposition to the road, has never opposed the TIPNIS highway, nor has it coordinated any significant press push around the issue.

The international solidarity campaign for TIPNIS was built around movement-to-movement contacts between activists outside Bolivia and inside Bolivia, drawing on a long tradition of solidarity with both the anti-imperial vision of grassroots protest in Bolivia and global efforts for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights. The September 2011 letter spoke directly from that position:

As supporters of justice, indigenous rights, and environmental sustainability on a global scale, we have closely watched events in Bolivia since the turn of the century. We have observed and supported Bolivian social movements’ challenges to neoliberal economic policies and to the privatization of water and other natural resources. We value the proactive diplomacy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia in
supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, meaningful and effective responses to climate change, recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and formal acknowledgement by the State of the rights of ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.
We have also watched with great interest and respect as Bolivians sought to incorporate these principles into their Constitution of 2009 and their national laws, including the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth. We are pleased that Bolivia has proactively asserted the place of international civil society in the global debate on climate change, particularly in Copenhagen and by hosting the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010 and we look forward to participating in the 2nd Summit next spring. However, 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.

Solidarity campaigns with TIPNIS have in all ways been much stronger and larger within Bolivia than outside of it. The letter’s 59 foreign signatories and two Bolivian signatories reflect nothing more than that it was an international solidarity letter. At the same time as we were finding signers for the letter, street protests occurred in eight of nine departmental capitals, a 24-hour general strike of the COB labor union confederation was held in solidarity, and department-wide strike was held in Beni. The Beni Civic Committee coordinated a general strike and coordinated road blockades in the capital Trinidad, Santa Rosa, San Borja, Riberalta, and Rurrenabaque. The Beni strike extended through a third day, with the participation of unions of teachers, bank workers, shopkeepers, and health workers. On that third day, September 28, the Bolivian Worker’s Central called for a general strike, which affected nearly all major cities and in the tradition of “mobilized strikes” generated large afternoon rallies. Attendance was estimated at over 10,000 in La Paz and in the town of Riberalta, Beni. In Cochabamba, teachers, university students, and municipal workers blockaded major avenues while the public transport system observed a general closure. When the march finally reached La Paz in mid-October, tens of thousands of Paceños lined the route or joined in, while the capital city’s Mayor gave the marchers a key to the city.

Stansfield Smith writes in Counterpunch that “all international issues can only be understood in the context of the role and the actions of the US Empire,” but what he effectively means is that all domestic issues in Bolivia are international issues. And, in his view, they can only be understood as struggles between an “anti-imperial” government and critics who are presumed to be tools of imperialism. We have seen that the government freely makes such accusations, often against former and future allies, without evidence. In the case of Bolivian lowland indigenous movement and critical domestic NGOs, accusations of conspiring with foreign powers have become a mechanism of control. Pretending that we are resisting imperialism by ignoring grassroots social movements does a disservice to the real work of solidarity.

Feature photo by @MiriamJemio

Ignoring new TIPNIS law, Bolivian government restarts roadway construction

Bolivian newspaper Página Siete has published photos of the ongoing construction of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway inside of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory. The current active construction continues work that began before the enacting of Law 266, which ends special protections for the territory, on August 13. The prior activity, revealed by indigenous residents was clearly in violation of Law 180 of 2011, which the new law repealed.

However, Law 266 also placed some legal limits on road building (see the full text of Law 266 (es)). Officially termed the Law of Protection, and Integral and Sustainable Development of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), it requires:

Article 9 … Integration and Articulation Activities [i.e., transportation infrastructure], which improve, establish, or maintain rights of indigenous peoples such as freedom of movement, whether through the opening of neighborhood roads, highways, systems of river navigation, or of aerial transportation, etc. shall be designed in a participatory manner with the indigenous peoples …

The law also establishes a planning process for development and integration:

A timeframe of 180 days is established for the elaboration of a Protection Plan for TIPNIS, the Integral Plan for Transportation in TIPNIS, and the Development Agenda for the Indigenous Peoples of TIPNIS to Live Well, in accordance with the results of the Consultation. Insofar as those documents are approved, the instruments of planning and management of TIPNIS shall be applicable, so long as they don’t contradict that which is established in this law, and in agreements resulting from the Consultation.

Right now, of course there is no Integral Plan for Transportation in TIPNIS, nor has any highway been designed in a participatory manner. Whether before or after the passage of the new law, the Bolivian government shows no sign of following the legal limits on its road building in TIPNIS.

What’s wrong with the 2012 TIPNIS consultation?

At the core of the current legislative push to reverse the 2011 special protection law for the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory is the 2012 government-run consultation process. Government advocates and the sponsors of the legislation, Patricia Chávez and Romona Moye, repeatedly claim:

It’s the request of the people, the community members, their corregidores [a traditional leadership post] and leaders, through the prior consultation carried out within the territory itself. We have exercised our right to be consulted as Bolivians and as indigenous people who inhabit the region.

“Es el pedido del pueblo, comunarios, los corregidores y dirigentes, a través de la consulta previa desarrollada en el mismo territorio; nosotros hemos ejercido nuestro derecho a ser consultados como bolivianos e indígenas que habitamos esa región”

When proponents of the law have talked about how the law, the highway, and the revocation of the protective law have been discussed among the communities of TIPNIS, they are referring only to one and only one thing, the 2012 consultation. While there are real disagreements about it, all signs indicate that the consultation process was fundamentally flawed.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)

Departmental Civic Committees: Build highway outside of TIPNIS

An assembly of Bolivia’s departmental Civic Committees has called on the government of Evo Morales to re-route a controversial highway to the east of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). In their joint statement issued on July 20, the establishment organizations write,  “We categorically reject the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxo highway project for destroying TIPNIS and propose that the connecting of Beni and Cochabamba should be [instead] articulated along a Villa Tunari–Camiaco–Loreta–Trinidad route. Rechazamos categóricamente el proyecto carretero Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos por destruir el Parque Nacional y Territorio Indígena Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) y proponemos que la articulación entre Beni y Cochabamba sea: Villa Tunari-Camiaco-Loreto-Trinidad.” This alternative route is one of several that has long been ignored as the Morales government pressed to build a highway northwards out of the coca-growing Chapare and directly through the national park, inhabited by Mojeño-Trinitario, Tsimané, and Yuracaré communities who have campaigned against it for over a decade. I last reported on these option in 2012, when the Isiboro Sécure Defense campaign estimated that the route (number 2 on the map below) would be 250km in length, about 50km shorter than the project underway.

Map of four options to the Cochabamba-Beni highway through TIPNIS

Bolivia’s civic committees are coalitions of mainstream organizations, equivalent to an amalgam of a Chamber of Commerce, assembly of government officials, church leadership, and charitable organizations. While in the 1960s and 1970s, they played a key role as an independent voice for civil society amid Bolivia’s military dictatorship, they emerged as a right-wing counterweight to the Morales government in 2005. The right-wing civic movement encompassed committees in the eastern and central provinces, while civic committees in Potosí, La Paz, and Oruro have tilted leftwards. (Oruro and Potosí civic committees have organized important protests making regional demands of the national government.) This week’s report of a joint statement represents an important new voice in the ongoing conflict. It builds upon an alliance of indigenous and center-right project skeptics that backed Carmelo Lens in the 2015 governor’s race in Beni department. As can be seen below, civic committees from Cochabamba, El Alto, Tarija, Oruro, Pando, Camiri, and Chuquisaca, issued the statement, in cooperation with TIPNIS leaders Fabian Gil, Marqueza Teco, and Fernando Vargas.

Images of the resolution provided by Lelponi Maria Alba Guillén de Vargas.

Legislation and office occupation are latest moves in seven-year fight over TIPNIS

The saga of Bolivia’s most controversial road project, the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), took a long-anticipated turn this month. As I observed in 2013:

The 2012 events of the TIPNIS conflict have added manylayers of complexity to the story, but the essential government stance is simple. Where once it said the highway would be built “whether the indigenous like it or not,” since November 2011, the message [now] is that the highway will be built precisely because the indigenous like it. (Bjork-James 2013:278)

On July 3, Ramona Moye and Patricia Chávez, two MAS-affiliated Deputies in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, introduced legislation that would open the territory to a highway that is projected to leave it mostly deforested within fifteen years of completion. The text of the law had been circulated to TIPNIS communities in February and March of this year. The legislative assembly event was headlined by Domingo Nogales, who was elected presidente of the Subcentral TIPNIS in December; Diego Roca, President of Conisur; and Carlos Fabricano. In their press communiqué announcing the event (cached here), the MAS claimed the draft law was “their draft law, which was worked out in consensus with the communities that make up the reserve su anteproyecto de ley, el mismo que fue trabajado en consenso con las comunidades que conforman la reserva ubicada entre Cochabamba y Beni.

Prior and subsequent events belie that description. Ramona Moye and Carlos Fabricano, who are married, have been publicly repudiated by indigenous community members within for their involvement in the 2012 pro-highway march and affiliation with the pro-road MAS party. In April 2015, Moye had her visit to TIPNIS disrupted by a traditional leader and a young community member who allegedly stole her outboard motor to prevent her from campaigning for Beni gubernatorial candidate Alex Ferrier. Moye complained to the press: “How is it that I can’t enter my territory? … they prohibit me, and take away my motor, and threaten that I’ll never be able to return there again. Cómo pues yo no voy a poder entrar a mi territorio, si he nacido allá, si soy de allá, soy una indígena de allá y que ellos me prohíban y que me quiten el motor así con robo y amenazas porque eso fue lo que ellos me hicieron a mí, me amenazaron que nunca más podía volver a allá (a Nueva Lacea), por lo tanto me hicieron un robo.” The Subcentral Sécure has been divided into factions led by Carlos Fabricano and Emilio Noza since at least 2012; Fabricano’s wing took over the organization’s office in Trinidad, Beni in 2014.

Since the December 2016 gathering of affiliates of the Subcentral TIPNIS, the new leader of the Women’s Subcentral, Marqueza Teco, has taken the lead in opposing the highway project, while the newly elected male leader Domingo Nogales Morales has had a lower profile in the press. In April, the women’s organization reportedly occupied the office of the Subcentral Sécure within the park.

The early July announcement has prompted new reactions from opponents of the highway through TIPNIS. Fernando Vargas, past president of the Subcentral TIPNIS has spoken out against the legislation (video|La Razón) Then, on July 12, representatives of at least ten indigenous communities and the Women’s Subcentral occupied the Subcentral TIPNIS and publicly de-recognized Domingo Nogales as their leader (video|Los Tiempos). “He is no longer president of TIPNIS because he committed such a serious crime within the territory and its communities; therefore, they have elevated the vice president of the subcentral [Fabian Rocha] to president of the Subcentral TIPNIS | Ya no es presidente del Tipnis por haber cometido un delito tan grave dentro del territorio y las comunidades, por lo cual le suben al vicepresidente como presidente de la subcentral del Tipnis,” Emilio Noza told reporters by phone.

Such changes of leadership in Bolivian organizations are often precursors to mobilization. In this case, they match calls by both Fernando Vargas and Marcial Fabricano (a founder of the Subcentral TIPNIS and former president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia) to reorganize the indigenous movement. As we enter the seventh year of the controversy, the TIPNIS highway continues to be a flashpoint for indigenous and environmental mobilization in Bolivia.

Image: Women’s Subcentral of TIPNIS President Marqueza Teco at indigenous territories summit in May 2017.

State of the TIPNIS highway, 7 years into its controversial construction

Since documenting the state of construction of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway is purely factual work based on references, I’ve been doing on Wikipedia for years. Here’s the latest update:

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Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway on Wikipedia

Update 1: Despite the legal prohibition on Segment II, TIPNIS community members have recently shared photographic evidence (taken on July 17, 2017) that the government is actively building bridges inside of the Territory that would become part of the highway.

TIPNIS-Unauthorized Construction-July17 170998

Update 2: After the passage of Law 266, construction of the highway appears to have accelerated. This is happening despite provisions in the law which require the elaboration of  transportation plan for TIPNIS and consultation with residents.