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Bolivia: Amazon Protest -- Development Before Environment?

By Federico Fuentes

09 September, 2011
Green Left

The decision by leaders of the Sub Central of the Indigenous Territory and National Isiboro Secure Park (TIPNIS), to initiate a 500-kilometre protest march on Bolivia's capital of La Paz capital has ignited much debate about the nature of Bolivia’s first indigenous led-government.

The Sub Central of TIPNIS unites the 64 indigenous communities within the park.

Much analysis has focused on the supposed hypocrisy of the government headed by Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous head of state. The Morales government has been criticised for pursuing pro-capitalist development and trampling on the rights of its own indigenous people.

Many analysts have also highlighted the contradiction between Morales’ public discourse in defence of indigenous rights and Mother Earth, and the proposal of his government’s to build a new highway that would run through this protected area of the Amazon.

According to Raul Prada, until recently a key figure in the Morales government and now ardent critic, the protests are forcing Morales to choose between “defence of life, of forests, of human beings and the vital cycles of the system of life or the path of narcotrafficking, of corrosive trade, extraction-based dependency, of the highways of dependency on emergent powers [a reference to Brazil ] and the empire”.

However, what the protests have actually revealed is the complicated reality of Bolivia’s social movements. It has shown the deep challenges they face in overcoming centuries of underdevelopment and internal fissures, which both threaten to undermine the process of change underway since Morales was first elected in 2005.


Attempts to counterpose the “developmentalist” policies of the government against the “communitarian” logic of the indigenous marchers fails to take into account the long running tensions that underpin the dispute.

For more than 500 years, Bolivia’s indigenous majority have seen their natural resources and wealth continuously pillaged by foreign powers (Spain, Britain and the United States).

The wealth ripped out from this small Andean nation helped fuel the growth of global metropolises such as London. But its local indigenous peoples were forced into a life of extreme poverty and oppression.

Despite sitting upon the second largest gas reserves in South America, and at one time supplying almost 50% of the world’s tin, Bolivia is general considered the second poorest country in the Americas.

The disaster created by imperialist domination not only impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Bolivians. Through the super-exploitation of its wealth, Bolivia’s economy was subsumed into the world market in a subordinate position.

Its economy revolved around the interests of foreign capital rather than the needs of its people.

To ensure this subordination, the Bolivian state was dominated by foreign interests. The local white oligarchy was entrusted with running it.

The state was successful in putting down numerous internal revolts. But it was ineffectual in asserting any real sovereignty over Bolivia and integrating its far flung regions into a dynamic national economy.

One consequence of this was that since independence, Bolivia has lost more than half of its national territories to neighbouring countries.

This included losing its access to the Pacific Ocean to Chile in the 1879-1883 Pacific War. This has cost Bolivia more than US$30 billion since 1970.

Rolling 'social revolution'

The onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s worsened the situation. It fuelled what one US embassy cable recently released by WikiLeaks called “the country’s rolling ‘social revolution’”.

The cable, dated May 17, 2006, noted that US-imposed neoliberalism led to increased poverty, unemployment, and rural migration towards underdeveloped cities. This left “new urban dwellers clamouring for access to basic services”.

Worsening poverty levels, the cable said, had a “clear rural-urban, a growing regional, and a distinctly racial dimension”.

The cable also noted “growing ethnic consciousness has fed ‘indigenous’ resentment of the dominant ‘white’ minority and the political system that allegedly sustained it”.

“In combination, these factors have undermined the faith of many Bolivians in the old economic and political order”. It said this led to increased support for the Morales government, whose largest support base came from those identified in the US cable as most affected by neoliberalism.

This was the basis for Morales’ election and the displacement of Bolivia’s white elites from their traditional positions of power in the state.

In particular, Morales support base is among the indigenous majority, dividing into 36 peoples that live in the highlands to the west and lowlands to the east.

The two, larger indigenous peoples are the Quechas (2.5 million people) and Aymaras (2 million people). Bolivia’s total population is close to 10 million.

These two peoples have predominately been based in the west.

But the process of internal migration by Aymaras and Quechas indigenous campesinos seeking land in the east (commonly referred to as “colonisers”), has steady increased their numbers in the lowland.

It has also contributed to nearly doubling the size of the city of Santa Cruz in the east over the past 20 years. It is now home to 1.2 million, making it the largest city in Bolivia.

At the same time, rural-urban migration has fuelled the growth of the mostly indigenous city of El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz.

Its population skyrocketed from around 400,000 in 1992 to current estimates of more than a million.

This overwhelming indigenous city, key to the successive overthrow of two neoliberal presidents, is another heartland of Morales support.

Morales, himself an Aymara, grew up in the altiplano (highlands)> He later moved to the largely Quechua coca-growing region of the Chapare, nestled in the centre of the country.

In the mid-'90s, the Chapare became a battleground of the US “war on drugs”. The cocalero (coca-growers) movement, head by Morales, was the backbone of a rising anti-imperialist movement.

Together with predominately Aymara and Quecha campesinos who made up the country’s largest rural-based organisations -- the Sole Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), the Union Confederation of Bolivian Colonisers (CSCB), and the National Federation of Bolivian Campesino Women “Bartolina Sisa (FNMCB-BS) -- the cocaleros formed what today is commonly known as the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) in the mid-'90s.

It is important to note that as a result of the land reform carried out by Bolivia's 1952 National Revolution, most of the indigenous peoples in the west were granted access to small land plots (via private deeds).

The traditional union model of organising was imposed upon their traditional communitarian organisation.

This further fractured the communitarian bonds that had already begun to be undermined by centuries of colonialisation.

The result, however, was a certain fusion of elements of both within these organisations.

In the east, where the indigenous population was smaller, land reform was never implemented.

Instead, the east, centred around Santa Cruz, gradually became the new economic motor of Bolivia. This was due to its huge gas deposits and the rise of powerful latifundistas<.em> (large landowners).

This part of Bolivia is home to the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the East (CIDOB), which unites organisations from 34 of the 36 groups of indigenous peoples. It represents about 500,000 people.

CIDOB and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), which unites some indigenous communities in the altiplano, took part in the founding meetings of the MAS.

But the two groups never became organic components of this “political instrument”.

Instead, relationships were maintained between these organisations in two ways. First, the different campesino and indigenous groups came together to form the Unity Pact. And second, various CONAMAQ and CIDOB leaders, such as its current president Adolfo Chavez, were elected as MAS parliamentarians.


At the same time, conflicts between these groups have emerged at different times.

At the root of some of these divergences have been the differing visions between the lowland indigenous movements, with their strong ties to NGOs and the church and their focus on the environment and indigenous control over territory and natural resources, and those of the highland campesino movements.

The highland groups political and anti-imperialist outlook was heavily influenced by the 1952 National Revolution and the 1980s mass emmigration of mine workers into the countryside in search of work.

These differences have played out in TIPNIS over the past decades, especially since “colonisers” from the west began settling in the area as of the '70s and '80s.

After a historic march by the indigenous peoples of the east in 1990, then president Jamie Paz Zamora declared the 1.2 million hectares that comprise TIPNIS an ancestral territory of the Mojeno, Yuracare and Chiman peoples.

However, this move was unable to put an end to the constant disputes between local indigenous communities and indigenous “colonisers” who have moved in to occupy land for agriculture.

This led to a state of semi-permanent confrontations.

The conflict only subsided after a demarcation agreement was signed in 1992 between Marcial Fabricano, then head of the Sub Central of TIPNIS, and Morales, as head of the cocalero federation that includes the “colonisers” in the southern part of TIPNIS.

The agreement gave existing colonisers the right to land currently occupied while halting further invasions.

These differences were also reflected in the roles played by the various organisations during the period of social rebellion that began in 2000.

US interference

As the uprising against neoliberalism grew in strength, overthrowing a neoliberal president in 2003, US imperialism sought to use money to increase divisions within the indigenous movements.

In late 2005, investigative journalist Reed Lindsay published an article in NACLA that used declassified US documents to expose how US government-funded agency USAID was used to this effect.

USAID was already planning by 2002 to “help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors”.

The downfall in 2003 of president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada triggered a step-up in this subversive activity.

A particular target was CIDOB.

The group was in a crisis after Fabricano was accused of profiting from illegal logging and he accepted the post of vice-minister of Indigenous Affairs under Sanchez de Lozada.

Through USAID funding to the Brecha Foundation, an NGO established by CIDOB leaders, the US hoped to further mould the organisation to its own ends.

Referring to comments made by Brecha director Victor Hugo Vela, Lindsay notes that during this time, “CIDOB leaders allied with Fabricano have condemned the cultivation of coca, helped the business elite in the department of Santa Cruz to push for region autonomy and opposed a proposal to require petroleum companies to consult with indigenous communities before drilling on their lands”.

The CSUTCB (divided between followers of Morales and radical Aymara leader Felipe Quispe), CSCB, FNMCB-BS and organisations such as the neighbourhood councils of El Alto (Fejuve), and to a less extent worker and miner organisations, were at the forefront of constant street battles and insurrections.

CIDOB, however, took an approach marked by negotiation and moderation.

It was not until July 2005 that CIDOB renewed its leadership, in turn breaking relations with Brecha.

CIDOB was not the only target for infiltration.

With close to $200,000 in US government funds, the Land and Liberty Movement (MTL) was set up in 2004 by Walter Reynaga.

As well as splitting the Movement of Landless Peasant’s (MST), one wing of which operated out of his La Paz office, Lindsay said Reynaga, like Vega, tried to win control of the “MAS-aligned” CONAMAQ.

All these groups came behind the campaign to elect Morales in 2005.


Since then, the Morales government has taken important steps towards breaking Bolivia’s dependency on foreign capital. His government has nationalised Bolivia's gas reserves and refused to follow International Monetary Fund-diktats.

The government has also moved quickly to tackle the urgent and deeply felt needs of its base.

Data collated by the Unit of Analysis of Social and Economic Policies (UDAPE), a government think tank from the National Institute of Statistics (INE), show just how much progress has been made.

Poverty levels have fallen from 60.6% in 2005 to 49.6% in 2010.

The biggest drop came in rural areas (77.6% to 65.1%). Extreme poverty also fell from 38.2% in 2005 to 25.4% in 2010.

In 2005, the wealthiest 10% received 128 times the amount of income than the poorest 10%. By 2009, this had been reduced to 60 times.

Recent figures from the IMF back these findings and indicate that 1.1 million Bolivians were lifted out of extreme poverty between 2007 and 2009.

Along with tackling poverty, another priority of the first Morales administration (2006-2009) was focusing on the needs of indigenous communities in the lowlands.

This was seen as essential in nurturing social movements that could help counteract the attempts by the right-wing opposition, centred in the east, to overthrow his government.

In regards to TIPNIS, Morales directly intervened in 2006 to expel colonisers who had occupied further lands in the TIPNIS. Many of them were associated with the cocalero federation he still headed despite becoming head of state.

In 2009, the 64 indigenous communities of the TIPNIS, about 12,000 people all up, were finally handed over the title to over 1 million hectares of land. The remaining 200,000 hectares went predominately to the roughly 100,000 colonisers present in the south of the park.

Former vice-minister of land Alejandro Almaraz, who together with Prada is a key spokesperson of a group of former government members turned dissidents, explained in a July 29 interview posted by Rebelion that of the 25 million hectares of land redistributed under Morales until the end of 2010, 16 million was handed over as communitarian lands belonging to original indigenous owners.

In comparison, the campesino sector received less than 3 million hectares in the form of individual or family titles.

Crucially, the unity forged between indigenous peoples of the east and west, and urban and rural areas, was critical to defeating the September 2008 coup attempt by the right-wing opposition sectors in the east.

It was also vital to Morales record re-election vote of 64% in the December 2009 elections.

'Industrial leap forward'

A big part of Morales’ election campaign was his promised “industrial leap forward”.

Speaking to supporters in El Alto at his campaign closing rally, Morales emphasised industrialisation, the physical integration of the country and social inclusion as key goals of his second government.

The MAS’s election program included a section entitled “roadway revolution for an integrated country”.

This focused on the need to expand and build key highways that could integrate isolated regions, and help promote economic development at the local and national.

Among the proposed roadways was one that would link the northern department of Beni with Cochabamba.

Some have criticised this highway. They point to the fact it is part of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America, a Brazilian-led project to economically integrate the continent, as proof of Bolivia’s subordination of Brazilian “sub-imperialism”.

Brazil is footing 80% of the bill for the disputed highway.

Others have noted that the highway is critical to breaking the department of Beni’s dependency on Santa Cruz.

At the moment, all agricultural products must go via Santa Cruz to the east before being able to be transported westward.

The proposed highway would directly connect Beni to Cochabamba. This would reduce costs for agricultural producers (and consumers) and travel distance from 848 kilometres to 306 kilometres.

Given Beni’s status as the largest meat producing department, this would break the hold that Santa Cruz-based slaughterhouses have on imposing meat prices.

This is one of the reasons why important sections of the Santa Cruz elite are opposing the highway.

Also, criticisms of subordination to Brazilian interests have not been made in regards to the many other roadways being funded by Brazil as part of IIRSA. These are strongly supported by the communities that will benefit from greater access to transportation and basic services.

In fact, on August 15, the same day marchers from TIPNIS headed off to La Paz, two other protests were held in the important MAS strongholds of El Alto and Potosi.

These protests included in their demands access to basic services, and the building of more factories and highways. Neither protest raised opposition to the proposed highway through TIPNIS.

In many ways, these protests reflect the increased tensions the MAS government has faced since defeating the right-wing coup attempt and winning re-election.

Various sections of its base, feeling their time has come, are now protesting to demand the government turn its attention towards them.

In all these cases, the demands have been for more, not less development.

In some cases, this has led to increased conflicts within the different social movements. This is reflected by the divisions within the Unity Pact over the push by campesino organisations to redirect government attention towards this sector in its land reform program.

Highway dispute

This is also true in regards to TIPNIS. The various indigenous and campesino movements that are part of it are far from united in their opposition to the roadway.

The main campesino groups (comprised overwhelmingly of indigenous peoples), and leaders from the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), have declared their support for an eventual highway, while maintaining that any final plan take into consideration the needs of local indigenous communities.

Important indigenous organisations have also stated similar positions.

Despite the presence of CONAMAQ leaders such as Rafael Quispe in the march against the roadway, its affiliate organisations from La Paz and Potosi have rejected opposition to it.

The Indigenous Council of Communities of the South (CONISUR), which groups indigenous communities in the south of TIPNIS as well as colonisers that inhabit those areas have come out in support of an eventual roadway.

The Yuracare Indigenous Council, that unites the Yucare, Mojeno and Trinitario peoples, has as well.

All these groups have highlighted the benefits the highway will bring in regards to access to basic services, ability to sell products and travel.

Attempts have been made to equate these organisation’s positions with their vested interests in accumulating land.

This is in line with recent moves by the CSUTCB to shift the government’s land reform policy away from prioritising collective indigenous titles towards providing individual or family titles to its traditional base.

There are elements of truth (and much exaggeration) to this claim, but this should come as no surprise.

The same CSUTCB, and other campesino organisations which led the protests between 2000 and 2005, have always defended this position. This is shown by the history of conflict in TIPNIS.


And it is also true that the demands of the Sub Central of TIPNIS, and in particular CIDOB, are far removed from any notion of communitarianism.

Although initially focused on opposition to the highway, protesters presented the government with an original list of 13 demands, then extended to 16, on the day the march began.

Among those were calls for indigenous peoples to be able to directly receive compensation payment for offsetting carbon emissions.

This policy, know as REDD+, has been denounced as the privatisation of the forests by many environmental activists and the Peoples' Summit of Climate Change organised in Bolivia in 2010.

It has also been promoted as a mechanism to allow developed countries to continue to pollute while undermining the right underdeveloped to develop their economies.

Another demand calls for the replacement of functionaries within the Authority for Control and Monitoring of Forests and Lands (ABT).

This demand dovetails with the allegations made by Morales against CIDOB leaders, and never refuted, that they want to control this state institution.

Much focus has been made of the potential environmental destruction caused by a highway that would open the path to future “coloniser” settlements.

But these arguments have only focused on one side of the equation.

Much has been made of a study by Bolivian Strategic Research Program that concluded that 64.5% of TIPNIS would be lost to deforestation by 2030 as a result of the highway.

Few, though, have noted that the same study found that even without the highway 43% of TIPNIS would be lost if the current rate of deforestation continues.

The biggest cause of this is the illegal logging that continues to occur, in some cases with the complicity of some local indigenous leaders and communities.

An environmental impact studies by the Bolivian Highway Authority have found the direct impact of the highway on TIPNIS to be 0.03%.

But this has to weighed up with the fact that the highway would provide the state with access to areas currently out of its reach.

This would enable not only access to services, but a greater ability to tackle illegal logging and potential narcotrafficking in the area.

At the same time, the government has asked the indigenous communities of TIPNIS to help in drafting legislation that would impose jail terms of 10 to 20 years on those found to be illegally settling, growing coca or logging in TIPNIS.

Meeting the needs of the majority

What becomes clear is that far from some polarised debate between "indigenous communitarianism" and the government’s savage “developmentalism”, there is more in common than there is differences between both sides of the debate.

One the one hand, there is the progressive sentiment of wanting to defend cultures and access basic services. On the other, a scramble for control over resources (land, forests, gas).

In this context of competing interests, the Morales government has made clear its intention to construct a highway in the region.

This has included the option of having the highway go around TIPNIS if this is economically and environmentally feasible -- although no such alternative has yet been proposed by the protesters.

In doing so, its decision (right or wrong) has been based on prioritising what it sees as the basic needs of the majority, which if not met risks losing support for the government.

At the same time, it has predicating any final route (of which at the moment there are eight options) on a process of consultation with all communities affected.

This stress on dialogue and willingness to consult all those involved has being a running theme in the government’s approach.

In the place of repression (as would have occurred under pre-Morales governments) police have provide protection.

Also, 20 high-level government ministers, vice-ministers and presidents of state institutions have travelled to the remote areas to listen to community leaders in meetings open to all march participants.

One complication that has come relates to the issue of who gets to be consulted. The marchers have ruled out the right of the colonisers, and even some indigenous organisations, to take part.

March leaders also subsequently rejected outright the government's proposal to carry out a consultation of the 64 indigenous communities within TIPNIS.

A further complication has been the increasingly hostile nature of the debate.

From the government’s side, it has strongly denounced the role of NGOs, USAID and opposition forces from Santa Cruz in fomenting the protests, as evidenced by their offers to provide financial support to the marchers.

Some have noted that opposition forces would like to see sections of the indigenous movement come out opposing the elections of judiciary authorities scheduled for October.

This is a far-reaching measure, which would transform a traditional corrupt judiciary dominated by the old right-wing parties into a popularly elected institution.

It would no doubt lead to indigenous people occupying posts they were previously barred from.

This makes it obvious why such forces are seeking to undermine the vote.

Some CIDOB and CONAMAQ leaders, and the group led by Prada and Almaraz, have come out against the election of the judicial power.

Dangerous positions

It is dangerous to deny, or downplay, the presence of forces such as USAID, NGOs and anti-Morales parties in this dispute -- fishing around to win support among disgruntled sectors of Morales bases.

Only the most naive could imagine this was not the case, particularly as there is ample evidence to back up such claims.

However, just as dangerous is the actions of the government that have created an atmosphere were mutual denunciations and accusations take precedence over the much more necessary debate regarding Bolivia’s future.

This has been made worse by the sexist remarks of Morales himself, who called on the “colonisers” to “seduce the Yuracare and Trinitaria women, so that they don't oppose the road”.

The same is also true of attempts by critics to portray support for the highway as somehow equivalent with support for “narcotrafficking”.

This is a common attack made by the US against the Morales government, and before that the cocalero movement.

On the surface, the issue of TIPNIS revolves around whether the economic interests of uniting Beni and Cochabamba, and the benefits it will bring regarding access to services and ability to sell agricultural products, override those of the local indigenous communities and their ancestral lands, or whether a comprise can be found that takes both factors into account.

But behind this specific issue lies a deeper debate of how Bolivia can promote an economic system that can navigate through the difficulties of overcoming centuries of underdevelopment while respecting Mother Earth.

Such a debate is essential. The current situation provides an opportunity for all involved to open a path in that direction.

This debate can, and should, entail protests such as those occurring now. These could aid in tackling some of the tradition developmentalist mentality prevalent within sections of the government.

But to be successful, this will require going beyond fragmented organisations mobilised behind individual or sectional interests. It will require a movement united behind a radical program for change.

Otherwise the risk is that such fissures within the movement for change become openings for a return to the right.

[Federico Fuentes edits www.boliviarising.blogspot.com .]




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