Bolivia: “ethnocide” feared after new consultation law on Amazon highway

On the night of Feb. 9, Bolivia’s Plurinational Assembly passed a new law mandating a consultation process for indigenous communities in the Isiboro-SĂ©cure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS)—billed as a “compromise” between proponents and opponents of the proposed road through the reserve. The new law threatens to undermine the existing law that cancelled the highway in October and now protects the TIPNIS as an “untouchable” ecological zone. The consultation law was developed by ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) legislative leaders in conjunction with CONISUR, an indigenous organization that favors the road project. It was approved by the MAS-controlled legislature in less than a week, and promptly signed into law by President Evo Morales—sparking an immediate outcry from indigenous leaders opposed to the road.

The new law affirms the right of “free, prior, and informed” consultation for indigenous communities within the TIPNIS—Mojeño-Trinitario, Chimán (also rendered T’simane), and Yuracaré—based on the Bolivian constitution and international treaties. The communities will be consulted on three issues: whether the TIPNIS should be declared “untouchable”; whether the proposed highway bisecting it should be constructed; and what measures should be established to protect the reserve against illegal settlements.

The process must be carried out “in good faith” by the government, in coordination with the indigenous communities and in their native tongues, with full transparency, within 120 days. The agreements resulting from the consultation process will be binding on all parties. Opponents, however, charge the consultation process will not be “prior,” as the construction contract and funding agreement for the road (with Brazil’s National Bank) are already in place. The government has not canceled these despite the supposed suspension of the road project. Vice President Alvaro GarcĂ­a Linera now rationalizes that the ex-post facto consultation process will “right two wrongs”—the government’s failure to consult with TIPNIS inhabitants prior to initiating the road, and prior to cancelling it.

Opponents also point to the law’s ambiguity on the critical question of who is to be consulted. While the TIPNIS Original Communal Territory (TCO) comprises some 65 Mojeño-Trinitario, Chimán, and YuracarĂ© communities, mostly affiliated with the TIPNIS Subcentral which has opposed the road, the TIPNIS national park also encompasses communities within the so-called “Polygon 7″—a 1,091,6560-hectare area cut off from the TCO by a “red line” in 2009 to accommodate some 20,000 peasant colonists who had penetrated the park. Most of these communities affiliate with CONISUR, and support the road to advance their economic interests, as farmers and coca-growers. These communities are not part of the TCO, and arguably lack consultation rights under the Bolivian constitution—but any effort to exclude them will meet stiff opposition given their key role in drawing up the consultation law. Tensions between the two groups of communities are escalating; cases are currently being heard by the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA) over encroachment by Polygon 7 colonists into TCO lands. However, complicating the situation, CONISUR also represents some of the Mojeño and YuracarĂ© communities that comprise the TCO in the south of the reserve, indicating that a division has emerged within the reserve’s original inhabitants.

Opponents also view the binding nature of the consultation as a tacit abrogation of the law protecting the TIPNIS. Finally, they say that the TIPNIS consultation process can’t be carried out in “good faith,” since the government responsible for implementing it is strongly advocating for the road. MAS dissident and ex-Cochabamba governor Rafael Puente accuses the government of carrying out a deliberate “disinformation strategy” by promoting CONISUR members as the “true representatives” of the TIPNIS. There are plans for civil disobedience to prevent any effort to resume construction on the TIPNIS road. Pedro Nuni, leader of the new “Indigenous Bloc” in the Assembly who led an unsuccessful attempt to block passage of the consultation law, said: “If necessary, we’ll offer our lives for the TIPNIS.” The head of Bolivia’s human rights office (Defensoria del Pueblo), Rolando Villena, called on Morales to withhold approval of the law, citing the risk of violence and the need to create space for dialogue.

The Indigenous Bloc, together with the anti-road TCO communities and the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE) have filed a formal complaint over the new law with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH). Bloc leader Nuni, himself a member of the Mojeño people, cited the “immediate risk of ethnocide” against the original inhabitants of the TIPNIS.

Nuni charged that CONISUR leader Gumercindo Pradel is not an “originario” of the TPINIS. He added that CONISUR has its origins as a movement cocalero colonists in Cochabamba, and is a “masista political movement”—meaning that it is a part of the MAS machine. Rafael Puente, ex-prefect of Cochabamba department and ex-vice-minister or Interior (now apparently a dissident from the Morales government) charged that CONISUR is actually a creation of the Six Federations of Cocaleros of the Tropic of Cochabamba—Evo Morales’ old organization, of which he technically remains president. Lázaro TacĂł, a leader of CIDOB, the rival indigenous organization that led last year’s march on La Paz in opposition to the highway, charged that the government is trying to fool the Bolivian peoples with “false marches.”

Pradel, interviewed by the English-language website Bolivia Diary Feb. 6, asserted that CONISUR’s followers are of the Mojeño, YuracarĂ© and Chimán ethnicities, and accused Nuni and other highway opponents of seeking to “de-recognize” his indigenous identity. Asked why he supported the road, he replied: “Because those communities live there and suffer. Not like those leaders who want these people to stay in the jungle and not progress.” (NACLA News, Eju!, Santa Cruz, OpiniĂłn, Cochabamba, Feb. 10; El Diario, La Paz, FOBOMADE, Feb. 9; Bolivia Diary, Feb. 6; Eju!, Feb. 2; Bolivia Diary, Bolivia Diary, Jan. 18)

See our last post on the struggle for the Bolivian Amazon.

  1. Violent attack in TIPNIS?
    CONISUR leader Gumercindo Pradel said that he was abducted, beaten, tortured and threatened with death by followers of the TIPNIS Subcentral June 20. He said he was forced to sign a statement pledging to desist from activist efforts in favor of the planned road through the TIPNIS, which he now disavows. He says his captors verbally abused him, calling him a “worm of the president” (gusano del presidente). (ABI, Eju!, June 23) TIPNIS Subcentral leaders issued their own verison of events via the CONAMAQ Facebook page, asserting that Pradel was expelled from a meeting without the use of force, and accusing him of fabricating the attack.