Conflict over TIPNIS road project continues

23 November 2011

Dario Kenner, La Paz

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When the government of President Evo Morales signed off on a law on 24 October 2011 stopping any road going through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory it looked like a clear victory for the thousand or so marchers who had spent two gruelling months walking from Bolivia´s Amazon to La Paz. But the Morales government has made it obvious that it still wants to build the road.

TIPNIS “Untouchable”???

Since the approval of the law the debate has centred on the issue of whether the TIPNIS national park is now “untouchable” or not. This NACLA blog explores this issue. In a previous interview with MAS Senator Adolfo Mendoza, he explained that, “usually the word intangible (untouchable) affects an area of a Protected Area. But if it applies to an entire indigenous territory it could be interpreted as meaning that the indigenous peoples who live there are simply park rangers”.

Actually the marchers were always clear that their demand was against a road through their territory. At no time did they say the demand was a law that would mean they could not “touch” their own territory. What they have always stressed is gestión territorial. This concept is based on the idea of using a territory (in the case of TIPNIS also a national park) in a sustainable way.

The indigenous Yuracaré, Chiman and Moxeño communities who live inside the TIPNIS have done this for millennia (it is their ancestral land) and that is why the majority of the TIPNIS is still virtually intact. The way of life of these indigenous communities is in stark contrast to the colonisers, mainly cocaleros (coca growers), who have used slash and burn techniques in the south of the park (known as Poligono 7) leading to deforestation and even forcing indigenous communities living there to move. Such was the extent of the occupation of the south of the park it was officially separated off from what was the originally demarcated autonomous indigenous territory (TCO) (see map). Following the approval of the law the government and the indigenous marches were meant to jointly design how it would be implemented (reglamentación). However, work on this has been slow.

Indigenous TIPNIS march on its way to La Paz in October (credit: Dario Kenner)

Indigenous TIPNIS march on its way to La Paz in October (credit: Dario Kenner)

Investigating police violence

The marchers – members of indigenous movements CIDOB and CONAMAQ – got to La Paz on 19 October despite police repression a month earlier. A report released today by the Ombudsmen reveals ex-Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti was the “intellectual author” of the incident on 25 September – Llorenti resigned on 27 September because of the controversy over the police operation. (Ombudsmen report on the police action in Spanish). Now the question is will Llorenti face trial? Were there more “intellectual authors” apart from Llorenti?

Mobilisations to reverse the TIPNIS law

President Morales and his administration have not ceased in their verbal attacks against the marchers. It is clear the Morales government never wanted to approve the law despite the deep political crisis the TIPNIS issue caused. While the march was on its way to La Paz the accusations included that it was funded by the United States, NGOs and right-wing political parties. Three months on and the government has still not provided any evidence that any of these actors orchestrated the march, though opposition political parties certainly took advantage of the situation.

Since the march ended the Morales government has repeatedly said that there is a demand for the road to be built. Whilst there is some support for the project, President Morales is conveniently ignoring the fact that the TIPNIS is an indigenous territory and therefore the only group that should be consulted prior to road building are the indigenous communities that hold the collective land title – as set out by international agreements ratified by Bolivia including ILO Convention 169. However, any consultation, if it were to take place, would not be prior because the contract with Brazilian company OAS was signed in 2008, and construction has already started at both ends of the road.

Allies of the Morales government, including the cocaleros, government controlled regional and local government in Cochabamba, rural social movements (CSUTCB, Interculturales, “Bartolinas Sisa”) and some indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS (CONISUR represents 12 communities out of the 64) say they will hold a mass meeting – and potential marches – in December in Cochabamba to pressure for the TIPNIS law to be reversed. It is in this context that a few days ago a national assembly of the lowland indigenous movement CIDOB that marched for two months declared Evo Morales an “enemy” because he insists on building the road through the TIPNIS.

President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera at MAS rally in October (credit: Dario Kenner)

President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera at MAS rally in October (credit: Dario Kenner)

Agenda for the future

December will be a crucial month for the so-called “process of change” in Bolivia. As well as the expected marches pressuring for a reversal of the TIPNIS law, the government has said it will hold a national debate on the future agenda for the country. It remains to be seen how this process unfolds in terms of who will be invited and what subjects are to be debated (this could include discussion on whether there should be a removal of fuel subsidies, i.e. a gasolinazo which, when previously attempted in December 2010, provoked nation-wide protests and was reversed). Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the issue of building the road through the TIPNIS will figure prominently as it is so emblematic. The outcome on TIPNIS could give more impetus to either a continuation of the extractive model of development or an alternative model based on greater respect for the environment.

Background: NACLA photo essay covering the march 15 August – 24 October

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