By Ricardo Herrera Farell
The indigenous communities that last year marched on La Paz to protest a highway through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, or TIPNIS, now feel outraged and, above all, cheated.
Their anger is directed at President Evo Morales, promoter of Law 222. Enacted Feb. 9, it provides for consultation with TIPNIS inhabitants in order to obtain approval from them to resume work on the controversial road in this nature reserve. This new rule bypasses Law 180 protecting TIPNIS, which when agreed on with the indigenous communities in October 2011 prohibited construction of any road through the park and established the inviolability of the territory.
The indigenous communities are now preparing for another march to La Paz in March, hoping more civil society organizations in the country will join, said Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia, or CIDOB, the organization that last year led the march defending the park.
“We do not accept this new law and we are ready to fight it until the end because the rights of the indigenous people of the TIPNIS have been violated. Prior consultation should have been carried out before work began and the contracts were signed with the Brazilian company OAS [that manages the project], as set forth in the Constitution since 2009, rather than now, when they are in the middle of building sections 1 and 3,” Chávez told Latinamerica Press.
The leader insists that they do not oppose the 177-kilometer (110-mile) road that will link Villa Tunari, in the central state of Cochabamba, with San Ignacio de Moxos in the northeastern state of Beni; what they object to is the section 2 cutting through the middle of the park, because they worry it will lead to deforestation and an invasion of coca-producing settlers in a region where there are more than 60 communities of Yuracare, Chimán, and Moxos origin.
The TIPNIS is an important part of Beni’s topography because it filters, refills, and distributes water through one part of the state. Moreover, it is one of the five protected areas in Bolivia that are also indigenous territories. There live more than 400 species of birds and fish of great importance to the region’s ecosystem.
Steps forward and back
On Aug. 15, 2011, approximately 700 indigenous people began in Trinidad, capital of Beni, the March of the Indigenous Peoples of the East, Chaco, and Amazon. Supported also by the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, or CONAMAQ from the Andean part of the country, the protestors established 16 demands, chief among them the objection to the road crossing through the TIPNIS.
On Sept. 25, when the demonstrators were in the region of Chaparina, near the northeastern town of Yucumo, the police brutally attacked the camp where they were staying, an act widely condemned by organizations around the country. After 65 days of walking, they arrived in La Paz to a massive reception.
Under pressure because of those circumstances, on Oct. 25 President Morales signed Law 180, also known as ‘short law’, which stated that no highway would cut through the TIPNIS and included the concept of intangibility, with an extremely narrow definition at the government’s insistence because it banned even ecotourism projects that were in the works in several communities
Nevertheless, in late December, the Indigenous Council of the South, or CONISUR, which represents more than a dozen communities in the TIPNIS, started a march in favor of the highway’s construction, on the basis that it would improve access to health and education for their towns. Opposition groups to Morales and CIDOB representatives said the government had a hand in the protest in an effort to counteract the “short law,” which is still in effect.
This “counter-protest” triggered state officials and CONISUR to propose Law 222 to consult the indigenous communities in TIPNIS about the highway, which was approved by the Legislative Assembly thanks to a majority vote by the ruling party.
Commitments with building company
“In our country, which calls itself indigenous, our rights are being violated. Whatever the president signs with one hand, he erases with the other the next day. He closes doors on us and minimizes the natives of the lowlands. For example, until now it has not yet been determined who was responsible for the police attack on the marching protestors,” said Yudith Rivero Burgos, vice-president of the National Confederation of Indigenous Women in Bolivia, or CNAMIB.
The leader, of Chimán origin, said the government’s insistence on building the highway is because it must fulfill commitments with the company carrying out the project and with coca producers that live in the communities surrounding the park that reportedly were part of the CONISUR march.
“There are no coca producers in CONISUR; what happened is that CIDOB has tried to make me and the march look bad. We are going to go check in with all of the organizations in the TIPNIS, and we are not just going to go to talk with one person or leader. Nor are we going to give any money like they are doing. We are going to evaluate at the grassroots level to ask if they want to die poor or better themselves, because without roads we have not had access to education and health,” said Gumersindo Pradel, a CONISUR leader that has committed to support the consultation’s organization.
For its part, CIDOB formed three committees that visited communities in the TIPNIS beginning Jan. 30 in search of support for Law 180, and reassured that 32 of the 35 they met with oppose the road through the park.
The new law set forth a 120-day period — which expires in June — to complete the consultation. No procedure has been established yet because there is no regulation for prior consultation, but the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Wilfredo Ovando, said on radio station Red Patria Nueva that the consultation will be in line with the customs of the indigenous communities in the TIPNIS.
It should be noted that decision making in the region is through meetings of corregidores, who are representatives of the central government responsible for enforcing laws in the provinces and counties, and of the cabildos abiertos, or open town councils, which consist of public meetings involving all a community’s inhabitants and that address matters of collective interest.
According to the latest national census in 2001, there are 12,388 people living in the TIPNIS. Non-governmental organizations estimate that number now is as high as 15,000.