Bolivia TIPNIS conflict: marches, contract and unanswered questions

3 October 2011

Dario Kenner, La Paz

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The march against the building of a road through a national park and indigenous territory in central Bolivia (TIPNIS) by indigenous movements CIDOB and CONAMAQ is currently in Palos Blancos, over 200 km from La Paz. The  marchers represent members of Bolivia´s 36 indigenous nations from the Amazon to the Andean highlands, and they are waiting for more people to arrive including members of the Guarani and Chiquitano peoples. The marchers say they will probably arrive in La Paz on 15 October. The government has claimed the aim of the march is to damage the historic judicial elections on 16 October. Indigenous deputy Pedro Nuni, a member of Morales´ ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, said, “We aren’t here to obstruct the judicial elections. It’s their responsibility – they have the ability to deal with our demands before the elections happen. The election on the 16th of Ocober isn’t our priority. Our priority is that territory is respected, that the road  isn’t built and that if they want to build it, that they do it somewhere else. We aren’t going to stop because of the elections and we’re not going to go back to our homes without a solution”

Social movements allied to the MAS have claimed they will organise a counter march in La Paz on 12 October. These include: the Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers Unions (CSUTCB), the National Confederation of Native Indigenous Peasant Women “Bartolina Sisa” (CNMCIOB BS), and the Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (CSCIB – this movement blocked the passage of the indigenous march in Yucumo for over two weeks). The TIPNIS conflict has already established the division between these three social movements and the marchers (CIDOB and CONAMAQ). Although there are nuanced positions – for example the CSUTCB has flitted between calling for alternative routes and for the permanent suspension of the road, these three social movements have clearly sided with the Morales government and led a pro-MAS march in La Paz last Friday. It can be said what was once called the Unity Pact (Pacto de Unidad) which brought together the five principal social movements in the country (CSUTCB, “Bartolina Sisa”, CSCIB along with CIDOB and CONAMAQ), no longer exists. These divisions are not only damaging but could lead to potential clashes between social movements which individually and together played fundamental roles in getting Bolivia´s first indigenous President elected in 2005, and then defending the Evo Morales government from political, economic and sometimes violent attacks from the right wing opposition. We have to wait and see what happens but both sides are determined to march.

The indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS will set off tomorrow (credit: Communications Commission of the march)

The indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS will set off tomorrow (credit: Communications Commission of the march)


The controversy surrounding the contract between the Bolivian Highway Authority (ABC) and the Brazilian company OAS to build the road between Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos is growing by the day. The current debate on TV and the radio is focusing on whether there are irregularities in the contract, such as the manipulation of statistics to over-inflate the price of the road. In addition, the tender for the contract happened before there was:

  • A feasibility study to define alternative routes and their financial and environmental costs
  • An Environmental Impact Study
  • Consultation with indigenous peoples inside the TIPNIS.

In a recent interview Adrián Nogales, former director of Bolivia´s National Agency for Protected Areas (SERNAP), said that a Strategic Environmental Evaluation of TIPNIS completed this year confirms the national park has important ecosystems that would be severely affected by a road. He said this information was presented to the government but it fell on deaf ears.

Opposition political parties such as Movimiento Sin Miedo (MSM) are amongst those who are now questioning the contract with OAS. It is important to bear in mind that political parties opposed to the MAS are taking maximum advantage over the TIPNIS conflict to attack and weaken the government.

Unanswered Questions

There are two main questions on everyone´s lips:

Will the government listen to the signals and change its positions?

Last week President Morales said he had taken into account nationwide protests in rejection of the police violence on 25 September (see below). But it is clear the government still wants to build the road through the TIPNIS despite announcing a temporary suspension because:

  • It plans to hold a referendum with the populations of the Cochabamba and Beni regions even though this violates the Bolivian Constitution and international agreements such as ILO Convention 169. If a referendum were to be held the government would get the backing it needed because the coca growers (cocaleros) and those in urban centres in favour of the road far outnumber the 12,000 indigenous peoples who are the owners of the TIPNIS autonomous indigenous territory (see article on why consultation is obligatory).
  • Construction on the road is still happening. The government has presented the road as having three separate sections. This is not actually true, as the contract with OAS shows (see part three of in-depth background), and so if work is still carrying on outside the TIPNIS it means the entire project continues. The fact that the contract with OAS is signed for a road that is 308 km long means there is already a plan for the entire road, otherwise how could you calculate the exact length? So logically if the “first” and “third” sections are still being built and then go right up to the boundary of the national park the only way for the so called “second section” is to go through the TIPNIS. In addition, yesterday Morales claimed the road would only affect 60 km of virgin forest.
Bolivian police blocked the road until 25 September (credit: Communications Commission of the march)

Bolivian police blocked the road until 25 September (credit: Communications Commission of the march)

Who gave the order for the police repression on Sunday 25 September?

We still don´t know who gave the order for the police repression on Sunday 25 September. Strangely Vice President Álvaro García Linera has said the government knows who gave the order but cannot tell anyone. This is not a satisfactory answer to explain why the Bolivian police, who were unprovoked, used violence against a peaceful indigenous march. Reports are that around 800 marchers were resting when they were surrounded by 500 riot police. They then fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd of people causing injuries and panic. Men, women (some pregnant), children and the elderly were present. The main Guarani leader Celso Padilla had to be admitted to hospital in Santa Cruz because of severe bruising on his legs and head. He said, “they kicked me in the back, stomach, arms, ribs, legs and neck”. He demanded the government compensate the marchers for their injuries and trauma. I have also heard anecdotal reports that an eleven year old girl was hit in the face with a police truncheon and that a young man in his twenties had his head split open. These stories give an idea of what happened although it will take an independent investigation to really know exactly what happened and where.

The government of Evo Morales is playing with fire. There has been a very strong reaction against the police violence and nationwide mobilisations in support of the indigenous TIPNIS march. While these mobilisations are not yet big enough to force the government to back down (and as mentioned above there are also marches in support of the government), their intransigence is continuing to provoke protests that will only get bigger. And what is worrying for the government is that on these marches, apart from the demand for truth and justice (as well as right wing actors who have taken advantage to directly attack an “indigenous President”), are chants that the “process of change” which they are leading, is a failure.

2 Responses to “Bolivia TIPNIS conflict: marches, contract and unanswered questions”
  1. Dario, I want to thank you and commend you for such clear and comprehensive reporting on this troublesome issue. It is on all of our lips here in the US (all of us who know and love Bolivia), and I am glad to have your blog as a source of such unbiased and insightful analysis. I am alarmed at Morales’s intransigence, and at the thought of a confrontation in La Paz between the different social movements. Nothing has forced them into such sharp relief before, or forced them to play their cards like this. Here’s hoping for a peaceful resolution to this conflict — that protesters and respected leaders on all sides will draw upon their deep democratic traditions and call for a cumbre rather than a fight. It is actually an opportunity for environmental protections and respect for ALL indigenous peoples to become the norm in Bolivia. The Bolivian people have always had much to teach us about speaking truth to power and solidarity and resistance and participatory democracy; here’s hoping they decide to provide the world a lesson in how to resolve a crisis, not how to be undone by one.

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  1. […] Kenner updates his blog on the ongoing TIPNIS conflict. Despite last week's police repression, marchers are determined […]

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