Bolivian government determined to build road through TIPNIS despite protests

Thursday 29 September 2011

Dario Kenner, La Paz

Daily updates on TIPNIS conflict at Twitter: @dariokenner

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The Bolivian government continues to strongly defend its position despite protests across Bolivia yesterday against police repression on Sunday 25 September of a march by Bolivia´s indigenous peoples. The marchers reject the building of a road through an indigenous territory and national park (TIPNIS) – background. President Evo Morales announced on Monday that construction of the road through the national park was suspended. But his government is still determined to push ahead with the project which could lead to increasing protests and more political instability. A press conference by Vice President Álvaro García Linera was indicative of the government’s attitude at this crucial time.

BBC news video http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/15102981

Who gave the order?

After 4 days we still do not know who ordered the police repression on 25 September. “Neither the President or the Interior Ministry gave the order. We need to check the chain of command. That is what needs to be investigated”,  said García Linera. He added, “We know what torture is. Evo has been tortured in the past. We would never do such a thing that goes against our principles”. Communications Minister Ivan Canelas said, the “government is interested in finding the intellectual authors of the repressive intervention.” This position is starting to wear thin and is only increasing speculation about who made the decision to intervene in the march. Thousands of students protested today in Potosi, Oruro, Sucre and El alto in opposition to the police repression. On the evening news one marcher said “we will keep on marching until we have answers”.

Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera (credit: Dario Kenner)

Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera (credit: Dario Kenner)

Referendum or consultation?

The Bolivian government has made it very clear it still wants to build the road through the TIPNIS. On Monday President Morales said the road project through the TIPNIS was suspended pending a national debate with sectors in the Beni and Cochabamba regions. Today Deputies of Morales´s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party were drafting a law to facilitate the holding of a referendum in the Beni and Cochabamba regions to decide whether the road goes through TIPNIS. Sources tell me that President Morales will be in the southern area of the TIPNIS national park to announce this law tomorrow and begin a campaign in support of the referendum. He will be accompanied by Deputies, Senators, local politicians and pro-MAS social movements from the Cochabamba region. If this is true it will be in the words of one radio commentator “an open provocation to those who oppose the road”.

Why would a referendum be so controversial? The problem for the government is that Bolivians know their constitution and also that international norms – like ILO convention 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – clearly state that any consultation about a development project inside an indigenous territory can only be with the indigenous communities who live there (see background article). By attempting to hold a referendum instead of consultation in line with the legislation above the government is blatantly trying to get the approval it needs to build the road by relying on people who live outside the autonomous indigenous territory such as the coca growers (cocaleros) who outnumber the 12,000 indigenous peoples living inside the TIPNIS.

This effort to hold a referendum is at the heart of the TIPNIS conflict. It is the very reason why the indigenous peoples from TIPNIS – along with indigenous movements CIDOB (mainly from the Amazon) and CONAMAQ (mainly from the highlands and valleys) – decided to march on 15 August to La Paz. The Yuracaré, Chiman and Moxeño peoples from the TIPNIS were not consulted prior to the design or beginning of construction of the controversial road. To so obviously pursue the referendum project not only ignores the heart of the TIPNIS conflict, it also flies in the face of public opinion which as the protests of the past few day’s shows is becoming increasingly opposed to the road project.

But it does not end there. In his press conference today Vice President García Linera caused disbelief when he said prior “consultation of indigenous peoples is only for non-renewable natural resources and does not apply to a road”. Article 30 of the Bolivian Constitution does indeed refer to non-renewable natural resources but it also says there will be prior consultation via indigenous institutions where a legislative or administrative measure will affect them. In addition Article 343 states “the population has the right to participate in environmental management, to be prior informed and consulted about decisions that could affect the quality of the environment”. International norms back up these articles. So García Linera is wrong when he says there does not need to be prior consultation on the planned road through the TIPNIS. With tensions running high such statements just anger people more and reveal the governments intentions to build the road it says has been suspended.

Is the road still being built?

The Bolivian government has declared construction on the section of the road going through the TIPNIS park has been suspended. But the contract with the Brazilian company OAS building the motorway (available here in Spanish) does not refer to sections inside or outside the TIPNIS national park. Therefore once work has begun on any part of the road it means it has begun on all of the road. Today the Bolivian Highway Authority told OAS in a letter to stop all activity inside the TIPNIS national park but would not clarify if this meant suspension on the rest of the road. On Tuesday OAS said they were still working on the “first” and “third” sections of the road even though the contract is for one road project. More clarity is needed on this otherwise it undermines the Bolivian governments claim that road building has been suspended.

Makeshift camp days before police intervention. Police in background blocking passage of indigenous peoples march (credit: Communication Commission of the march)

Makeshift camp days before police intervention. Police in background blocking passage of indigenous peoples march (credit: Communication Commission of the march)

March in defence of TIPNIS will start again

In reference to President Morales announcing the suspension of the road García Linera said, “there is no activity in that part of the TIPNIS. The main reason for the march has been positively resolved by the Bolivian government”. But not everything is resolved otherwise the march would not be starting again. Pretending the conflict is resolved or is over it not going to win the government much support. I was sent a copy of the conclusions from a meeting the TIPNIS marchers held on Tuesday. They make it very obvious they are not finished and say they will march until the government passes a law to change the route of the road so it does not go through the TIPNIS national park. The marchers express their total rejection of the plan to hold a referendum and say there has not been prior consultation. They thank the Bolivian people for their solidarity and strongly condemn the violence they suffered at the hands of the police. The marchers demand the injured are attended to, their belongings returned (which are still at their makeshift camp) and say the police violence was not an isolated incident but part of a long running campaign by the police to destroy their march.

The final preparations are being made and the march will set off again in the next few days. The marchers are hoping the three people still unaccounted for will turn up and this is another reason they are waiting to start. They will march slowly (15 kilometres a day) compared to before to keep up energy levels and hope to arrive in La Paz around 15 October. A positive emove by the government is that today a spokesman said it would guarantee the passage of the march to get to La Paz.

International pressure

A factor that could be crucial in forcing the Evo Morales government to change their mind and build the road outside of the TIPNIS is pressure from outside Bolivia. Morales has been a very vocal campaigner on the rights of indigenous peoples and of Mother Earth. The government cares about its international image and will be disturbed by growing coverage of the TIPNIS conflict. An Avaaz petition currently has 362,000 signatures and Amazon Watch has launched an urgent action. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called for an investigation into the police repression on 25 September. Today I saw a letter from indigenous peoples in Ecuador asking Morale to respect indigenous rights and defend Mother Earth. More significant is an open letter from Bolivia´s former Ambassador at the United Nations Pablo Solón who is known for championing Bolivia´s demands for justice at the international level.

Tomorrow there will be a pro-MAS march from El Alto to central La Paz which will be an opportunity to assess current support for the government. It will be interesting to see how big it is compared with the protest yesterday of around 10,000 people. The TIPNIS conflict has become incredibly politicised. Both government supporters and those who used to support the government say they are mobilising to defend the process of change. The government risks more protests if it continues to stubbornly keep repeating the same arguments such as the need for a referendum and that the indigenous peoples march is not necessary. This conflict is not over yet. The TIPNIS marchers are unwavering in their determination to get to La Paz. When they get here we will find out if the Bolivian government is willing to change its position.

"We are all TIPNIS" banner at protest in La Paz on 28 September (credit: Dario Kenner)

"We are all TIPNIS" banner at protest in La Paz on 28 September (credit: Dario Kenner)

TWEETS FROM THURSDAY 29 SEPTEMBER 2011

dariokenner Dario Kenner

VicePres”Consultation only 4 nonRenewable resources,not for roads” BUT #bolivia Const say is 4 ANY development project #indigenous territory

6 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

Just heard #bolivia VicePres on radio”There is no activity in that part of #TIPNIS The main reason for march resolved by Bolivian government

6 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

ex-Bolivia Ambasador @UN Pablo Solón open letter ask #boliviaPres #evomorales 2 respect #indigenous rights+MotherEarthtinyurl.com/62lf6ot

7 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

Seen doc.detail #bolivia police action against #indigenous #TIPNISmarch 25 Sept.Say aim 2 take 400 marchers from Yucumo 2 Trinidad on buses

8 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

Heard around 100 members of #bolivia #indigenous movement CONAMAQ are marching from Oruro to La Paz in support of #TIPNIS marchers

8 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

#Bolivia Diary blog: current status United Nations #climatechangenegotiations.Next meeting Panama 1-7 October tinyurl.com/5v7lmzv#unfccc

8 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

#bolivia #evomorales Gov said today it will guarantee passage of #indigenous #TIPNIS march 2 get 2 La Paz. March arrive around 15 October

9 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

#bolivia #indigenous #TIPNIS marchers want a law 2 stop road going through TIPNIS national park. Their march will start soon

12 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

#bolivia #evomorales Gov wants 2 pass law 2 facilitate referendum 2 decide if road should go through #TIPNIS national park.

12 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

#bolivia #evomorales Gov dialogue today is with SOME sections Guaranis. Head of Guarani Peoples Assembly is with #indigenous #TIPNIS march

12 hours ago

dariokenner Dario Kenner

#bolivia #indigenous #TIPNIS march leaves Rurrenabaque today. Also #evomorales will meet with Guaranis this morning, lets see what happens

14 hours ago Favorite Reply Delete

dariokenner Dario Kenner

28 September. Bolivia Diary udpate: Protests across #Bolivia and President #evomorales apologises tinyurl.com/6hq3osv #TIPNIS #indigenous

14 hours ago

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