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Stanislaw Czaplicki Cabezas
Indigenous activists gain momentum in Bolivia
A 526km march brings attention to Evo Morales' hypocritical stance on the environment and indigenous sovereignty.
Last Modified: 29 Aug 2011 14:26
Indigenous Bolivians are marching over 500 km to La Paz to protest against the construction of a highway [AFP]

"We can't understand that an indigenous government is violating our indigenous rights," said Fernando Vargas, pulling together the complexity - and perplexity - of the government-supported construction of a new highway through an indigenous area and national park in Bolivia.

Vargas is the current leader of the TIPNIS indigenous territory, through which the planned highway will be built, to the dismay of hundreds of indigenous people who are leading a 526km march as a show of opposition.

The march represents a sense of political despair among indigenous communities in Bolivia, and it is considered their final attempt at rejecting the construction of a highway between Trinidad and Cochabamba, to be built through the Isiboro Secure National Park (TIPNIS). Starting with 600 people on August 15, the march has already grown to 1,400, including 125 children.

The issue stands out for the country, where Evo Morales emerged as a social movement leader and became the country's first indigenous president in 2006, an especially notable achievement given that Bolivia has a higher per capita indigenous population than any country in mainland Latin America.

In some ways, history repeats itself paradoxically.

In 1990, the indigenous "March for Territory and Dignity" sparked the possibility of bringing indigenous politics into Bolivian society. That march birthed the flame that led Morales to electoral victory.

But on a national level, major tensions have grown between social movements and the national government. The march in defense of TIPNIS has materialised into a very tangible and organised show of discontent from social movements, which are the government's major electoral base, with the government's poor management of social and environmental policy.

Dismissing constitutional guarantees

Only a few days before construction is planned to start on the highway stretch through TIPNIS, the major issue is the absence of "previous and informed consultation" by the government to the indigenous peoples from the area. This consultation is required by the Bolivian Constitution, which was implemented after a referendum in 2009, and by an amendment to Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organisation.

The issue has been exacerbated by Morales' recent declarations, in which he has has said that the highway will be built "whether it is wanted or not". Also, Carlos Romero, the minister of presidency, said he is open to dialogue, but before the start of the march he affirmed that "the Constitution doesn't recognise consultation as binding". The dialogue could be interpreted as the "previous and informed consultation", which is the last legal requirement needed to begin construction of the highway.

It might be possible for dialogue to start at a ministerial level. But with no need to arrive at consensus or satisfactory agreement with indigenous communities from TIPNIS, the "dialogue" could render null the potential to affect policy.

"Morales isn't a defender of Mother Earth. His rhetoric is empty," said Rafael Quispe, leader of CONAMAQ, the main indigenous organisation in Bolivia's highlands.

The conflict has also exposed some other controversies, which directly show ideological contradictions within the government.

'The enslavement of our lands'

Isiboro Secure National Park has been recognised since 1965 and has been considered an indigenous territory since the 1990 March for Dignity. In 2009, of the 1,215,585 hectares which make up the park, 124,000 have been officially given to settlers, 137,783 to ranchers and the rest to indigenous groups.

The settlers in this case are also cocaleros (coca farmers) affiliated with the union in which Morales emerged as a leader. On two occasions, in 2006 and 2009, the government effectively displaced cocaleros who had crept onto indigenous territory.

Given this background and more recent encroachments on indigenous land, a statement by Adolfo Chavez, the president of CIDOB (the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia), sums up concerns with the new highway: "The governmnent doesn't think about the interests of indigenous people, and it has not done so for a long time. It wants to open another highway that will allow the enslavement of our lands and the planting of hectares of coca."

A claim like that, coming from an indigenous leader, raises questions over Morales' dedication to Pachamama (the Andean indigenous word for a highly spiritualised Mother Earth).

For its part, the government has declared, through its minister Walter Delgadillo, that the highway is a "major project of national and inter-regional interest". Besides connecting two cities, the government says it will improve the regional economy in the area of Beni, which remains relatively isolated. The government has gained support from financial sectors in Beni, which is one of the regions that TIPNIS lies in.

But what stands out among everything is support for the highway construction by representatives of the agriculture, livestock, and transport industries, and by local authorities.

In addition, it should be considered that, according to Delgadillo, "The pathways [construction] allow a state presence in the region" that notably helps the governability of these areas. This position should be viewed critically in the context of the new and popularly supported Bolivian Constitution, which guarantees autonomous rights to local and indigenous communities.

The position from CIDOB is not an opposition to the highway per se, but against the way that the highway is planned to run through TIPNIS.

Adolfo Moye, one of the TIPNIS leaders, explained, "We're only asking that the highway doesn't go through this region - that they make it wherever they want to, but not in this area".

So, why run the highway through TIPNIS and not use another route?

Fixed route

With costs totaling $436m, more than 75 per cent of which is being provided by a loan from the Brazilian government as part of its "regional integration", changing the route could be difficult. However, there are further arguments, the most recent of which is the presence of hydrocarbons (natural gases), which could encourage further energy exploration in the area.

On the other hand, getting an environmental license to build the highway has cost the government its vice-minister of the environment, Juan Pablo Ramos, who was sacked after refusing to support the highway.

Bolivian law has given rights to Pachamama since the fall of 2010, but it seems that the idea has only been used to show off for progressive media in climate change negotiations, as in Cancun's 2010 Climate Summit.

It is hard to believe that this highway-building plan is supported by an internationally known advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples, for Mother Earth, and against capitalism and the "interests of empire", but Evo Morales recently stated, "It is false that a paved road can never pass through a forest reserve. In Europe [and] the United States, there are roads passing through forest reserves." Given his earlier rhetoric, it is unclear why Morales uses those geographical examples to justify environmental public policy in Bolivia.

The amount of societal support gained by the march to defend TIPNIS is notable. CONAMAQ supports and has sent representatives to participate in the march, originally organised by CIDOB. Two of the major social organisations from the country have called for either the suspension of the highway or to have it built around TIPNIS.

In the coming days, important sectors of society will join the march. Miners, teachers, university students, and even another major indigenous sector, known as the Ponchos Rojos, who have been loyal to the government until now, will join.

Accusations by the president that non-governmental organisations and the US embassy are manipulating the march have radicalised the marchers' positions, increasing their demands beyond the TIPNIS conflict. These twelve new demands relate to other major government-supported projects in indigenous territories and to social and environmental policy at the national level. The demands point out Evo Morales' hypocritical honouring of indigenous peoples, cultures, and respect for Pachamama.

Stanislaw Czaplicki Cabezas is the cofounder of Reaccion Climatica, an organisation focused on climate change activism in Bolivia. He is also the national coordinator of 350.org in Bolivia, which is a global movement for promoting solutions for climate change.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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