While President Evo Morales decrees that Bolivia’s TIPNIS conflict is resolved, conflicting reports issued by the government and religious and human rights groups over the past few weeks have served to extend the controversy over the proposed highway that would bisect this indigenous territory and national park in the Amazon lowlands.
On December 17, a 15-member commission representing the Catholic Church and the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia (APDHB), in association with the Inter-American Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), released the results of their recent survey in the TIPNIS. Of the 36 communities visited, they reported, 30 reject the proposed road, three accept it, and three have conditioned their acceptance on further study and/or changes in the route. These conclusions directly contradict the government’s findings, which affirm that 80% of the 69 communities included in the official consultation process support the road.
The commission also concluded that the consultation process did not conform to standards for the “consulta previa” established by national and international law. It failed to respect collective indigenous decision-making norms, with some meetings held in the absence of traditional authorities or even outside the community. It did not provide information on the road’s potential environmental, social, economic, and cultural impacts, necessary to achieve informed consent.
According to the commission, the government’s delivery of community benefits and promises of development and services in conjunction with the consulta severely compromised the integrity of the process, dividing communities and families, and creating pressures which, in some cases, amounted to intimidation. The Morales government has dismissed the report as a “provocation” by interested parties.
The commission’s report follows on the heels of a preliminary report issued by Bolivia’s human rights ombudsman Rolando Villena on December 10, which characterized the consulta as “authoritarian, colonialist, and unilateral.” The full report will be issued in February.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) charged with accompanying and monitoring the consultation process issued its own report on January 7, reaffirming the official government conclusions. Still, the TSE’s community-by-community findings reveal that many conditioned their acceptance of the road on other requirements, such as an environmental impact study, a determination by indigenous authorities as to the final route, and a prohibition against exploitation of hydrocarbons and minerals in the TIPNIS.
At least four communities demanded a relocation of the route to the border of the park. Most also demanded other government concessions, including schools, water and sanitation infrastructure, electricity, and telecommunications. One community insisted that Morales meet with indigenous leaders to ask their forgiveness. According to TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas, these inconsistencies demonstrate a lack of consensus or agreement even among the road’s alleged supporters.
According to TSE officials, the specific design or route of the highway was not a subject of the consultation, and did not even appear on the agenda. Says Vargas: “The fundamental theme [in the communities] never was the road; the priorities were health, education, infrastructure, and productive development. Under this pretext, the government consolidated support for the road.”
Vargas also questions the extent of participation in the consulta, reported by the government at 2007 individuals and 32 families (different brigades used different counting measures). According to a report issued by Fundación Tierra in 2010, the TIPNIS includes some 12,500 inhabitants who are Chimánes, Yuracarés, or Mojeño-Trinitario (the legitimate subjects of the consulta). The government says there are now only 6,000 inhabitants, of whom 30% are minors. Vargas insists there are at least 8,000. A further complication is that the consulta also included residents of Polygon 7, a relatively populous area dominated by coca-growers that is inside the park but outside the indigenous territory.
Still to come, in addition to the ombudsman’s report, is the official report of the Executive branch, due later this month, which will include video, audio, and photographic documentation of the consulta process. The OAS, which observed the early stages of the process, is also expected to issue its findings.
It’s unlikely that future reports will help to resolve the conflict. As the daily Página Siete notes, the contradictory reports have only served to reinforce the entrenched positions of a divided public on the TIPNIS issue, bringing the nation almost back to the “square one” of June 2011, when Morales decreed that the road would be built “like it or not.”
One outstanding question is whether the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) will rule on whether the consulta process conformed to the standards established by the court for its constitutionality, including the achievement of prior agreement among the parties. Adolfo Chávez, a leader of the lowlands indigenous groups opposed to the road, plans to petition the court for such a ruling.
A related event to watch is the upcoming gubernatorial election this Sunday in the Beni department, where indigenous TIPNIS leader and ex-legislator Pedro Nuni is opposing the government-backed MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) candidate—and ex-beauty queen—Jessica Jordan. This could be an important test of the strength of the lowlands indigenous movement, as well as an indication of the extent to which the TIPNIS conflict has eroded support for the MAS—built largely through the strength of the lowlands indigenous groups—in this conflicted region, and perhaps elsewhere.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s weekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents).