Amazon Indigenous Communities Plan 1,000-km March in Bolivia

(IPS)The indigenous peoples of the Amazon region of Bolivia have declared themselves in a “state of emergency” and announced that on May 20 they will begin a 1,000-kilometre march to La Paz to demand that the government defend their territory from being plundered by oil, logging and mining companies.

“The country’s constitution is being violated, as is the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, which recognises the territories and rights of indigenous peoples,” said María Saravia, the communications secretary of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), which represents one million members.

“We cannot continue turning a blind eye to the situation. If we don’t reach an agreement with the government, the march will begin on May 20,” Saravia told IPS.

This will be the seventh march undertaken by indigenous communities in the Bolivian Amazon to defend their rights.

The announcement of another march highlights the balancing act faced by the left-wing government of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, who has internationally championed the rights of native peoples and the environment, at the same time that the state is heavily dependent on natural gas exports, the country’s main source of foreign exchange, and on exports of minerals like tin, zinc, gold and silver.

In a statement released on May 14 announcing the upcoming march, the Central Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (CPILAP) addressed Morales, saying, “We hope you will understand that this is not a personal attack,” but adding that action must be taken in the face of “major socio- environmental impacts that directly affect us.”

“Mr. President, the rights of indigenous people are being violated here. Mr. President, the rights of we, the people, are being violated here, and we hope that you can put yourself in our place and defend us from these abuses,” the statement adds.

José Ortiz, the president of CPILAP, told IPS that the plan is for roughly 800 people to begin the 1,105-kilometre march in Riberalta, in the northeastern province of Beni. Along the way, they will be joined by indigenous people from CIDOB’s 11 member organisations throughout the Amazon basin.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon region make up 10 percent of the 10 million inhabitants of Bolivia, where over 60 percent of the population are native people, mainly belonging to the Quechua and Aymara ethnic groups concentrated in the western highlands.

In 1990, a delegation of indigenous people trekked from Trinidad, the capital of Beni, to the seat of government in La Paz, where they succeeded in getting their demands for land rights and the convening of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution on the political agenda.

That first march is now considered a landmark event in Bolivian history and sparked a process of political and social changes that culminated in the new constitution adopted in February 2009 after a nationwide referendum.

But the new constitution has not served as a shield against the companies and individuals who are plundering the natural wealth of the country’s northeast Amazon region and destroying the way of life of its indigenous communities, according to activists.

“President Morales should listen and be sensitive to what is happening and rethink the course of change together with social movements,” Amazon indigenous leader Cristian Domínguez told IPS.

Domínguez is the secretary of defence of natural resources and the environment at the Bolivian Confederation of Campesino Workers, the country’s largest organisation of peasant farmers.

He is also one of the guiding forces behind defence of the environment within the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party, and shares with Morales the belief that the capitalist economic model is to blame for the planet’s destruction.

But Domínguez disagrees with some of the new advisors working with Morales, who came to power in January 2006 and began a second presidential term in January after his landslide re-election in December.

Domínguez accuses these unnamed individuals of “becoming drunk with power and following the footsteps of the right,” while ignoring the needs and demands of indigenous peoples.

For her part, Saravia maintained that the rights of indigenous peoples are held up like a banner on the international stage, but their demands are ignored within the country itself.

That is why the upcoming march will specifically highlight the demand for three rights: “territory, dignity and autonomy,” she said.

Among the reasons behind the protest, CIDOB complained about the government’s slow progress in providing title deeds for their ancestral lands to indigenous communities, plans to establish settlements in forest reserves, and attempts by new settlers to undermine the land rights of the Tacana people, who live on the banks of the Beni River along the border between the province of the same name and La Paz.

CIDOB also accuses the government of using “dishonest and corrupt consultation methods” to obtain approval from indigenous communities for the construction of a stretch of the Trans-Oceanic Highway — an infrastructure megaproject jointly undertaken by Bolivia, Brazil and Peru — between the towns of Villa Tunari, in the central province of Cochabamba, and San Ignacio de Moxos, in Beni.

Other major threats to the environment highlighted by the organisation are the plans for the Cachuela Esperanza hydroelectric dam on the Beni River, which will involve a two billion dollar investment and generate 1,000 megawatts of power; and the construction of another dam in El Bala, which is located within the borders of Madidi National Park, a protected area in the province of La Paz.

On top of these megaprojects, CIDOB also denounced the dangers posed by the ongoing seismic testing, drilling and mining operations that stretch throughout the Amazon basin to the semi-arid Chaco region of southeastern Bolivia.