By Ricardo Herrera Farell
“Governing listening to the people” was one of the slogans coined by Bolivian President Evo Morales to define his administration. However, it looks like that’s the last thing the leader has done in the past few months, as different sectors of society and people inside and outside the country warned him in open letters and public statements that his inflexibility with the protests by the indigenous communities in the low lands who object to the construction of a highway through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) could lead to acts of violence.
Last Sept. 25, that fear became a reality. Approximately 500 police officers invaded the protesters’ camp in the area of La Chaparina, just a few meters from the northeastern town of Yucumo, and without a provocation fired tear gas and beat, gassed, handcuffed and arrested the group’s leaders, who were later liberated by the townspeople of Rurrenabaque, from where it was intended they would be transferred to the city of La Paz.
The violent repression of the indigenous group earned condemnation from several of the country’s social sectors, triggered the resignation of four government officials including the ministers of Defense and Government, and landed the government in one of the most serious crises this administration has seen.
In her resignation letter to President Morales, Minister of Defense Cecilia Chacón wrote: “I undertake this decision because I do not believe in the intervention the government has taken and I can neither defend nor justify it, as there are alternatives within the framework of dialogue. Not like this! We agreed to do things differently.”
The incident also forced the resignation of Government Minister Sacha Llorenti, who explained that the intent of the operation was to “evacuate” the protestors to preserve their physical integrity.
Despite the fact that President Morales denied ordering the operative, he publicly apologized to the victims of the crackdown and said an investigation would be conducted to determine who was at fault, but he hasn’t been able to mollify the wave of protests.
The conflict originates with the construction of the highway that would connect Villa Tunari, in the central department of Cochabamba, with San Ignacio de Moxos, in Beni, in the northeast, and in a second part would cut through the heart of the TIPNIS. Currently, travelers between the capitals of both departments must traverse 1,500 kilometers (930 miles); with the new route, this would be cut down to 600 kilometers (375 miles).
Moreover, the road would be part of one of three corridors that would link the Atlantic with the Pacific, which Morales’s administration aims to complete before the end of its term in 2015. For that reason, in 2008, the Bolivian Administration of Highways (ABC) awarded to Brazilian firm OAS the construction bid of a 306-kilometer (190-mile) stretch of highway for US$415 million, financed by the state’s Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES).
TIPNIS was the first protected area in the low lands when it was designated as a national park in 1965 and it obtained the title of indigenous territory thanks to the March for Land and Dignity in 1990. More than 5,000 Moxeño, Yuracaré, and Chimán indigenous people live in the area, and in its more remote regions Yuqui people live. It originally included more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres), but that was reduced to just over 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) in 2009 due to pressure from massive settlements on its borders in the 1970s that increased significantly in the 1980s.
At the same time, coca cultivation, drug trafficking, oil exploration, logging and commercial and sport hunting have proliferated. The fear that the highway will not only destroy a system rich in biodiversity, but also encourage coca cultivation and illegal logging and exploitation of other natural resources, has created resistance in the indigenous population, who for years have lobbied against a highway that passes through their land.
“The communities and leadership in TIPNIS have come out against the opening of a road through their territory more than 40 times since 2003, through countless events regarding this issue. Neither the ABC nor the Vice Ministry of the Environment have been able to convince the communities of the highway’s benefits; on the contrary, they received constant negative [feedback], even if these public entities say otherwise. Since 1990, TIPNIS has lost ground to the cocaleros to the tune of more than 400,000 hectares (1 million acres),” Leonardo Tamburini, director of the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research, said last July. It is one of the non-governmental organizations questioned by the national authorities because it is thought to have instigated the march, despite the fact that several presidential cabinet members formed part of that institution.
Without prior consultation
Nevertheless, the government insisted in going through with the road section that would cut the region in two, and last June construction began on Sections 1 and 3 of the highway, without having gone through prior consultation with the local residents as required in the country’s Political Constitution. This led the indigenous people in TIPNIS to begin a 600-kilometer (375-mile) march on August 15 from the city of Trinidad, the capital of Beni, toward La Paz, demanding their rights.
In the following weeks there was a tug-of-war between protestors and government officials. In the middle of this, the authorities and even Morales dismissed the protest with dozens of accusations, including that non-governmental organizations, the United States, rightist political groups and even former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-97 and 2002-2003) had a hand in the march. However, they were not able to prove those connections.
A variety of social sectors demanded that the government be consistent with its principles regarding the rights of indigenous peoples and of Mother Earth, which emerged in various international forums.
But why did officials get to that point of intransigence, despite the warnings?
“The ruling party has already a tradition of winning by making enemies. They don’t try to engage in dialogue with the other, they only try to gain the upper hand by imposing themselves with the support of their majority in Parliament and with the popular support they had in voting booths. They are aiming for a type of development that yielded results for former Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva. That is, building large highways and dams and betting on oil extraction, even if a lot of forests have to be cut down,” anthropologist and researcher Xavier Alvó, who was one of the people who warned what would happen in Yucumo, told Latinamerica Press.
“The flags the government waved in the international arena were trampled on, and at an internal level, they have worked against themselves because they have affected their credibility,” lawyer and former National Ombudsman Waldo Albarracín told Latinamerica Press.
Facing pressure from the people, President Morales announced the discontinuation of construction on the stretch of road that would go through TIPNIS, while indigenous people told they would renew their march.