An Interview with Davíd Benigno Crispin Espinoza of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ)
by Bill Weinberg, Indian Country Today
With a second cross-country protest march by indigenous rainforest dwellers and their allies now advancing on La Paz, it is clear that Bolivia’s indigenous peoples are divided in their positions on President Evo Morales, a populist and declared socialist of pure Aymara descent. The first march called to protest the controversial new highway slated to cut through the Isiboro Sécure National Park Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) in October saw police repression and counter-protests by supporters of the road project. Then, in January, pro-highway marchers—also mostly indigenous—held their own, smaller, march on La Paz. The government claimed this march as a mandate for the highway, and passed a law establishing norms for “prior consultation” with indigenous peoples in the project. The new march against the road is a clear rejection of this law.
Opponents 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. After the law was passed, Morales did announce cancellation of the construction contract—but not the project itself, officially known as the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway.
One of the groups leading the new march against the road is an Aymara alliance, the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ)—the name referencing the villages (ayllus) and regions (markas) of the traditional Aymara realm (Qullasuyu). As the march advanced in mid May, CONAMAQ representative Davíd Benigno Crispin Espinoza was in New York City, to attend the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network on the movement against the road project, and what he sees as the struggle of indigenous organizations in Bolivia to maintain their independence from the state.
CONAMAQ is the most significant indigenous organization from Bolivia’s Altiplano to have thrown its support behind the anti-road march, which is led by indigenous groups from Bolivia’s lowland rainforest. The march is principally led by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian Oriente (CIDOB), made up of Guaraní from the eastern lowlands, and the smaller indigenous groups that inhabit the TIPNIS—the Mojeño-Trinitario, Chimán, and Yuracaré. The new march against the road is actually dubbed the “Ninth Indigenous March,” because it is the ninth cross-country mobilization CIDOB has held since 1990.
The alliance supporting construction of the road is the Indigenous Council of the South (CONISUR), and there is a great deal of controversy as to whether it is made up of Mojeño-Trinitario, Chimán, and Yuracaré peoples—in which case it would be empowered to sign off on the road through the TIPNIS—or of Aymara and Quechua colonists in the rainforest. Aymara and Quechua from the Altiplano have for generations been moving into the rainforest, but the TPINIS is officially set aside for the native rainforest dwellers.
Evo Morales came to fame as a leader of Aymara coca-growers in Chapare region of Cochabamba department—immediately south of the TIPNIS. While CONISUR and the Aymara cocaleros of Chapare support Morales, CIDOB and CONAMAQ have broken with him—at least on the road project. CONAMAQ represents an Aymara dissident movement that views Morales with increasing skepticism.
Crispin: I am here in New York to bring to the attention of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues the violations of indigenous that rights that are occurring in Bolivia. This our great concern as Bolivians—that President Evo Morales Ayma is trying to apply a supposed law of consultation that is completely contrary to constitution of the state, that is completely contrary to international treaties such as Convention 169 of the ILO [International Labor Organization], and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
ICTMN: How so?
Crispin: There are five fundamental bases for the right to consultation. The first is that it must be prior consultation. In the case of TIPNIS, the consultation has absolutely nothing to do with “prior.” Section 1 and Section 3 [of the highway] are already built, destroying who knows how many trees. There is already a signed contract for Section 2, which would cut through the heart of the TIPNIS, with the Brazilian corporation OAS.
ICTMN: This is the contract that was cancelled, no?
Crispin: It was supposedly cancelled. But for a contract to be officially cancelled, there has to be a law. The Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia has to promulgate a law for the cancellation to be valid. Up to now, we have only seen press conferences. It simply discourse. There is absolutely no guarantee that it has happened.
This project places at risk the indigenous peoples of the TIPNIS—the Yuracaré, Mojeño and Trinitarios. They should have been consulted before the contract was signed. So the consultation was never “prior”—neither before, nor now.
The second element—good faith. Every consultation must be in good faith with the indigenous peoples. In this case, there has been absolutely no act of good faith by the Bolivian government. First, there is a militarization of the zone. There are elite troops patrolling the zone under the pretext of paying benefits to the elders, or providing medical attention. There are elite soldiers in practically all the pueblos in the TIPNIS.
ICTMN: Distributing benefits to elders is the role of the army?
Crispin: It is absolutely not the role of the army. The benefits are deposited in banks! [Laughs] Generally, the elders go into town with their identity cards and are paid at the bank. It is not the role of soldiers to go to the bank and distribute the money in the communities!
ICTMN: They are doing this in cash?
Crispin: Yes, in cash, in bills. And under this pretext, they have entered TIPNIS to intimidate the people. To determine who [in the communities] is in favor of the consultation and who is opposed. To propagandize the people, telling them that without the highway they will be left in poverty. And to begin to criminalize those who are opposed to the consultation. It is a strategy of the government to use these pretexts to act in bad faith.
Third, every step in the consultation must be coordinated with the legitimate representatives of the original native peoples. In the case of TIPNIS, the representative organism is CIDOB. Up to this moment, there has been no respect for CIDOB, nor the TIPNIS Subcentral, the local organization affiliated with CIDOB.
Instead of dealing directly with the existing indigenous organizations, the government is attempting to create parallel organizations. They say, “We will create new organizations, and consult with them, and sign accords with them.” A strategy of parallelism.
And the same thing is happening with CONAMAQ in the highlands. CONAMAQ has 16 regionals, covering nearly all of the highlands and high valleys…
ICTMN: Principally in La Paz department?
Crispin: La Paz, Oruro, Potosí, Chuquisaca, Tarija and Cochabamba. Throughout the Andean region. Now, one of the regionals has broken away to form CONAMAQ-La Paz, disassociating from the CONAMAQ organization that has territorial jurisdiction in five departments. When the true CONAMAQ declared it was not in agreement with the highway that would run through the center of TIPNIS, the other CONAMAQ announced, “We support the highway, we are with the government!”
ICTMN: When did this happen?
Crispin: Since last year’s march for the TIPNIS, the government has been working to fragment our organization. At the beginning of this year, as the consultation law was being prepared, this other CONAMAQ appeared.
ICTMN: Who is the leadership of this new CONAMAQ?
Crispin: Militants of the ruling party, the MAS [Movement to Socialism], functionaries of the government and the various ministries—now calling themselves CONAMAQ.
Exactly the same is happening in the TIPNIS, with CIDOB. They are creating parallel organizations with CIDOB, which have called an assembly for this Saturday [May 19], to elect a new national director, replacing the actual national director of CIDOB, Adolfo Chávez. They are trying to organically liquidate indigenous organizations now.
The day that nobody speaks for the original peoples of Bolivia, the day that there are no organizations defending the original peoples of Bolivia, we will be exposed to a massive genocide in Bolivia.
Fourth, all consultations must be made with adequate procedures—adequate information provided to the indigenous communities, in their own language, and decisions taken under their own methods and mechanisms. At this minute, there is absolutely no adequate mechanism for the consultation. Sending in soldiers is not an adequate mechanism. Giving gifts of outboard motors and cellular telephones and antennas, televisions—this is not part of an adequate procedure, it is cronyism.
But it is not always working. Some people who received outboard motors used them to leave for the march! They are using cellulars they received to coordinate the march!
In some parts, however, it is working. Because they are spending a lot of money.
The fifth thing—the consultation must be of binding character. And the Law 222 that the government has passed for consultation in the TIPNIS is not of binding character. With this cronyism and fragmenting of organizations, acting in bad faith—this is not how you arrive at a binding consent. Consent is when you, of your own free will, say “Yes.” In this case, it is forced.
So they have not complied with these five fundamental bases of the right to consultation. It is completely unconstitutional and violates all the international norms. CIDOB and CONAMAQ are bringing a case to have the Constitutional Tribunal strike down this law. Some opposition legislators are working to repeal it. But we don’t have much confidence, because justice is in the hands of the actual government, and their family members and political friends.
The Law of Autonomy and Decentralization does not permit people who are not part of the original indigenous peoples to assume the autonomy of original indigenous peoples. The Electoral Law passed under the new Bolivian constitution demands that indigenous peoples have their direct representatives and senators in the Legislative Assembly. We don’t have even one at this moment. There are seven members with special status as indigenous representatives, but they haven’t been directly elected according to the norms and procedures of the original indigenous peoples. It has all been done through the political party, through MAS. They are functioning like a representative democracy, not a communitarian democracy. These are the retrogressions we are witnessing in Bolivia.
ICTMN: Can you explain the relationship between CIDOB and CONISUR, which both claim to represent the inhabitants of the TIPNIS?
Crispin: TIPNIS is titled as original communal lands. But outsiders have started to enter the territory—first little by little, then more, then much more. Today it is an invasion of the territory. Those who inhabited this territory are Yuracaré, Chimánes and Mojeños. CONISUR, in turn, is made up of the invaders. Not one of them is Yuracaré, nor Chimáne, nor Mojeño. They are Aymara and Quechua who have migrated from the Altiplano in search of new lands. Supposedly, they plant fruit trees, but really this is just a few as a demonstration. Really, they have coca leaf plantations.
So CONISUR is made up of people external to the indigenous inhabitants of TIPNIS. And therefore they are not subject to consultation. But Law 222 includes them as subjects of consultation. Practically, they are people from the support base of President Evo Morales Ayma. In addition to being president of the plurinational state [of Bolivia], he continues to be the president of Seven Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba, the alliance of the cocaleros [coca-growers]. They are from his base.
ICTMN: Well, I have heard contradictory things on this question. Some say CONISUR does include indigenous people of the rainforest, of the TIPNIS.
Crispin: It is possible that perhaps five percent of CONISUR is made up of people indigenous to the TIPNIS. The rest are people from the Altiplano. And these five percent have assimilated the customs of the Aymara and Quechua. Many of them no longer speak their own language. They just speak castellano [Spanish]. They have abandoned their ancestral structures and authorities. They are not the same indigenous people as they were 50 years ago. They are colonized. Under law, they do not have the right to consultation.
ICTMN: So 95% of CONISUR’s followers are originally from the Altiplano…
Crispin: Yes, originally from the highlands. They sell timber or plant coca. And not all the coca is for akulliku [traditional coca-chewing]. The original inhabitants of TIPNIS don’t grow coca. One or another may grow a little, but it is for medicine. Not like the others, who plant hectares of coca for commercial ends. And this commercialization of coca leaf is for cocaine. The best coca for chewing is from Las Yungas of La Paz, not from Chapare, not from the [lands of] CONISUR.
ICTMN: What is the internal structure of the TIPNIS indigenous communities? How are they organized?
Crispin: Each indigenous group has a council of corregidores (magistrates) and capitanes (captains). Together, these councils send representatives to the TIPNIS Regional Subcentral, which is the regional affiliate of CIDOB.
CIDOB divides its territory into tentas, the smallest division, then the capitanías, and the largest are the regiones [regions]. For CONAMAQ, the smallest unit is the communidad, then the ayllu, the marka and finally the suyu, which covers all of CONAMAQ’s territory. CONAMAQ’s territory borders CIDOB’s in the north of La Paz department. CIDOB represents 34 indigenous peoples. In contrast, CONAMAQ represents 16 peoples who are grouped into two big linguistic groups, Ayamara and Quechua. Three, to include the Urus, a much smaller group. The smaller Aymara groups are the Carangas, the Quillacas, the Collas… The Quechua groups are the Qaraqara, the Charkas, and others. My people are the Carangas. We wear green ponchos, like this one I am wearing.
The largest affiliate of CIDOB is the Guaraní People’s Assembly, which covers parts of three departments—Tarija, Beni and Santa Cruz.
ICTMN: So the local Subcentral of CIDOB has been recognized as the official governance structure of the TIPNIS?
Crispin: Yes. Isiboro Sécure was first declared a national park by decree, and then by a law, about 15 years ago. Then, with the titling of indigenous lands in the region, another law was passed, about 10 years ago, recognizing it as an Indigenous Territory—the TIPNIS. It now falls into two juridical categories—a national park and an indigenous territory, with the right of consultation.
ICTMN: Then what is the official role of CONISUR now?
Crispin: Law 222 is obviously the work of CONISUR, and their march, which was completely financed by the government. But it is a completely unconstitutional law. They know that CIDOB will not accept it. So CONISUR is trying to establish a powerful role. But they are campesinos [peasants]. They have the right to organize as part of civil society, but they have no right to consultation as original people [of the TIPNIS]. Convention 169 doesn’t contain the word “campesino.” From the first page to last page, you will not find this word.
ICTMN: Where is the march now?
Crispin: Now it is just a few kilometers from San Borja, in Beni. The hard rains have made it impossible for us to advance for days. We hope to resume the march later this week. We are some 500 marchers, from CIDOB and CONAMAQ. Perhaps we will be in La Paz in two weeks.
ICTMN: And this time there has been no confrontation?
Crispin: So far, there has been no confrontation with the police. But some pueblos, like San Ignacio de Moxos, said they will not permit the march to pass. They put barbed wire across the road. So we had to go around, through the outskirts of town. These are towns completely loyal to the national government.
ICTMN: These communities are also made up of colonists from the highlands?
Crispin: Yes. They are all campesinos, they are not indigenous people…
ICTMN: Well, they are Aymara and Quechua, no?
Crispin: Yes, but many of them are merchants now, they have restaurants and bus lines… We sent a messenger with a letter to the mayor of San Ignacio de Moxos asking for permission to pass through the town. His people burned it and beat and insulted the messenger. But other of the local people donated a cow to the march for us to eat.
ICTMN: So these communities are also divided between residents who support the march and those who don’t?
Crispin: Yes, they are divided. The leader of the community takes the decision, but not everyone agrees.
ICTMN: What is your view of Evo Morales now?
Crispin: The saddest thing of all is that our indigenous president is against the indigenous peoples. We supported Evo in the election. Now they accuse us of speaking bad of Evo, denigrating the image of Evo. No, we are just demanding the recognition of our rights, and respect of the constitution.
The next election will be very difficult for us. We will have to decide whether or not to support Evo. Now I would say, probably no.
ICTMN: What is the alternative?
Crispin: Perhaps a new leadership will emerge, but these things do not happen quickly.
This first appeared June 21 on the Indian Country Today Media Network, and ran in the Aug. 1 issue of Indian Country Today. Photo courtesy of CONAMAQ.
From our Daily Report:
Bolivia: Aymara communities occupy Oruro mine
World War 4 Report, Aug. 23, 2012
Bolivia: judicial crisis over Amazon road project
World War 4 Report, Aug. 16, 2012
BOLIVIA’S NEW WATER WARS
Climate Change and Indigenous Struggle
by Bill Weinberg, NACLA Report on the Americas
World War 4 Report, January 2011
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 24, 2012
Reprinting permissible with attribution