Bolivia: Crisis deepens over disputed highway

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

By Federico Fuentes

September 25 will go down as one of the darkest day in Bolivia since Evo Morales was elected as the country’s first indigenous president almost six years ago.

After more than 40 days of marching, police officers moved in to repress indigenous protesters opposed to the government’s proposed highway that would run through the Isiboro-Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).

The controversial highway has been opposed and supported by many of the indigenous and social organisations that make up the support base of the Morales government.

Differences over the project have resulted in tensions escalating between both sides during the past month and particularly in the days leading to the violence. Protesters were set to reach a town were locals were organising a blockade in protest against march demands they felt would negatively impact on them.

After the repression, Morales rejected accusations he was behind events he described as “an abuse committed against our indigenous brothers” and called for an international commission to investigate the incident.

During the police action, which lasted around half an hour, tear gas and rubber bullets sent indigenous marchers, including pregnant women and children, fleeing for safety.

Unconfirmed reports by the media committee of the marchers said one child was killed and that initially several protesters were missing.

A number of march leaders were briefly detained by police, while many more marchers were forced onto buses and sent back home.

Shock and anger at these events led to a wave of mourning and questioning as to how an indigenous-led government could carry out such actions against its own people.

The backdrop to this terrible event is the conflict that has been brewing over months regarding the proposed 306-kilometre highway that would link the departments of Beni and Cochabamba. Currently, the only alternative is the more than 800 kilometre trip that requires first traveling eastwards to the department of Santa Cruz.

Legitimate anger at the failure of the Bolivian government to carry out its obligation in consulting local communities within TIPNIS over the tract of the proposed highway that would cut through their territory, led locals to organise a march onto the capital, La Paz.

By August 15, the march had gained the support of the Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), which unites the 34 indigenous peoples of Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, and important sections of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu, which groups together 16 rural indigenous organisations mainly based in the highlands to the west.

That same day, these organisations presented a list including 15 further demands on the government, with issues ranging from improving indigenous health and education to calls for halting gas exploitation in the Aguaragua National Park and the right of indigenous communities to directly receive funds from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program.

REDD is a grossly anti-environmental United Nations program that aims to privatise forests by converting them into “carbon offsets” that allow rich, developed countries to continue polluting.

REDD is also a policy that has been actively pushed by non-government organisations (NGOs) within Bolivia that receive funding from governments in Europe and the United States and have been supporting the march.

The march also garnered unexpected support from a range of right-wing organisations that have campaigned for years to bring down the Morales government. This includes right-wing parties within parliament and organisations such as the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, which spearheaded the September 2008 coup attempt against Morales.

As protesters began to make their way to La Paz, at least nine attempts at dialogue were made by the government to try and resolve the demands of the marchers.

Among the demands that were agreed to by the government, and noted in a document posted on the CIDOB website on September 19, was implementing “the process of consultation with the indigenous communities of TIPNIS involved with section II of the San Ignacio de Moxos — Villa Tunari Highway, as always in compliance with the [constitution], international norms and the participation of observers.”

The government however rejected the possibility of negotiating over the issue of REDD, a policy rejected by the government and participants at the Peoples Summit on Climate Change it hosted in Cochabamba in April 2010.

It also ruled out the possibility of shutting down gas exploitation in Aguaragua National Park as it represents 90% of Bolivia’s gas exports and is fundamental to its ability to fund social programs and industrialise the country’s underdeveloped economy.

Opposition to some of the protesters’ demands also came from other indigenous and campesino groups, such as Bolivia’s largest campesino organisation, the Sole Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB).

All up, about 350 organisations have come out in support of the highway.

In Yucumo, a town near the La Paz-Beni border were the march was set to go through, the local affiliate of the “colonisers” union — a term used to refer to indigenous Aymara and Quechua campesinos who migrated to the lowlands in search of land to work — threatened to stop the march unless protesters withdrew five demands they believed would affect them directly.

These included the issue of gas exploitation, disputes over how land reform should proceed, and the protesters’ call to stop the building of two further highways, neither of which were to run through TIPNIS and which local colonisers had been demanding be built.

The tension in Yucumo was palpable, as recorded in one of the press statements issued by the protesters on September 18. In it, a journalist notes the hostile and violent reaction he received when he was surrounded by locals chanting, “the media is biased” and “your trying to make us look bad”.

They were also angered that an interviewer from the same radio as the journalist had referred to the blockaders as coca-growing supporters of Morales party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) — something they denied and demanded he rectify.

With the march advancing on Yucumo, police stopped anti-highway protesters on September 20 in San Miguel de Chaparina, some eight kilometres away, impeding their advance for days in order to avoid confrontations.

Tensions were also visible elsewhere. Reporting on a pro-TIPNIS rally in La Paz, Dario Kenner wrote a September 24 entry on his blog Bolivia Diary that while support for the marchers was clearly visible “not everyone supports the indigenous march… and tensions are running very high”.

Referring to the break out of a fight between opposing forces, Kenner added: “The hostility between groups I witnessed yesterday gives an idea of the polarisation affecting Bolivia at the moment.”

Kenner observed it was evidence of “increasing divisions in the popular movement that mobilised since the Cochabamba Water War in 2000 as the TIPNIS conflict has provoked divisions between and within groups that marched together in the past such as: indigenous social movements, campesino social movements, trade unions, urban social movements, MAS supporters, Bolivian NGOs etc”.

After several days of protesters being held up in San Miguel de Chaparina, indigenous Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca returned for the second time for dialogue with them and Yucumo locals on September 24.

A key focus of discussion was to resolving the impasse between protesters and blockaders.

A September 24 article in La Razon reported on Choquehuanca’s meeting with community leaders in Yucumo. Among them was Rene Huasco, who restated his communities opposition to a number of the marchers demands, adding “it is necessary to bring both sides together in order to explain the points in their list of demands that affect us and find solutions.”

A September 25 article in Pagina Siete on the meeting with the marchers noted that among the options presented by Choquehuanca to calm tensions were continuing dialogue in Quiquibe, on the other side of Yucumo, between committees made up of marchers and blockaders or for the marchers to send a delegation directly to La Paz to dialogue with the government.

According to the same article, “indigenous leaders rejected dialogue with the colonisers” and reiterated their intention to march on La Paz.

Shortly after, as Choquehuanca was about to leave, he was held hostage along with vice-minister Cesar Navarro and police general Edwin Foronda by a group of marchers who proceeded to used them as human shields to break through the police blockade.

With three kilometres to go until reaching Yucumo, the government representatives were released and the march was stopped once again by police barricades.

Choquehuanca told Pagina Siete: “I have been obliged to walk together with the brothers and I have said, we should have resolved this in a different, more peaceful manner based on dialogue.

“We will see if I can help in talking with the intercultural brothers [in Yucumo] and hopefully the climate will not be so tense, so hostile such as when the polices lines were broken.”

Instead tensions rose, with organisations such as the CSUTCB threatening to march on Yucumo.

This was to be expected, as the day before, state news service ABI had reported comments by CSUTCB leader Rodolfo Machaca stating that his organisation had “declares itself in a state of alert and emergency in the face of the imminent politically-motivated mobilisation and convulsion that is being generated in the country … we ask our indigenous brothers to sit down and dialogue”.

Another CSUTCB leader, Simeon Jaliri, noted its support for Choquehuana’s attempt to resolve the situation through dialogue. “Hopefully” nothing will happen to “our brother from the province of Omasuyos, of the Red Ponchos” he said, referring to the legendary militant Aymara grouping in the altiplano, one of the many that Choquehuanca continues to maintain close contact with.

Tensions however boiled over on the afternoon of September 25, when police moved in to break up the protest.

Reporting on the repression, an article published on Erbol that day said that at least 500 police officers participated in the action which left numerous protestors injured, with some reports saying that the number was as high as 40.

Reporting directly on the events, an Erbol journalist said “there is a lot of nervousness among the police and desperation within the marchers.”

Rodrigo Rodriguez from the National Service of Environmental News (SENA) was quoted in the same Erbol article as saying “all the marchers are being repressed, among them women and children who continue to cry, the police say that they are being transported to San Borja. They are also taking away cameras and are not allowing journalists to pass in order to capture images [of the events].”

There have also been reports of clashes between police and blockaders in Yucumo in both state and private media outlets, though little information has been provided. La Prensa reported on September 26 that tear gas was also used there to clear the road.

Confusion and anger seemed to reign the following day, with La Prensa reporting a government minister as stating that the Public Ministry had issued the order for police to move in. However, the prosecutor in the ministry overseeing the investigation into the repression denied the claim in a separate La Prensa article.

Another La Prensa article reported comments by Minister for Communication Ivan Canelas as saying that the government has ordered an investigation as to whether excessive force had been used.

Pagina Siete reported that the general commander of the police Jorge Santiesteban had assured any police officer found to have used excessive force would be punished.

While Erbol reported that a vice-minister for mining had come out against the violence, the Minister of Defence Cecila Chacon issued a public letter of resignation.

She stated that “the measures implemented, far from isolating the right wing, strengthens it ability to act and carry out manipulation within the [march] with the aim of attacking the process of change that has cost the Bolivian people so much.

Finally, on the night of September 26, Morales rejected claims he had ordered the repression and requested that a commission be established involving international organisations, the ombudsman and human rights groups to investigate the violent acts, reported Erbol.

“We lament, we repudiate the excesses carried out against the indigenous march,” Morales said. “I do not agree with (this police action), nor with violence, it was excessive, an abuse committed against our indigenous brothers who were marching.”

He added people to consider “what would have happened if this march passed through and encountered the blockade in Yucumo”.

Morales also announced the suspension of section II of the Villa Tunari — San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and called for a national debate on the issue.

This debate, said Morales, would have to be carried out specifically among the people of Beni and Cochabamba in order for the competing groups to be able to resolve this dispute.

Earlier that day in a visit to some of the communities within TIPNIS that support the highway, Morales also spoke of a referendum on the question involving the population of both departments, though little more detail was given.

Angered by the events of the previous day, at least 5000 people march in La Paz in what Fobomade, a NGO that has been supporting the protest, described in a September 26 article on Bolpress as the biggest mobilisation registered to date in solidarity with the march

Furthermore, on September 26 the vice-president of the mobilisation committee of the march was quoted in La Razon as saying that once they had recuperated their strength and decided their next steps, the march would restart.

Meanwhile, leaders from a group of MAS dissidents who recently left the government called for the struggle for TIPNIS to be convert into a struggle “for our democracy”, as former vice-minister Alejandro Almarez put it.

Another former vice-minister, Raul Prada, wrote that the actions had proven the Morales government to be an “anti-indigenous tyranny” that has “lost all legitimacy”.

Juan del Granado from the Movement of the Fearless, which was previously in an alliance with Morales, was quoted in La Prensa on September 26 as calling the actions “clearly dictatorial.”

At the same time, spokespeople for the Federation of Campesino Workers of La Paz, FSUTCTKLP, insisted on the need for dialogue between indigenous brothers and sisters in order to avoid violence.

Along with calling on CIDOB to once again sit down to negotiate, the government continued on Monday its dialogue with the Assembly of the Guarani People (APG).

The APG had initially participated in the march but requested on September 2 that the government hold direct dialogue talks with them after they decided to abandon the march.

It is too early to tell what will happen next.

The first test will be on Wednesday September 28, the date for which the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) has called a nation-wide general strike. While the COB’s own ability to mobilise is quite debilitated, the protest could become a convergence point for those opposed to the recent actions by the government.

First published at Green Left Weekly

Posted by Bolivia Rising on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 0 comments

Labels: TIPNIS

Bolivia: NGOs wrong on Morales and Amazon

Federico Fuentes

Statements, articles, letters and petitions have been circulating on the internet for the past month calling for an end to the "destruction of the Amazon".

The target of these initiatives has not been transnational corporations or the powerful governments that back them, but the government of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales.

At the centre of the debate is the Bolivian government’s controversial proposal to build a highway through the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).

TIPNIS, which covers more than 1 million hectares of forest, was granted indigenous territory status by the Morales government in 2009. About 12,000 people from three different indigenous groups live in 64 communities within TIPNIS.

On August 15, representatives from the TIPNIS Subcentral that unites these communities, as well as other indigenous groups, began a march to the capital city, La Paz to protest against the highway plan.

International petitions have been initiated declaring support for this march, and condemning the Morales government for undermining indigenous rights.

The people of TIPNIS have legitimate concerns about the highway’s impact. There is also no doubt the government has made errors in its handling of the issue.

Unfortunately, petitions such as the one initiated by international lobby group Avaaz and a September 21 letter to Morales signed by over 60 environmental groups mostly outside Bolivia misrepresent the facts and misdirect their fire.

They could inadvertently aid the opponents of the global struggle for climate justice.

Avaaz warns that the highway "could enable foreign companies to pillage the world’s most important forest”. But it fails to mention the destruction that is already happening in the area, in some cases with the complicity of local indigenous communities.

On the other hand, the Morales government has promised to introduce a new law, in consultation with communities within TIPNIS, to add new protections for the national park.

The proposed law would set jail terms of between 10 to 20 years for illegal settlements, growing coca or logging in the national park.

Also, Avaaz claims that "huge economic interests" are motivating Morales’ support for the highway. But Avaaz omits the benefits that such a highway (whether it ultimately goes through TIPNIS or not) will bring Bolivia and its peoples.

For example, this 306 kilometre highway linking the departments of Beni and Cochabamba (with only a part of it going through TIPNIS) would expand access to health care and other basic services to isolated local communities that now travel for days to receive medical care.

The highway would also give local agricultural producers greater access to markets to sell their goods. At the moment, these must go via Santa Cruz to the east before being able to be transported westward.

Given Beni’s status as the largest meat producing department (state), this would break the hold that Santa Cruz-based slaughterhouses have on imposing meat prices.

The highway would also allow the state to assert sovereignty over remote areas, including some where illegal logging takes place.

It is facts such as these that have convinced more than 350 Bolivian organisations, including many of the social organisations that have led the country’s inspiring struggles against neoliberalism, to support the proposed highway.

Many indigenous organisations and communities (including within TIPNIS) support the highway. It is therefore false to describe this as a dispute between the government and indigenous people.

Nor is it a simple conflict between supporters of development and defenders of the environment.

All sides in the dispute want greater development and improved access to basic services. The issue at stake is how the second poorest country in the Americas, facing intense pressure from more powerful governments and corporate forces, can meet the needs of its people while protecting the environment.

Given this, surely it makes more sense for those who wish to defend Bolivia’s process of change to support steps towards dialogue, rather that deepening the divisions.

Legitimate criticism can be made of the government’s handling of the consultation process. But the Avaaz petition and the letter from environmental groups simply ignore the government’s repeated attempts to open discussions with the protesters.

Half the members of Morales’ ministerial cabinet, along with many more vice-ministers and heads of state institutions, have traveled to the march route to talk with protesters.

The petitioners don’t mention the Morales government’s public commitment to carry out a consultation process within the framework of the Bolivian constitution, popularly approved in 2009. Neither do they mention its offer to have the consultation process overseen by international observers selected by protesters themselves.

The government has also remained open to discussing the economic and environmental feasibility of any alternative route that could bypass TIPNIS. No such alternative has been presented yet.

As a result of these initiatives, a number of the TIPNIS communities that had joined the march, as well as representatives from the Assembly of the Guarani People, have since decided to return home. They will continue discussions with the government.

Sadly, the key opponents of the proposed consultation process are among the march leaders, which includes organisations based outside TIPNIS.

These organisations were also the main proponents of a further 15 demands being placed on the government the day the march began.

Many of these demands are legitimate. But it is alarming that some of the more dangerously backwards demands have been ignored or dismissed by international environment groups.

For example, the letter to Morales raises concerns regarding the Bolivian president’s statement that "oil drilling in Aguarague National Park ‘will not be negotiated’".

Those gas fields represent 90% of Bolivia’s gas exports and are a vital source of funds that the Morales government has been using to tackle poverty and develop Bolivia’s economy.

The fact that the bulk of gas revenue is controlled by the Bolivian state rather than transnational corporation is the result of years of struggles by the Bolivian masses, who rightfully believe this resource should be used to develop their country.

The concerns of local communities should be, and have been, taken into consideration. But for Bolivia to cut off this source of revenue would have dire consequences for the people of one of the poorest nations in the Americas.

It would, without exaggeration, be economic suicide.

Initially, protesters also demanded a halt to gas extraction in Aguarague. They have retreated on this and are now focused on the question of plugging up unused oil wells due to the contamination this is could cause to local water supplies.

Similarly, neither of the Internet statements mentions the protesters’ support for the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program.

REDD is a grossly anti-environmental United Nations program that aims to privatise forests by converting them into “carbon offsets” that allow rich, developed countries to continue polluting.

Some of the biggest proponents of this measure can be found among the NGOs promoting the march. Many of these have received direct funding from the US government, whose ambassador in Bolivia was expelled in September 2008 for supporting a right-wing coup attempt against the elected Morales government.

Rather than defend Bolivia’s sovereignty against US interference, the letter denounces the Bolivian government for exposing connections between the protesters and "obscure interests".

These "obscure interests" include the League for the Defence of the Environment (LIDEMA), which was set up with US government funds. Its backers include the US government aid agency, USAID, and the German-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which frequently funds actions against governments opposed by the United States and European governments such as Cuba.

Secret US diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks and declassified US government files have conclusively shown that USAID directly targets indigenous communities in a bid to win them away from support for Morales and towards supporting US interests.

Behind these very real interests lies a campaign by rich nations and conservative environmental groups to promote policies that represent a new form of "green imperialism".

After centuries of plundering the resources of other countries, wiping out indigenous populations, and creating a dire global environmental crisis, the governments of rich nations now use environmental concerns to promote policies that deny underdeveloped nations the right to control and manage their own resources.

If they have their ways, these groups will reduce indigenous people to mere “park rangers”, paid by rich countries to protect limited areas, while multinational corporations destroy the environment elsewhere.

Bolivia’s indigenous majority has chosen a very different road. They aim to create a new state in which they are no longer marginalised or treated as minority groups that require special protection.

In alliance with other oppressed sectors, they aim to run their country for the collective benefit of the majority.

The Bolivian masses have successfully wrested government power from the traditional elites, won control over gas and other resources, and adopted a new constitution.

Mistakes have been made, and are likely in future. But they are the mistakes of a people of a small, landlocked and underdeveloped country fighting constant imperialist assaults.

Key to the Bolivian peoples’ fight is the world-wide front for climate justice, in which Bolivia is playing a vital leadership role.

One example was the 35,000-strong Peoples Summit on Climate Change organised by the Morales government in Cochabamba in April 2010.

The summit’s final declaration named developed countries as “the main cause of climate change". It insisted that those countries must "recognise and honor their climate debt", redirecting funds from war to aiding poorer nations to develop their economies "to produce goods and services necessary to satisfy the fundamental needs of their population".

To achieve this, the international climate justice movement must focus its efforts on forcing rich nations to accept their responsibilities.

The global movement must explicitly reject imperialist intervention in all its forms, including the “green imperialist” policies of US-funded NGOs.

Only through such a campaign can we support the efforts of poorer countries to chart a development path that respects the environment.

Unfortunately, Avaaz and the organisations that have signed the letter against Morales let the real culprits off the hook.

Their campaign should be rejected by all environmentalists and anti-imperialists fighting for a better a world.

[Federico Fuentes edits]

Posted by Bolivia Rising on Sunday, September 25, 2011 10 comments

Labels: Debates, NGOs, TIPNIS

Bolivian president blasts the UN and the “Insecurity Council” on Libya

Bolivian president Evo Morales blasted United Nations and the Security Council for having approved military actions against Libya, an issue which he promised to consider when he addresses the General Assembly in New York.

“What Security Council are we talking about? I’d say it’s an Insecurity Council” said Morales in Havana, Cuba, arguing that the combined NATO attack and bombings on Libya “is a shameful action for humanity”.

The Bolivian president forecasted that once Muahmar Gaddfi has been removed from office by force, Western powers will dispute the control of Libya’s vast oil and gas resources, “which they have always ambitioned”.

“There is much interest in continuing to accumulate capital in a few hands, in the hands of the world’s oligarchy, of the big trans-national corporations”, said Morales.

The Bolivian president arrived in Havana over the weekend to meet Cuban President Raul Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez who is in Cuba for his fourth chemotherapy treatment.

President Morales will be honoured at the Havana University with the title of Doctor Honoris Causa in Political Science.

Morales from Havana travels to New York for the UN General Assembly where he anticipated “some reflections about the crisis of capitalism, and inhuman interventions such as the one practiced in Libya”.

Bolivia’s first indigenous president said developing nations such as Latin America should take advantage of the current capitalism crisis and cut dependency from the US and the European markets.

Before leaving Morales is expected to meet with the ailing fragile Fidel Castro, father of the Cuban revolution, who stepped down in 2006 and he considers an inspiring “sage old man”.

Bolivia together with the ALBA members (Bolivarian Alternative Alliance of the Americas) have strongly condemned the ousting of Gaddafi’s regime by a ‘gang’ of NATO ‘bullies’ and have refused to recognize the new Libyan authorities.

US, Nato and most multilateral organizations such as the IMF have officially recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC).

ALBA is the brainchild of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and includes, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and several English speaking Caribbean islands (highly dependent on Venezuelan oil)

Posted by Bolivia Rising on Thursday, September 22, 2011 0 comments

Labels: Libya, UN

Bolivia’s Morales asks bloc to condemn US on drugs

Associated Press

Bolivian President Evo Morales said Monday that a regional South American bloc should "decertify" the U.S. in its counternarcotics efforts, hitting back at Washington’s criticism of his South American nation on drugs.

Speaking in Cuba while receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana, Morales accused the United States of being the root cause of the international drug trade as a leading consumer of cocaine.

"If the United States can certify or decertify, why can’t UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) decertify the United States if the origin of drug trafficking is U.S. consumption of cocaine?" Morales said.

Washington first put Bolivia on its blacklist of nations that "failed demonstrably" to meet counterdrug obligations in 2008, and again renewed the designation last week. Venezuela and Burma are also on the list, which allows for possible sanctions, though President Barack Obama waived any penalties for Venezuela and Bolivia so the U.S. can support programs it says aim to help those nations’ people.

Nevertheless, the designation rankles in Bolivia, which is the world’s third largest producer of coca leaf, the base ingredient for cocaine. Bolivia’s government says it is doing everything it can to fight cocaine trafficking.

Morales, who is still the titular head of his country’s coca growers’ union, objects to the leaf’s classification as a controlled substance. He frequently extols its virtues in traditional uses such as brewed into a tea or chewed as a mild stimulant to ward off altitude sickness.

In 2006, he famously brandished a coca leaf during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Two years later he expelled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents from Bolivia, accusing the DEA of inciting the autonomy-seeking opposition in eastern provinces.

"The drug trafficking (issue), just like terrorism, is fundamentally political," Morales said Monday. "Before, they accused leaders of being communists to persecute them, now its ‘drug trafficker’ or ‘terrorist.’"

Morales’ request to UNASUR is apparently symbolic in nature, as it’s not clear that any resolution issued by the bloc would have a practical impact on Washington.


Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report.

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