In the wake of Sunday’s brutal repression of indigenous marchers against the TIPNIS highway, the past few days have brought renewed popular mobilizations, a few revelations, and more mixed messages from the Bolivian government.
Following Wednesday’s national civic strike led by the COB (Bolivia Workers Central) that paralyzed activities in Bolivia’s 9 departmental capitals, President Evo Morales held his third press conference in as many days. He apologized to the victims of the police crackdown and asked for their forgiveness. He called the protests a “wake-up call” from the Bolivian people, and emphasized again that he did not authorize the police intervention.
Despite this new conciliatory tone, it’s unclear whether the government’s single-minded determination to build the TIPNIS highway has changed. Earlier in the day, Morales criticized the protests for being unnecessary and politically motivated, as evidenced by the fact that they did not cease after he announced a “suspension” of the road.
This announcement continues to cause confusion. Brazilian construction company OAS has confirmed that it never had authorization in the first place to proceed with the controversial road segment running through the TIPNIS park, which lacks (among other things) an environmental permit. OAS has received no orders to halt work on the two adjoining sections, where construction has been underway since June and is continuing. All three sections are under a single contract.
It’s also clear now that the referendum Morales pledged to hold in the departments of Beni and Cochabamba will be an “up or down” vote on the road, without considering possible alternative routes. And in a press conference Thursday, Vice President Alvaro García Linera suggested that the right to prior consultation by indigenous groups is not triggered when a highway project is proposed to run through their territories, but only for projects involving natural resource exploitation. This is clearly contrary to the Bolivian constitution and international norms to which Bolivia subscribes.
In other news, the federal drug police forcibly evicted 30 illegal colonist settlers from the TIPNIS park, burning their houses and eradicating their coca crops. The families said they had been living in the park for 10 years. In conjunction with the highway proposal, Morales has promised a new law increasing penalties against illegal settlers and stepping up federal enforcement activities.
Unconvinced, the TIPNIS subcentral and CIDOB are regrouping and have announced plans to resume their march to La Paz sometime in the next few days. There are still a handful of marchers missing and unaccounted for. According to Alejandro Almaraz, ex-vice minister of lands for the MAS government who is allied with the protesters, now the march will be “not only against the TIPNIS road, but for democracy in Bolivia.”
Here are some interesting recent commentaries and reflections:
Dario Kenner in La Paz is providing daily updates on the TIPNIS controversy.
Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the UN, has sent a strong open letter to Evo Morales urging him to reconcile his international leadership on environmental justice with his domestic agenda by permanently abandoning the TIPNIS road.
Pagina Siete recounts how the government tried four different strategies to break up the TIPNIS protest--discrediting, dividing, blockading, and finally repressing the marchers--and failed in every case. The La Paz daily also provides a chronology of the MAS government’s 8 most critical conflicts to date, of which it calls the TIPNIS controversy the most serious because of its intractability.
On an optimistic note, Jim Shultz at the Democracy Center hails the new popular mobilization sparked in Bolivia by the TIPNIS conflict. “The people—who listened to many Morales speeches about protecting the Earth and guaranteeing indigenous people control over their lands,” he writes, “have risen to defend those principles, even if their President has seemingly abandoned them.”
Similarly, Uruguayan political analyst Raúl Zibechi sees hope in a president who is willing to apologize and a population that will not tolerate repression. What’s needed, he says, is a real popular debate about alternative models to the kind of development represented by the TIPNIS road, among those who have the most to lose if Bolivia’s “process of change” is undermined.
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.