December 7 marked the formal conclusion of the Bolivian government’s controversial consultation process with communities in the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), to determine the fate of a proposed highway that would bisect their ancestral lands.
According to official data, of the 69 indigenous communities included in the consulta, 55, or 80%, agreed to support the road. Three were opposed, and 11 boycotted the process. All but one of the participating communities rejected the park’s current “intangible” status, which the government has interpreted as prohibiting community development activities as well as megaprojects like the highway.
For the government, the results of the 4+ month process (which began on July 29) represent a “triumph of representative democracy,” a successful outcome of Bolivia’s first experience with the “consulta previa” for indigenous communities that is mandated by the new Constitution and by international law. But for indigenous, environmental, and human rights groups concerned about the adverse effects of the road, the outcome of the consulta was a foregone conclusion that President Evo Morales was determined to achieve, through a process of deception, manipulation, and cooptation that casts doubt on the final results.
Fernando Vargas, head of the TIPNIS Subcentral (one of three indigenous governing authorities in the territory, and holder of the communal land title), insists that at least 30 communities rejected the consulta. In many cases, he argues, the official consulta included only a minority of residents and took place without the sanction of indigenous authorities. For example, in Gundonovia, a focal point of resistance to the highway, local leaders charge that a “surprise consulta” was held in a private hacienda an hour’s walk from the village, during a torrential rainstorm. According to the government, the location was chosen to avoid conflict, at the request of villagers (allegedly more than 60%) who wanted to participate.
Vargas also claims that TIPNIS residents were confused and deceived by the government’s effort to link support for the road with promises to deliver basic services and other community benefits. Community support for these projects, he argues, was taken as an endorsement of the road.
Indeed, in conjunction with the formal conclusion of the consulta, the government has promised to create an integral development plan for the TIPNIS, emphasizing sustainable development projects, the delivery of basic services such as education, health, and transportation, and protection against land encroachments and exploitation of natural resources. Financing for these initiatives will be guaranteed by the national, departmental, and municipal governments, under a mandate equivalent to the “ten commandments,” according to Vice President Alvaro García Linera. Vargas emphasizes that the provision of these benefits and services is a fundamental obligation of government, and should not be in any way contingent on the highway.
Some indigenous leaders have publicly stated that while their communities have agreed to support the road, they are opposed to its passage through the heart of the TIPNIS and uncertain about its benefits. In response, the government has promised to develop an “ecological highway” that will minimize any adverse environmental impact, with a 10-mile central stretch to be elevated at treetop level or submerged underground.
According to a group of Cochabamba engineers, the feasibility of this type of construction is questionable under the geological conditions that exist in the TIPNIS. They say it’s impossible to construct a road that will not damage the park or will protect it against land invasions. The proposed 10-mile viaduct or tunnel, they note, could cost as much as $400 million—equal to the total cost of the 180-mile highway from Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos under the original contract with Brazilian company OAS.
On International Human Rights Day, Bolivia’s human rights ombudsman Rolando Villena issued a harsh critique of the consulta, which he characterized as “authoritarian, colonialist, and unilateral.” In addition to failing to comply with international requirements for a consulta previa (before financing and construction commitments), to be carried out in good faith and in accordance with indigenous customs and governing structures, he argues, the process did not achieve the agreement of all parties, as required by the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP), as a condition of its constitutionality.
The government says it has complied with the TCP ruling by reaching out to all communities, honoring their right to refuse consultation, and achieving 80% support—though not consensus (the usual requirement for decisions in indigenous communities), or backing from the TIPNIS Subcentral, the key indigenous authority. According to Villena, the government’s actions may be legal, but do not have legitimacy.
Villena’s final report, based on a reconnaissance of the TIPNIS communities, is expected in February. Another fact-finding report, by an independent commission comprised of the Catholic Church, the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia (APDHB), and the Inter-American Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), will be issued next week. The group’s preliminary findings indicate significant irregularities in the consulta protocol, including discrepancies in the communities reported to have been consulted, as well as considerable popular discontent with the process.
Also due next week is the official report of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) charged with monitoring the consulta, which will include the official written record and audio and video documentation of the process.
Despite the conclusion of the consulta, the TIPNIS road is a long way from being built. The design process is expected to take at least a year. Currently the road lacks funding, as well as a contractor.
For their part, communities opposing the road have vowed to take their concerns to international tribunals and to physically resist construction of the highway, if and when the time comes. It may be the end of the road for the TIPNIS consulta, but not for the TIPNIS conflict.
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).