An indigenous struggle against Morales

August 29, 2011

Sarah Hines reports on a struggle of the indigenous that is exposing the gap between rhetoric and reality in the Bolivia of President Evo Morales.

MORE THAN 500 indigenous Bolivians are on the march from the eastern city of Trinidad towards the capital city of La Paz--a distance of more than 300 miles--to protest the construction of an interstate highway that would cut TIPNIS, a protected park and indigenous territory that belongs to the Yuracaré, Moxeño and Chimán peoples, in half.

The indigenous peoples of TIPNIS, the Indigenous Territory and National Isiboro Sécure Park (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure), fear that the road will facilitate the invasion of coca growers, encourage unbridled oil drilling and logging, and thereby destroy diverse ecosystems and the integrity of the park's indigenous communities--what march leaders have referred to as "ethnocide."

The park is located in the country's northeastern tropics, home to 6,000 residents who comprise 64 indigenous communities. TIPNIS is legally protected against this type of development at least three times over--as a national park since 1965, as an indigenous territory since 1990, and by multiple international agreements signed by Bolivia that guarantee indigenous communities the right to participate in the use, administration and conservation of natural resources in their territories.

Supporters of the indigenous marchers rally in Cochabamba against the government's road project
Supporters of the indigenous marchers rally in Cochabamba against the government's road project (Sarah Hines)

The marchers have been joined by hundreds more along the way and are following the same route as the 1990 indigenous march that won recognition of Indigenous Community Lands (Tierras Comunitarias de Origen, TCOs), including TIPNIS.

BOLIVIA'S PRESIDENT Evo Morales bills himself as the president of the country's indigenous peoples and social movements, and even Mother Earth herself. Indeed, Morales, who came to power on the back of powerful social movements that defeated water and gas privatization and brought down two neoliberal presidents, is the country's first indigenous president in a country with an overwhelming indigenous majority. He has made radical statements in defense of the environment at international forums.

Yet the road in question is a project and major priority of the Morales government--and not one it is prepared to compromise on.

Notwithstanding his defense of Mother Earth on the world stage, at home, Morales is ready to bulldoze through national parks, indigenous territory and diverse ecosystems, as well as protesters. He dismisses environmentalism as at best naïve--and at worst the veil of sinister operations by outsider NGOs and other imperialist forces that "manipulate" indigenous people. Members of Morales' Movement for Socialism (MAS) party have even confronted the demonstrators physically.

Perhaps these are not the same indigenous peoples--or the same Mother Earth--to whom Morales referred in a speech at the United Nations in September 2009 when he said:

For the indigenous movement, the planet Earth is something sacred...I want to tell you that if we talk, if we fight and if we work for the wellbeing of our peoples, first we have to guarantee the wellbeing of Mother Earth. If we don't guarantee the wellbeing of Mother Earth it is impossible to guarantee the wellbeing of our people who live on this planet.

The government's road project makes a mockery of the 2009 Bolivian Constitution's commitments to indigenous and peasant communities. The Constitution guarantees communities the right to "live in a healthy environment, with control over and benefits from their ecosystems" and "be consulted through appropriate processes, and in particular, through their institutions, every time that legislative or administrative measures are taken that might affect them," especially when natural resources located within their territory are at stake.

But the affected communities were not consulted, nor is their territorial autonomy being respected.

In fact, the project was designed to railroad TIPNIS communities into accepting the road. Anticipating the problems that have arisen, the government divided the road project into three sections. The first and third, as expected, were quickly approved, and ground broke in June before the communities to be affected by the second section, which would cut through TIPNIS, were notified.

The government finally offered a dialogue with TIPNIS communities recently--but only after the current indigenous march had been organized. When their too-little-too-late proposal was rejected, the government denounced the marchers for refusing to negotiate, even though it was clear that the consultation would be merely an after-the-fact formality for a decision that had already been made.

At the end of June, President Morales declared, "Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road; we are going to finish the Cochabamba-Beni road this term."

In the face of the government's threats and dictatorial attitude, Vice President Alvaro García Linera's statement earlier this week that "we don't note a willingness to dialogue" is specious.

The Morales government accuses the marchers of illegal trafficking in land and lumber, of being manipulated by NGOs, and, most recently, of being in league with the U.S. government. These accusations are pulled from a familiar--and pathetically limited--bag of tricks that the Morales government routinely uses to attempt to discredit its opponents. If these tactics at one point had some traction, they now ring more and more hollow.

The government's patronizing attitude toward its indigenous opponents turned to outright instigation, and sexist and racist insult, on August 2 when Morales urged Cochabamba coca growers, who support the road and are Morales' most loyal base, to "explain" and "orient" their indigenous compatriots not to oppose the highway. Not content to leave it there, he went on: "If I had time, I would go court the Yuracaré women and convince them that they should not oppose [the project]. So you, young men, have instructions from the president to seduce the Yuracaré and Trinitaria women, so that they don't oppose the road."

However, as the march advances, grows and gains support, the government has changed from portraying participants as naïve pawns to self-interested conspirators.

The government's latest threat to expel USAID should be seen in this light. While the U.S. and other forces unfriendly to the Morales government are no doubt attempting to use this conflict to their advantage, the threatened expulsion of USAID is part of the government's effort to paint the marchers and their supporters as allies of imperialism.

It is a sad irony that the "government of the social movements" is attempting to use the right to consultation, a historic achievement of the very movements the ruling party, the Movement for Socialism, was once part of--to attempt to criminalize the forms of protest that won these rights and brought Morales to power in the first place.

THE MORALES government claims that the road is necessary for national economic development and that it will offer social and economic opportunities for local people. Vice President Alvaro García Linera said the government "believes that we need to link Bolivia so that every Bolivian no matter where he lives has easy access to a health clinic, a school and a market to sell his products."

This happy image is contradicted by the reality of what is likely to happen if the road is built.

The road will facilitate further invasion by coca growers who have already (illegally) made significant inroads into TIPNIS, forcing the indigenous to relocate to urban areas and putting communities' very existence in danger. Already, the area of the park has been reduced by 10 percent due to pressure from colonizers.

Ecosystems will be destabilized, putting the area's unique flora and fauna, including 1,700 vertebrate species, 11 of them endangered, in danger. The Bolivian research institute PIEB (Bolivian Strategic Research Program or Programa de Investigación Estratégica en Bolivia) has estimated that 64.5 percent of the park would be deforested within 18 years if the road is built.

According to Cochabamba engineer Hugo Balcazar, the planned highway will play the role of a dam, risking the complete flooding of the city of Trinidad in the rainy season. And the Minister of Hidrocarbons has publicly admitted that the area is slated for oil exploration. Again, no consultation on this front has taken place.

Finally, TIPNIS is the only remaining territory where the Moxeño people live in relative cultural isolation.

But other than encouraging indigenous communities to take advantage of the road for eco-tourism, the government has failed to explain how the road will help local economies. Nor is it clear that how exactly the road will help the national economy.

What is clear, though little discussed, even by the road's opponents, is that the road will be a boon for Brazilian interests. It is no accident that funding required for the highway (the second 306-kilometer section alone is slated to cost $45 million) is coming from the Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES).

The Cochabamba-Beni highway project is part of a broader regional development scheme focused on transportation, energy and communications infrastructure called the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (Iniciativa para la Integración de la Infraestructura Regional Suramericana, IIRSA).

Signed by 12 South American presidents in Brazil just a few months after the defeat of water privatization in Cochabamba, IIRSA was and remains a thoroughly neoliberal project.

It is intended, according to the IIRSA website, to "foster integration and development of isolated sub-regions" so that South America can become "a fully integrated geo-economic territory." To make this a reality, it "is necessary to minimize internal barriers to trade and bottlenecks in infrastructure and in the regulation and operation systems that support regional productive activities."

In other words, the idea is to eliminate trade barriers like tariffs and inconvenient environmental, labor and other protections (like indigenous territorial autonomy) to open up "isolated sub-regions" for trade routes, natural resource exploitation and market creation. It does not get much more neoliberal than this.

All South American countries are part of the initiative in some form or another, but its main proponent, funder and would-be beneficiary is Brazil. The Cochabamba-Beni road will help link Brazil to the Pacific Ocean, facilitating faster and cheaper exports of Brazilian products, especially soy, to Asia. Not to mention the profits to be garnered for Brazilian contractors from road construction itself.

What is in question, then, is not--as the government and road's proponents put it--whether to support development or oppose it. Rather, it is a question of what kind of development this road will affect, in whose interests, and at what cost.

WHAT EXPLAINS the seeming contradiction of an indigenous-eco-social-movement president waging a war on a pro-environment indigenous social movement?

The pressures of governing a poor country low on the world capitalist pecking order is certainly part of the answer. But this is also a question of politics.

Vice President García Linera, once a Maoist insurrectionary, justifies this type of project according to a stagist idea of the development of the conditions necessary for socialist transformation. The vice president's believes that 50 to 100 years of "Andean and Amazonian capitalism" is required for socialism to be possible in Bolivia.

On the eve of Morales' inauguration, García Linera was quick to temper expectations for economic transformation.

In the next 50 years, the traditional [capitalist] economic structure, the root of recent social rebellion, will prevail. The challenge is what to do in the face of this...Today, we think that we can at least imagine a model that ceases to brutally subordinate the communitarian (lo comunitario) to the industrial economy, and prevent the modern from squeezing out and sapping all of the energies of the communitarian and rather promote its autonomous development. For this, we count on the state...

The victory of the MAS opens the possibility of radical social and state transformation, but not from a socialist perspective as one section of the left proposes, at least in the short term.

As it turns out, the twin goals of fomenting capitalist development and strengthening popular communitarian networks cannot be squared, as the Cochabamba-Beni road project makes all too evident. The government's position in the face of this contradiction is clear--they have chosen "Andean and Amazonian capitalism" over "lo comunitario" and are angling to unravel the very communitarian networks that the vice president once declared the hope for socialist transformation.

To this end, more than 150 MAS activists armed with sticks blocked the march last Friday and held the marchers hostage with little food or water for two days. As this article was being written, the MAS youth group was staging a demonstration in La Paz to support the road, and an assembly of the coca growers' federation is planned for next week.

But the march has found wide support across the Amazonian region and beyond, and even some MAS officials have tempered their positions or broken ranks.

The marchers come from several lowland indigenous organizations, including the Guaraní People's Assembly and the Indigenous Peoples of Beni Central, among others, and dozens of other organizations sent representatives. Even the MASista indigenous caucus of the national legislature has expressed support.

Overcoming decades of division, the struggle has united lowland and highland indigenous movements, most notably the lowland indigenous organization CIDOB (Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia) and the highland indigenous organization CONAMAQ (El Consejo Nacional de Allyus y Markas de Qullasuyu). The government's attempt to paint both of these organizations as U.S. stooges has only served to solidify their alliance.

Indigenous congressional representative and MAS member Pedro Nuni said that the behavior of the government:

is the typical modus operandi of traditional governments and dictatorships. Unfortunately, [the government] has begun to politically persecute anyone who dares to cast a shadow on this process of political change. We never imagined that the president would persecute his own comrades, his own brothers, just for defending their rights as indigenous people.

Workers organizations are split. MAS-affiliated organizations like the Peasant Workers Union Confederation (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, CSUTCB) and the Cochabamba Workers Federation (COD), including factory workers and the coca farmers, support the road, while the National Workers Federation (COB), the national teachers union, and some miners unions oppose it.

The division is explained in part by sectional interests. Despite its promises to control colonization, the government will be neither able nor willing to control coca growers' continued incursions into indigenous territory that will be aided by the road.

In Cochabamba, more than 300 residents rallied in solidarity with the TIPNIS struggle on August 24. Pablo Rojas, organizer of the TIPNIS Defense Campaign in Cochabamba, explained that the committee was founded due to "the necessity of informing the people of Cochabamba about what TIPNIS is and why the highway is illegal."

In addition to the march, the defense committee has organized several other solidarity actions. They are also collecting food and water for the marchers, and some are planning to join the march next week. March organizer Ida Peñaranda remarked, "I am defending TIPNIS because I believe that there needs to be respect for indigenous sovereignty and for Mother Earth."

THE GAP between rhetoric and reality has become too wide to paper over. Many social movements and individuals who once supported the MAS feel betrayed, and they have become more confident to voice their objections. The perspective of Celso Padilla, leader of the Guaraní People's Assembly, is shared by many:

When Evo Morales became president of our country, we indigenous who live in the lowlands were very hopeful. We believed that the process of change we had hoped for was possible. We thought that the economic and social situation was going to improve, and that indigenous people's rights would be respected. But none of this came true. We feel disillusioned.

All that has happened in our country in recent years is thanks to our movement that opened the doors of the current process. The president knows this very well, and this is why we don't understand the attitude he is taking toward us, accusing us of everything imaginable. But if the president believes that with his verbal provocations he is going to demoralize or stop the indigenous people's march, he is completely mistaken. We are going to continue forward with our struggle."

This confrontation is exposing the reality of Morales' commitment to capitalist development over--and at the expense of--indigenous peoples, social movements and the environment. At the same time, it is pushing social movement organizations to recover an independent voice, build links and mobilize collectively.

How it unfolds will shape the future of Bolivian politics, both for the MAS and for social movements fighting to move towards an alternative to predatory capitalism--the mandate and promise the MAS seems to have forgotten amid its developmental capitalist enthusiasms.

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