Bolivian Indigenous leaders are condemning violent state repression and accusations against indigenous marchers of “attempted homicide.” Between August and October of 2011, hundreds of indigenous men, women and children from the high and lowlands of Bolivia, marched for 65 days as a way of protesting against a proposed highway which, at a length of 300 kilometers (186.4 miles), planned to cross the center of the Isiboro Ségure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), to unite the provinces of Cochabamba and Beni. While the government is promoting the highway, indigenous communities say that their rights to approve or deny the mega-project on their lands are being ignored and violently denied.
Six indigenous women leaders and the founder of the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights in Bolivia (APDHB), in addition to 17 other main leaders, representatives and defenders of indigenous rights are forming part of the judicial investigation of the crime of “attempted homicide and serious and minor injuries” of Secretary of State David Choquehuanca, in a report presented to the ministers of Justice and Government of Bolivia.
Between August and October of 2011, hundreds of indigenous men, women and children from the high and lowlands of Bolivia, marched for 65 days as a way of protesting against the proposed highway which, at a length of 300 kilometers (186.4 miles), planned to cross the center of the Isiboro Ségure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), to unite the provinces of Cochabamba and Beni. The project is being promoted by the Bolivian Government, financed by the Brazilian Government and constructed by the Brazilian contractors OAS, with a cost of 415 million dollars. The Yuracaré, Moxeño and Chimán indigenous communities, who own the tropical territory, fought the project, arguing that the double designation of the land as both a park and a Community Land of Origen (TCO) protects the area from megaprojects. They also appealed for the recognition of their constitutional and international rights to a preliminary consultation and the right to approve or reject the proposed highway.
Threats to the Indigenous Movement
“We have received that news as a threat to the indigenous communities,” said Fernando Vargas, the president of the TIPNIS Union, referring to the subpoenas served to 26 people for giving their reports on crimes against humanity committed by the Secretary of State.
In the same way, various organizations like the Beni Union of Moxeño Ethnic Communities (CPEM – B) reported the control, influence and biasing of the judicial process toward the executive branch in order to intimidate and politically persecute indigenous men and women leaders and people supporting the indigenous march and defense of the TIPNIS. The Union has also maintained that the accusations and reports in the subpoenas are false and forced and that the Secretary of State should have publically clarified the actual events.
The indigenous organizations maintain that it is in this way that the Government seeks to paralyze the new actions that could occur to protest against the Previous Consultation Law 222 that the Government proposed in February in order to invalidate the Protection of the TIPNIS Law 180, achieved by the Eighth March. With this law of exclusive consultation for the TIPNIS, the indigenous communities have reported that the Government is seeking to reopen the possibility of imposing the highway project though a malintentioned process.
The Supposed Attempted Homicide
In September of 2011, in an attempt to prevent the march from continuing to the government palace, colonizing farmers and a strong contingent of police stopped the marchers in the Beni, in San Miguel de Chaparina, for approximately a week, surrounding them and depriving them of humanitarian aid, water, medicine and foods, as reported by the marchers themselves, human rights groups and NGOs.
In these circumstances, on September 24, the Secretary of State arrived in the area without a positive response to the marchers’ demands, but rather to affirm the presidential position of carrying out the project. Faced with this, the approximately 400 women marchers reacted to this uncertain situation, which even compromised the health of the 250 boys and girls accompanying their families in the march, and surrounded the Secretary of State, urging him to join the march and cross the political siege. The leader of the National Union of Andean Indigenous Councils (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu, CONAMAQ), Rafael Quispe, recounted that in the process of dialogue, “the Secretary of State said that the colonizers [farmers] should be there, and we said ‘no,’ because the State needs to attend to the demands of the marchers; then he said that he was going to tell them to unblock the San Lorenzo Bridge. We said that it’s been more than 40 days of marching and that we were going to continue, at that time he very clearly indicated ‘then I will accompany the march,” he said.
Exministers Sacha Llorenti and Nilda Copa presented a case to the Public Ministry denouncing the supposed “kidnapping” of the Secretary of State, while the Secretary reported to the national and international media: “the women had surrounded me and there had already been problems. There had been some threats and they had forced me, they made me walk.” These reports had not mentioned at any time that there was a “kidnapping,” nor “hostages,” as other government sources claimed.
Violent Repression of Indigenous Men and Women
Without warning and while the marchers were resting, a day later, the afternoon of September 25, the operation to repress and disperse the march started. A contingent of approximately 600 police surrounded the indigenous marchers, gassed the field that the occupied and violently subdued them and forced them to board a caravan of busses and trucks. The rest fled deep into the forest. In the chaos of suffocation and blows against men and women, many were handcuffed and gagged with adhesive tape, above all the powerless movement leaders who couldn’t fight back.
Yolanda Herrera, president of the APDHB, reported that on the day of the state repression at least 54 people with serious injuries were reported, of those, three men had “feet destroyed by beating, in addition to wounds on their ribs and heads.” Nazareth Flores, vice president of the Beni Union of Indigenous Communities (CPIB), testified: “At the end they tied my hands and threw me in a truck. Later they took me out and they put me in a bus. In the busses I saw various gagged friends. But all this action of the police didn’t stop us.”
In response to this, Yoriko Yasukawa, resident coordination of the United Nations in Bolivia declared “I remind the authorities, at all levels, that their first responsibility is to stop this violence and to respect the rights of the people, the dignity of the indigenous marchers.” Even though there were charges brought and legal investigations made to clarify this violation of human rights and these acts of kidnapping, torture, physical and verbal aggression against the marchers, the investigations haven’t gone well and the Government has persisted in exonerating the authorities from guilt for this event, alluding that the order to attack didn’t come from the presidential palace.