Five days past its official deadline and with less than half the communities polled, the consultation process on the Bolivian government’s proposed highway through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) has ground to a halt, amidst continuing controversy and local resistance. Meanwhile, tensions are mounting over the perceived militarization of the TIPNIS, alleged political interference in TIPNIS judicial decisions, and the diplomatic appointment of an ex-government official whom many hold responsible for the September 2011 police repression of the TIPNIS marchers.
According to the government, the consulta has been completed in 32 of the 69 TIPNIS communities. Only one community (San Miguelito) has rejected the road. All have opposed continuation of the reserve’s “untouchable” status--which, due to the framing of the consulta, would prohibit local development initiatives as well as construction of the highway.
In this official narrative, the advance of the 15 consulta brigades is now impeded by the challenge of navigating the TIPNIS’ three principal rivers during the dry season. President Evo Morales has requested a two-month extension of the consulta timetable (to November 7), while some MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) legislators are demanding an open-ended process with no fixed termination date. The government insists that the consulta is not paralyzed, but merely delayed.
In contrast, for indigenous groups battling the highway, these developments demonstrate that the consulta process has failed due to community opposition. At least 20 communities, mostly in the northeastern section of the park, have officially declared themselves in “peaceful resistance” to the consulta, and are maintaining barbed wire blockades at critical entry points along the three rivers.
The official results of the process to date are also somewhat in dispute. According to newspaper accounts, in at least four communities counted by the government as "consulted," the consulta could not be realized, for a variety of reasons.
In one community (San Pablo), the consulta was reportedly initiated by a local authority in his home, without prior community notification. The community later intervened and refused to allow the process to proceed. Both results were officially recorded, but apparently not counted as a rejection. The tribunal charged with overseeing the consulta (TSE) has acknowledged that in this and other cases, communities have not been adequately informed.
The results to date are also heavily skewed toward the park’s southern zone, where 20 of the 32 communities are located. These communities, which have been increasingly drawn (or forced) into the regional market economy dominated by the cultivation of coca, are attracted by the road’s proximity and potential commercial benefits. According to Fundación Tierra, at least 8 of the consulted communities have been absorbed by sindicatos (coca growers unions), converted to individual land titles, and are no longer part of the collectively held indigenous territory. Arguably, these communities should not even be participating in the consulta.
According to Gumercindo Pradel of CONISUR, the indigenous governing authority in the southern zone that supports construction of the highway, four communities located on the fringes of the zone near San Miguelito have decided to reject the road. Many of these community processes have not yet been formalized through the official consulta (see Fundación Tierra’s interactive map for updates on the official and community processes).
Meanwhile, TIPNIS protesters have criticized Morales’s creation of a “green brigade,” under the auspices of the Bolivian Army, to defend the reserve (as well as other national parks) against illegal land invasions, narcotrafficking, and deforestation. The eco-battalion, to be headquartered in a new facility now under construction in the TIPNIS, is proposed to be launched with 81 soldiers who will recruit and train several hundred indigenous TIPNIS youth.
For Fernando Vargas, president of the TIPNIS Subcentral, this scheme is only a pretext to “militarize” the TIPNIS and persecute the resistance leaders. Vargas’s fears have been reinforced by the appearance of armed Navy personnel at the reserve's river gateway at Gundonovia, where three Venezuelan tourists recently had their passports confiscated and were denied entry to the park.
In another recent controversy, Gualberto Cusi, an indigenous magistrate on Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal—who was elected last year in the nation’s first-ever popular judicial vote—accused the Morales government of interfering in a critical case challenging the constitutionality of the consulta law. In a mixed verdict, the court upheld the law last July, conditional upon the government’s ability to carry out the process in good faith with the consensus of affected parties. (While the ruling was not totally favorable to the government, many observers had expected the flawed law to be overturned.) After the Tribunal called for his resignation, Cusi surprised many by retracting his charges.
Finally, indigenous TIPNIS leaders and human rights organizations have protested Morales’s controversial appointment of Sacha Llorenti as Bolivia’s new ambassador to the UN. Llorenti, past president of Bolivia’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, was Minister of Government (responsible for overseeing the federal police) last September when the police brutally repressed the TIPNIS march at Chaparina. He subsequently resigned, but denied any responsibility for the events.
Federal prosecutors recently excluded Llorenti from the government’s ongoing investigation of the repression, in a decision strongly criticized by Rolando Villena, Bolivia’s human rights ombudsman, for contributing to a “climate of impunity.” Villena’s earlier report had concluded that Llorenti bore responsibility. As the daily Página Siete laments, Llorenti’s appointment, combined with this decision, ensures that the events at Chaparina will never come to closure.
With a possible indefinite extension, the consulta could be headed for the same fate.
See Noah Friedman-Rudovsky’s new video, “Bolivia’s Battle Over a Road and a Way of Life.” 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).