In a stunning political reversal, President Evo Morales signed a new law this week prohibiting construction of the highway previously championed by his government through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory. The event marked a historic victory for lowland indigenous groups who marched 360 miles from Beni to La Paz to protest the road, and brought the highway dispute to an official conclusion. But the fractures in Morales’ political base and divisions among Bolivia’s social movements triggered (or exacerbated) by the TIPNIS conflict will be more difficult to resolve.
In addition to permanently cancelling the TIPNIS highway, the law prohibits illegal settlements inside the park by non-resident "colonist" groups (small agricultural producers and coca growers who have migrated from the highlands) and protects the indigenous territory as an “untouchable” zone. Only two months ago, Morales insisted that the highway was essential for regional integration and would be built “like it or not.”
In just 48 hours, Morales also directly resolved 16 other demands raised by the marchers, including a pledge to compensate and remediate environmental damage caused by extractive activities in Tarija's Aguaragüe National Park. During the march, the protesters were perceived as demanding a halt to all hydrocarbons extraction in Aguaragüe, which generates most of Bolivia’s gas exports—a stance that infuriated Morales, and provided a major impetus for the Yucumo blockade against the marchers by pro-government colonists and campesinos.
Morales’ surprise announcement cancelling the road came just two days after the indigenous march arrived in La Paz to a tumultuous public reception, and less than a week after 43% of Bolivian voters invalidated their ballots in a popular judicial election widely viewed as a referendum on the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government. With indigenous protesters camped out in front of the heavily guarded presidential palace, the potential for violent confrontation loomed large, evoking memories of the widely repudiated police repression against the marchers in September.
Morales characterized his reversal as an act of enlightened “gobernar obedeciendo”—governing by obeying the people—similar to his retraction of last winter’s unpopular gasoline price hike (Gasolinazo) after a massive popular revolt. But critics saw the President as being forced by political pressure to promulgate a law he did not genuinely support. Indeed, Morales used the occasion of the signing ceremony to remind indigenous marchers that 200 campesino, civic, business, and indigenous organizations in Beni and Cochabamba are in favor of the TIPNIS road. He urged the marchers to assume responsibility for explaining the new law to these sectors, and to shield him from blame for changing his mind.
The TIPNIS conflict has taken a high political toll on the MAS government leadership. In addition to the disappointing judicial election results, the government has lost 2 important cabinet ministers and at least 3 vice-ministers or high-level directors who either resigned under protest or were fired. The cabinet’s credibility has been effectively undermined: by its own count, the government sent a total of 11 ministers and 17 high-level commissions to negotiate with the protesters during the march, who were unable to deliver results. Both the marchers and social sectors supporting the TIPNIS road accuse the ministers of obstructing a resolution to the conflict.
Morales himself suffered a major decline in approval ratings to 37%, following the police intervention in September (although the largely urban poll understates his traditional rural support). The political impact of his reversal on the TIPNIS road remains to be seen, but there are many factors to consider.
On the one hand, the road cancellation represents an acknowledgement by Morales that the lowlands indigenous groups, despite constituting less than 10% of Bolivia’s total population, have disproportionate moral and political force through their effective ability to mobilize and cannot be readily dismissed. As Chief of Staff Carlos Romero recently put it, “We can’t conceive of the Plurinational State we are building without the lowlands indigenous people. The people who marched are the expression of our cultural diversity.”
But lowlands indigenous leaders who were repeatedly attacked by Morales during the march (and beaten by police) remain wary of the government's intentions, and are keeping their critical distance. “We’ll continue giving them headaches until 2015 if they don’t recognize our rights,” says Adolfo Chávez of CIDOB, the lowlands indigenous federation that co-sponsored the march.
On the other hand, Morales’ reversal on the TIPNIS road has provoked outrage among campesino, cocalero, and colonist groups that have been the traditional bastions of MAS support. These sectors, who view the road as critical for transportation of their products and expansion of regional development opportunities, now feel betrayed by Morales—even though the government has promised to evaluate alternative routes to connect the road segments leading to and from the TIPNIS park that are already under construction. The groups have conducted vigils and are mobilizing to plan next steps.
The TIPNIS conflict has effectively ruptured the “Unity Pact,” an alliance of Bolivia’s five major social movements (campesinos, colonists, peasant women, and highland and lowland indigenous federations) that historically has been the main force behind the Morales government and Bolivia’s “process of change.” In addition to CIDOB, the highland indigenous organization CONAMAQ supported the TIPNIS marchers in the road dispute, while the other groups allied with the government.
Underlying this conflict is a deeper dispute about the direction of development in Bolivia. Should it continue to prioritize extractive activity and related infrastructure expansion, to maximize revenues for desperately needed social programs and industrialization, or promote slower growth alternatives more compatible with environmental protection, indigenous rights, and "living well" (vivir bien)? How much land should be redistributed to indigenous communities as territorial holdings, vs. allocated to small agricultural producers and colonists seeking new frontiers for more viable cultivation?
The Unity Pact’s campesino and indigenous members have long held contrasting views on these issues, along with different cosmovisions, lifestyles, and forms of social and political organization. For a time, these differences were submerged through a common identification of all sectors (more or less) with the MAS government and Evo Morales. The TIPNIS conflict, pitting highland campesinos and colonists against lowland indigenous sectors (symbolized most graphically by the Yucumo blockade), brought these divisions to the fore and exacerbated them dramatically.
How these social forces will reconfigure in the coming months and years, and what their relationship will be to Morales and the MAS government, depends a great deal on the government’s ability to articulate a new development agenda for Bolivia that addresses these conflicting concerns. In his October 12 speech to MAS loyalists mobilized for the judicial elections, Morales called for a social movement summit in December to begin this task. Judging from the current volatile state of political affairs, it can’t happen a moment too soon.
Read more on the TIPNIS conflict on Emily Achtenberg's blog, Rebel Currents. See also, the January/February 2011 NACLA Report, "Golpistas! Coups and Democracy in the 21st Century;" the September/October 2010 NACLA Report, "After Recognition: Indigenous Peoples Confront Capitalism;" or the September/October 2009 NACLA Report, "Political Environments: Development, Dissent, and the New Extraction." Or subscribe to NACLA.