Interview: Roxana Liendo – reflections on TIPNIS and rural development

11 October 2011

Dario Kenner, La Paz

Daily updates on TIPNIS conflict at Twitter: @dariokenner

Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/BoliviaDiary

[Roxana Liendo resigned on 26 September from her post in the Vice Ministry of Rural Development in protest at the police repression of a march by indigenous movements. They are marching against the Bolivian governments plan to build a road through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory. I talked to her about why she decided to resign and also about the importance of rural development in Bolivia – Dario Kenner]

What position did you have in the government?

I was Coordinator of SISPAM (Information and monitoring system on agricultural production, prices and markets) in the Vice Ministry of Rural Development. My job was to monitor agricultural production and prices (national and international) to then inform government policy. I was invited to do the job by the Vice Minister of Rural Development in July 2011. I was glad to be there because I believe rural development is very important.

Between September 2007 and March 2008 I was Vice Minister of Rural Development.

Why is rural development important?

It is the way to achieve food security and sovereignty. Agro-industry is important to generate income from exports but the majority of what is consumed in Bolivia is produced by small scale producers, they are the pillars of food security who cover about 60-70% of the family food basket. From the start of the Morales government in 2006 there was more technical support for these small producers. The aim was to reduce imports of products like wheat. Bolivia has great potential because of its varied ecosystems and large land area to first cover internal demand and then export.

The problem is land. There are around 5.5 million hectares of productive land but only half is cultivated, this is partly due to rotation of land. There is sufficient land but it depends on who owns it. The majority of the most fertile land is in the hands of the agro-exporters. There are no up to date studies but we know a lot of the soya production is in the hands of Brazilians, Colombians and Paraguayans. Small plots are common in the western highlands and central valleys.

How can the distribution of land change?

The process of agrarian reform and reversion of lands needs to be deepened. There have been some fiscal (state) lands that have been distributed but there has been little attack on the big landowners in the east. But the problem is how will people adapt if you give lands in the east to people from the western highlands? They find it very difficult to adapt to the tropical climate. Programmes have to be implemented with comprehensive support from the state to support these settlements in their initial years. The lands in the west also have potential. There must also be programmes to increase productivity of lands in the western highlands such as irrigation, making credit available, technical assistance and appropriate mechanisation.

Crops in Bolivia´s western highlands (credit: Dario Kenner)

Crops in Bolivia´s western highlands (credit: Dario Kenner)

Has rural development been a priority of the Morales government?

It was in the first few years. There were important changes and from 2006 there was a big push for an alternative way of doing development. But when it got down to the practical ways this would be done we repeated many of the methods and ideas of previous governments such as using tractors and fertilizers. These methods do bring fast results but have negative environmental impacts. What was difficult was to find medium term strategies. I believe implementing a new way of doing things is crucial to deepen the process of change.

When I was Vice Minister of Rural Development there was a policy of state-led rural and forestry development. It was based on a pyramid of state companies at the top (EMAPA), followed by a mixed economy with alliances between the state and small producers (for example seed producers), and  with support for small producers at the bottom (CRIAR programme); and that took into account forestry activities as part of a integrated rural development approach. But since I left in March 2008 I saw this integrated approach fragment and now there is little of it left.

Do you think the government will change its position on the TIPNIS issue? Will the government change the route of the road so it does not go through the TIPNIS?

The government must do a deeper political analysis. They need to calculate the consequences of their actions. A road is important but the current route is not justified. We do need a road to integrate and it is important. But we do not just need a major highway that will allow heavy goods vehicles to move goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The government should listen to the indigenous peoples who are saying they do need a road. This is a basis for dialogue. What is at stake is not if there will be a road but instead where it goes. Hopefully everyone will agree on a route that is good for all.

I hope the government will listen to more critical voices from inside such as the Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca (incidentally Choquehuanca was a crucial figure who convinced President Morales to reverse the controversial gasolinazo in December 2010).

Indigenous march leaving Caranavi a few days ago on its way to La Paz (credit: Communications Commission of the march)

Indigenous march leaving Caranavi a few days ago on its way to La Paz (credit: Communications Commission of the march)

What is the impact of the government not revealing who gave the order for the police repression of the indigenous march on 25 September?

It is mistaken political calculation. The more time the government does not recognise its responsibility the more mistrust it generates in the population. I don´t know about the rest of the country but this is definitely the case in La Paz. It generates a loss of trust. The government must be transparent and tell us what happened. In community justice the principles of asking for forgiveness and reparation are very important for the indigenous peoples. Evo has asked for forgiveness and I thought it was genuine but then in the days afterwards it didn´t look as much like it was.

Why did you resign?

Many people have asked me and even questioned by decision. For several years I fought from the inside for alternatives and change. But there was no space for debate, no openness. It soon became clear that the hegemonic ideology was to deepen the extractive and modernisation model of development.

At the end of August I said to  my colleagues that as a government we cannot go against basic principles such as the cultural identity of indigenous peoples and of Mother Earth. I said I didn´t want to be part of a process of generating conflict between campesinos and indigenous peoples (see this article explaining the difference).

My limit is when people are not respected. As soon as I heard about the violence and repression of the indigenous march I handed in my resignation (letter) the next day.

What impact will the TIPNIS issue have on the future of the process of change?

I hope there will not be clashes between grassroots groups who were crucial to establishing this process of change. It looks like the most negative impact in the long-term will be the polarisation between these groups. They should work together because they have common needs and demands.

The positive effect has been the intense debates about the difference between discourse and practice, on Mother Earth and Vivir Bien (to “Live Well“) as a new model of development. I hope these spaces for debate continue and the government listens to them. We are discussing a lot more what is Vivir Bien. How does industrial and rural development link to Vivir Bien? We don´t really know. We need to get a lot more practical and concrete about what we mean and how we do Vivir Bien.

People abroad need to understand Bolivia is a poor country. We need to generate income and can´t just rely on foreign aid. This is part of achieving our sovereignty. We don’t want to depend on others. We should take advantage of the natural resources from extractive industries to focus on building the foundations for a more sustainable, equal and inclusive development.

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