Bolivia: Indigenous Communities Battle for Territory

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Plans for a road linking the Cochabamba and Beni regions of Bolivia continues to provoke debate and cause conflict in the country.

Although most agree on the need to link the two regions in to the centre and northeast of the country, the fact that plans state the road would cut through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory [Parque Nacional y Territorio Indígena Isiboro-Secure or Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure, TIPNIS] has been the cause of much conflict. The project, moreover, has been devised and is being pushed by Evo Morales’ government.

In 2011 and 2012, several indigenous organisations openly opposed the idea that the road project should cross through the TIPNIS. The eighth and ninth Indigenous Marches for Dignity and Territory were the most visible demonstrations of indigenous protest against the road, which would put one of the Amazon's most biodiverse and highly protected areas at risk.

Tensions worsened when on 25th September 2011 police used violence to intervene with the eighth Indigenous March [en].

For their part, organisations connected both to the government and to the rural parts of Chapare in Cochabamba, an alternative coca production zone, marched in favour of the road and a “prior consultation” with the communities which inhabit the TIPNIS.

The consultation carried out by the government, which ended in October 2012, focused on the “intangibility” of the National Park. According to the final report, more than 80% of the TIPNIS communities do not agree that the park is “intangible”, which the government has interpreted as authorisation to build the road through the park. Meanwhile, the Confederation of Indigenous Communities of Eastern Bolivia [Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente de Bolivia, CIDOB] asserts that 30 of the 36 TIPNIS communities are opposed to plans for the road to pass through their territory.

The conflict continues in two respects. On the one hand, the violent action taken by the police in the indigenous march has yet to be elucidated. President Morales and his then collaborative directors have refuted claims of their involvement in the police's actions, whilst the inquiry has still yielded no results regarding the matter.

On the other hand, the indigenous organisations opposed to the road passing through the park have gathered in the interior of the TIPNIS and raised a permanent blockade to any attempt to open the way through the wood. Their position has been reenforced politically by the recent election of a candidate opposed to the party in power, Movement for Socialism [en] [Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS], in the municipal government of Beni, one of the regions directly involved in the road project.

It is obvious that opinion is divided on the matter, and both parties continue to fight their corner with much aplomb. It is hard to deny, however, that the voices of the opposition seem to be louder, as demonstrated on Defendamos el TIPNIS [Let's defend the TIPNIS], a blog which cites the findings of a study related to the TIPNIS, and warns of the environmental impact the road would have:

“Concluimos que la carretera que pasa por el centro del TIPNIS NO ES ECOLÓGICA NI MEDIO AMBIENTALMENTE VIABLE, presentándose efectos de la carretera con potencialidad para alterar el clima y la provisión de agua de al menos dos departamentos de Bolivia y de los bosques de tierras bajas. Creemos en la interconexión del país y por tanto estamos de acuerdo con desarrollar vías camineras que unifique Oeste-Este del país, pero NO por el centro del TIPNIS”.

“We conclude that the road passing through the centre of the TIPNIS IS NEITHER ENVIRONMENTALLY-FRIENDLY NOR -VIABLE; the road itself could alter the climate and water provisions to at least two Bolivian regions and to the forests in the lowlands. We believe that our country should be linked, and therefore agree with the development of roads that would connect the West and the East, but NOT through the centre of the TIPNIS”.

Similarly, Tipnis en resistencia [TIPNIS in resistance] published a plethora of demands and petitions made to President Evo Morales. It would seem difficult to come to any sort of agreement given that on the one hand the government has announced that the communities have already accepted the road's construction and on the other activists have proposed public action to prevent it. In this panorama rife with conflict there are those who have heralded a third battle for the TIPNIS on the horizon.

The video which accompanies this article was directed by Víctor Rivera as part of VideoActivo, the video project of Global Voices in Spanish.

The video in this post was subtitled by Catalina Restrepo.

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