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.

Women of TIPNIS reject government’s new push for a highway through their territory

“We, the indigenous women and the communities categorically and overwhelmingly reject, before the government of the Plurinational State and its operatives, the construction of the TIPNIS highway, the [proposed] abrogation of Law 180, and the deceitful acts, the bribes, for their threat to human life, and [for the resulting] permanent colonization and despoiling of three indigenous nations.”

“Las mujeres indígenas y comunidades rechazamos de forma categórica y contundente ante el gobierno del Estado Plurinacional y sus operadores la construcción de la carretera al Tipnis, la abrogación de la Ley 180 y acto mentiroso, prebendas, por atentar contra la vida humana, la colonización permanente y el despojo de tres naciones indígenas” (Source: Los Tiempos)

This was the reaction of Marqueza Teco, president of the organization of women of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) to the recently announced draft law that would repeal Law 180 and authorize the building of a highway across their lands. Read More »

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 »

Divides, Smoke, and Mirrors: The new chaotic scene around TIPNIS and CIDOB

  • Please forgive the past three months of quiet on this blog. My April and May were filled with organizing around May Day and the Free University in New York City. June saw a succession of alternately joyous and traumatic personal events. Through it all, I’ve been microblogging at @CarwilJ on Twitter; so please turn there for updates.
  • On two of this blog’s central fixations, Bolivian indigenous movements and contentious protests, this months have been anything but silent in the real world. It would be futile to try to summarize the past 90 days, but you might want to turn to these excellent English-language sources: Andean Information Network on the May protest wave (1 | 2) and on the police protests-turned-mutiny: May 30 | June 25. A compilation of coverage of the Ninth Indigenous March and the TIPNIS conflict is at Dario Kenner’s Bolivia Diary. The blog’s own articles on TIPNIS often provide a great deal of depth.

If there is one defining new aspect of Bolivian political protest in Evo Morales’ second term (since January 2010), it has been counter-mobilization. With the political right thoroughly defeated, many tensions emerged within the grand coalition of social movements that lent their votes and their marching feet to defend the government for the previous four years. When these groups took to the streets (or, as often happens, took over and shut down the streets) with demands that were unpalatable the government, one way for the Morales administration to resist has been to mobilize other sectors in return. Counter-mobilization within the grassroots is sometimes successful, and sometimes only delays negotiations and concession, but it always comes with a price, damaging previous alliances and increasing distrust among former allies.

Since last October’s Eighth National Indigenous March won a law prohibiting construction of the locally-opposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway through the Isiboro–Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, the Morales government has shifted counter-mobilization into high gear on this issue. From December to February, the organization CONISUR—consisting of the now vastly outnumbered indigenous residents of Polygon 7, an area of TIPNIS colonized for coca—led its own march for the highway. Morales conceded to this march a new consultation process, which the Subcentral TIPNIS opposes. In the process, it became clear that CONISUR communities are themselves engaged in coca growing on private plots of land; the organization affiliated itself with the Six Federations of coca growers and was expelled from the lowland indigenous confederation CIDOB.

In March, local TIPNIS organizations rejected the “prior” consultation and began preparations with CIDOB and the highland traditionalist movement CONAMAQ for a Ninth National Indigenous March, in defense of TIPNIS and advancing other indigenous demands. The government began conceding local demands to regional indigenous organizations in April in a bid to lessen support for the march. Indigenous solidarity and the need to advance local agendas for territory, rights, and material support have been put at odds during this process. Still, of the eleven or twelve regionals that signed agreements, just five distanced themselves from the march (count per Emily Achtenberg) and some of their prominent leaders marched anyway.

Since the march began, however, divisions within the CIDOB umbrella have deepened into an institutional crisis. Led most visibly by Rosendo Alpiri, president of Central de Pueblos Étnicos de Santa Cruz (CPESC, the regional organization for Santa Cruz department), leaders who stayed at home during the march have begun a contest for power over CIDOB. In early June, nine regional leaders met and officially suspended CIDOB President Adolfo Chávez. Chávez deemed the meeting illegitimate and CIDOB Vice President Nelly Romero accused the government of intervening in CIDOB’s affairs.

This week, with over 1200 CIDOB and CONAMAQ marchers still encamped in La Paz, the pro-government CIDOB dissidents have begun a Grand National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples (GANPI), a congress that is traditionally the highest decisionmaking body in the organization. The Asssembly of the Guaraní People and the Indigenous Organization of Chiquitanos are both boycotting the gathering. Early signs indicate that the Assembly will fully adopt the government agenda: reintegrate CONISUR and its leader Gumercindo Pradel into the organization, and (one presumes) accept the government’s proposal for consultation in TIPNIS. Meanwhile, Adolfo Chávez and the camped marchers also continue to act as CIDOB. (Mass marches are a longstanding CIDOB tradition, and involve creating a self-organizing community that essentially represents the organization for the period of the march.) Chávez himself returned to Santa Cruz this week and (according to Santa Cruz daily El Día) is currently occupying his own headquarters along with a group of followers. Rosendo Alpiri pledges to install the new leadership in the headquarters and has invited President Morales to attend.

So, as of this week there will be a “new CIDOB” and an old one. Right on cue, the Morales government has demanded that the new CIDOB as well as CONISUR be present in any new negotiations with TIPNIS leaders. The government invitation to dialogue now extends to TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas and Ninth March leader Bertha Bejarano, both of whom have voiced outrage at the recent maneuvers within CIDOB. As Bejarano puts it: The new Grand National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples “is not organic [i.e., representative of the organization] and is a response to the government’s intention to create parallel organizatins and disregard the organic structure of the principal indigenous organization in the country, for entirely political reasons: seeking to construct a highway through TIPNIS and destroy the largest ecological reserve in the country [es inorgánico  y responde a la intención gubernamental de crear organizaciones paralelas y desconocer la estructura orgánica de la principal organización indígena del país para fines enteramente políticos que buscan construir una carretera por el Tipnis y destruir la mayor reserva ecológica del país].”

It’s one thing to deploy a strategy of countermobilization when two groups have very different interests around an issue. For example, it’s no surprise that coca growers who hope to expand their plots into the Isiboro-Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory along the highly disputed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway have marched in support of it.  It’s something very different when countermobilization takes the form of attempting to split, or even break up organizations, bringing down any leader who challenges the government line. When governments stop taking seriously the independence of social movement organizations and instead demand that movement leaders toe the government line, you no longer have what Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera promised would be “a government of social movements.” Instead, you have a corporatist system, a return to the days when presidents like Hugo Banzer headed the national peasant organization and essentially negotiated with themselves.

The tactics for outside control of grassroots organizations are such a big issue that protections against them are written into international indigenous rights standards. The right to “free, prior, and informed consent” by indigenous peoples over projects and  policies that affect them and their territories requires that indigenous peoples’ own freely chosen institutions be the vehicle for that consent. To waver from this requirement, to “persuade” with large gifts, to station troops within communities, or to implant leaders chosen from outside, invalidates the “free”-ness of any consultation process. (Those of us who have been involved in indigenous solidarity for a long time have seen this strategy deployed by governments hostile to indigenous rights and resource extraction companies seeking local cover for their projects. For a detailed example, it’s worth reading about how oil giant ARCO helped to create the indigenous organization DICIP when it grew tired of being criticized by the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, OPIP, in Suzana Sawyer’s book Crude Chronicles.) Unfortunately, tragically, the Evo Morales government, which has long identified with indigenous peoples, is now deploying every one of these tactics in the TIPNIS conflict.