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.

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.

At the Inter-American Commission Human Rights…

I’m spending this week in Washington, DC, attending sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I’m here as a researcher on socio-environmental conflicts and a teacher; six of my students in a Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples class are here with me to see how the human rights they are learning about are claimed in practice. The Inter-American human rights system, which includes the Commission and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, has become a critical node in the mesh of institutions that are transforming indigenous rights from a general aspiration to a formal international norm.

International law institutions are viewed by most United States citizens with well-earned skepticism. The US government has played an ironic role in helping to structure such institutions, but then refusing to acknowledge any outside legal commitment or monitoring structure as having authority over its actions. US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick famously called social and cultural rights “a letter to Santa Claus” and Senate ratifications of major human rights treaties have included statements insisting they may not be invoked in civil litigation. Outside the superpower, however, these institutions tend to be regarded with greater respect and states dutifully send senior officials to be questioned and directed by members of the Inter-American Commission. On Friday, for example, Commissioner Macaulay insisted that a Minister from Panama not leave the room without first scheduling the next meeting with a community who brought its land claims case before the IACHR.

Indigenous Rights at UN:OAS.002Both the Commission and the Court are bodies of the Organization of American States, the regional association of Western Hemisphere countries founded in 1948 in response to the Roosevelt Administration’s call for a “League of Nations of the Americas.” US leadership initially positioned the OAS as anti-communist and drove Cuba’s suspension from the organization from 1962 to 2009. The Commission began in 1959 and the Court opened in 1979. While the softer of the two institutions, the Commission has the power to impose binding “precautionary measures,” ordering states to protect vulnerable individuals or avoid taking irreversible actions. The Commission also acts as an investigative arm of the system and makes recommendations to states, and sends cases to the Court for adjudication when the states don’t comply. The Court acts as a kind of continental Supreme Court overseeing the human rights of people in twenty-four countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (those countries indicated by all colors except purple and gray in this map).

My students have been reading Richard Price’s Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial, a detailed ethnographic account of the how the Saramaka people brought their rights claims before the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court in a landmark case. The Court’s eventual decision in Saramaka v. Suriname concluded (1) Afro-descendant peoples in the Americas living traditionally and distinctly from national societies have the same rights as indigenous peoples; (2) Both kinds of traditional peoples have rights to property in their traditional territories, and the resources they have traditionally used; (3) projects that seize this property or threaten the physical or cultural survival of traditional peoples can only be carried forward with their free, prior, and informed consent.

Four years ago, I attended the session on the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory at the Commission. You can read my report on that hearing here. More recently, in December 2016, three Sioux peoples brought the issue of the Dakota Access Pipeline to the IACHR. The hearing is archived as an online video (en and es, according the language of the speaker), just as all hearings this week are available from the Commission.

Bolivian-Venezuelan Military construction team begins work on TIPNIS highway

Putting new pressure on a polarizing national conflict, the Bolivian government re-started construction work on the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, whose central segment would run through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory. The construction, which began yesterday June 28, is on Segment Three of the highway, stretching 100 kilometers from San Ignacio de Moxos to Santo Domingo, a community within the Park. A joint Bolivian-Venezuelan unit of military engineers will carry out the project, using forty dump trucks. They currently project completion of the project by 2016, although such timelines are often unreliable. The segment is projected to cost US$144 million.Read More »

Evo Morales reopens proposal for highway through TIPNIS

Bolivian President Evo Morales has renewed his efforts to build a controversial highway through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), a forested park that is home to over 12,000 indigenous people. The central segment of the highway would bisect the territory and accelerate already high rates of deforestation. Protests spearheaded by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in 2011 and 2012 postponed its construction, while funding by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) was withdrawn. The Bolivian government had previously said it would tackle extreme poverty in the territory before mounting any new effort to build the highway.

On June 4, however, President Morales told an audience in his home base of Villa Tunari, Cochabamba, that the project “will be realized.” His remarks followed on earlier statements leading up to the April regional elections and a May runoff that put the highway back on the official agenda. Now, with an overwhelming victory for Morales’ MAS party in Cochabamba and a very narrow win in the Beni runoff, the national government seems committed to restarting the project. In the president’s words,

On the subject of integration, good voices come from the new governors of Beni [Alex Ferrier] and Cochabamba [Iván Canelas]. The Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos, comrades, will be realized.Read More »

Bringing the Fight over Bolivia’s TIPNIS Road to Washington, DC

Bolivian indigenous leaders denounce human rights violations in Isiboro-Sécure case in Washington

(This blog post also appears at Amazon Watch’s Eye on the Amazon blog.)

Subcentral TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas Mosua and Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), addressed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Friday, March 15. The hour-long hearing was the culmination of a weeklong trip aimed at putting the Isiboro Sécure situation on the hemispheric human rights agenda. The visit came in the third year of high-profile campaign to prevent the Bolivian government from building a highway through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS; past coverage).

Since their march to La Paz in 2011, residents of TIPNIS have experienced restricted freedom of movement. Military detachments, variously labeled an “environmental brigade,” an anti-narcotics measure, and part of “integrating the territory under state control,” restrict access and have hampered the activities of external organizations. Boat fuel, the essential ingredient of mobility on the rivers, has been tightly regulated as a “narcotics precursor.” Meanwhile the Bolivian government backed its own parallel leadership for CIDOB and assisted in evicting Adolfo Chávez and the rest of its elected officers from their headquarters in Santa Cruz. Domestic and Amazon Basin-wide indigenous organizations continue to recognize his leadership.

At the headquarters of the Organization of American States, the indigenous representatives offered a wide-ranging presentation concerning all of the events since the inauguration of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway project. Adolfo Chávez introduced his compatriot and to ask that indigenous and individual rights be protected by the IACHR. Fernando Vargas described the territory and the project and presented the struggle of his people as a defense of the territory, of their rights, and the natural environment. “We cannot be accomplices,” he said, “to the destruction of the environment and global warming.”

The leaders called the IACHR’s attention to a series of violations of the collective and individual rights of the sixty-four indigenous communities. Their community structures, including local traditional leaders called corregidores and the territorial organization Subcentral TIPNIS, have been bypassed by the government as decisions are made about the route for a Cochabamba-Beni highway. Police officers and military troops attacked and imprisoned hundreds of members of a pro-TIPNIS indigenous march on September 25, 2011. Despite formal complaints and the presentation of forensic reports on injuries to seventy protesters, the official investigation into abuses that day remains stalled.

At the conclusion of the 2011 march, the government capitulated and passed Law 180, designed to permanently protect the territory as an “intangible zone.” However, a December 2011 agreement between the government and the indigenous communities to implement the law was never put into effect. Instead, the government has unilaterally declared that “intangibility” means that nearly all economic activities – including eco-tourism, sustainable nut and cacao harvesting, and other projects previously approved – must be suspended until the communities accept the construction of the highway.

In 2012, the Bolivian government approved a Law 222 allowing for a community consultation on the future of the territory. However, the terms of this consultation were never coordinated with the local indigenous organization, despite an order from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal that the consultation would only be legal if agreed to. The government’s consultation went ahead despite multiple institutions complaining that it failed to meet the most basic of international standards. The “consultation” was accompanied by the public bestowing of gifts and development assistance that were explicitly conditioned on acceptance of the highway. Late last year, a joint survey team led by the Catholic Church and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, found that the consultation was neither free, nor informed, nor prior – the essential conditions of its legitimacy.

Fernando Vargas sought the Commission’s presence to clarify the facts, its intervention to maintain in force Law 180, and its determination that the Bolivian government’s obligations to protect the TIPNIS indigenous’ collective rights have not been met.

The Bolivian government brought a sizable delegation to the Commission, led by Minister of Government Carlos Romero. For its part, the Bolivian government’s presentation reviewed another version of the TIPNIS story that focused on who should represent the interests of the indigenous community. Most of its allotted time was given to pro-government indigenous leaders, Melva Hurtado, Pedro Vare, Carlos Fabricano, and Gumercindo Pradel. Respectively, they come from the parallel CIDOB leadership elected while the 2012 indigenous march was still in La Paz, a Beni indigenous organization, and communities on the Sécure River and in the colonized zone of TIPNIS who are affiliated with the coca grower’s movement. . The strategy of the government had two sides: bringing these allies to speak on one hand, and on the other hand treating their demands as totally independent of its campaign to promote the highway. In response, Adolfo Chávez offered another point of view by saying that these figure’s presence was the best illustration of the division among indigenous communities created by the government, and of the lack of respect it has for indigenous people’s own processes of self-government.

In his presentation, Minister Romero denied that any highway project yet exists in TIPNIS, continuing to claim that Segment Two of the highway is entirely independent of Segments One and Three. With the annulling of the government’s contract with the Brazilian construction firm OAS, he said, the project which had begun is now “merely a possible road” in the future. Therefore, he claimed, the 2012 consultation is now a “prior consultation” as required by international standards. He said the current government is more indigenous than any previous one, describing the representation of indigenous people in the national executive and legislature and the titling of Native Community Lands like TIPNIS.

With a session of just one hour, and the lengthy presentation by the government (finally cut short by the Commission), little time remained for questions from the dais. But two members of the commission offered some. What was the form of environmental impact statement generated before the consultation process? What were the norms that regulated that consultation? What was the specific evaluation offered by the indigenous of the likely environmental and social impact of a highway?

The Bolivian indigenous leaders brought with them abundant documentation ranging from their legal title to the territory to detailed community-by-community documentation of the flawed consultation process of the government. They extended an invitation to the Commission to visit the territory and to take a stand on the legality of government actions over the past two years. A full response from the Commission is expected in the months to come.

During their trip, the indigenous leaders also aired their concerns with the American Bar Association,  American diplomatic officials, legislators in the House and Senate Human Rights caucuses, and Georgetown Law School.