Shifting Alliances in Bolivia’s TIPNIS Conflict

Source: NACLA

In the run-up to the May-June consulta that will decide the fate of the proposed highway through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), the Bolivian government is signing agreements with lowland indigenous groups and seeking to cancel its contract with Brazilian company OAS to build the TIPNIS road, causing a shift in political alliances around the TIPNIS conflict.

By way of explanation, the government says it’s trying to promote productive projects, resolve past differences with disaffected constituencies, and address serious problems with the construction contractor. But leaders of the TIPNIS Subcentral and the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), the lowland indigenous federation representing 34 ethnic groups in seven of Bolivia’s nine departments, see a deliberate strategy to divide the indigenous movement. Specifically, they accuse the government of attempting to undermine the national march scheduled to begin on April 25, in opposition to the road that would bisect the ancestral territory of the Yuracaré, Moxeño, and Chimán people.

In the past six weeks, President Evo Morales has signed pacts with leaders of up to 11 (out of 13) CIDOB regionals, promising health and education benefits as well as infrastructure and development projects. All of these groups were involved in the first anti-highway march (that was brutally repressed by police last September), but their participation in the upcoming mobilization is now in doubt.

Some, like the Chiquitanos, have announced that they will not be marching. Others have not formally decided. Still others, like the Guaraní, have said they will join the march if the government does not fulfill its promises—a position denounced by the national CIDOB leadership as opportunistic. Having subordinated their demands for two straight years to CIDOB-led mobilizations, with few tangible results in return, it seems that the Guaraní are now betting on a more pragmatic sectoral approach, rather than solidarity, to advance their agenda.

Still, internal splits are evident, with Guaraní from several Tarija communities deciding to march and Guaraní from Santa Cruz agreeing to take supportive actions within their community on behalf of the marchers. TIPNIS and CIDOB leaders, while acknowledging the risks involved, are hopeful that the bases in many regions will override directors whom they regard as unaccountable, and opt to join the march.

As far as the government’s motives, Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network says, “It’s hard to know. On the one hand, the government is obviously campaigning for the road; at the same time, it’s their job to sign agreements to provide services. Signing agreements to swing support is a time-honored tradition in Bolivia, and the Morales government has been no different.”

Other political analysts interviewed by the daily Página Siete conclude that the government is simply shifting from a failed strategy of attacking, stigmatizing, and criminalizing the anti-highway movement to a “divide and conquer” policy, seeking consensus with some in order to isolate the “hard core” protesters. While plenty of “sticks” are still in evidence (such as the criminal charges being pursued against 26 protest leaders), “carrots” are the preferred method of undermining indigenous unity ahead of the march, at least for now.

The architect of the new strategy is the hard-line but pragmatic Chief of Staff Juan Ramón Quintana, a brilliant tactician (and former SOA-trained military operative). Interior Minister Carlos Romero, the former director of CEJIS—an NGO that strongly supports the TIPNIS march—is also well acquainted with the strategy of “sectorializing” social movement demands. Both strongly deny any intent to debilitate the march.

As for the OAS contract, the Minister of Public Works announced this week that the portion of the contract pertaining to the section of the road within the TIPNIS was effectively invalidated by the law declaring the park “untouchable.” In any case, the government says it will cancel this portion of the contract, along with its funding provided by a loan from the Brazilian government, due to dissatisfaction with the slow pace of construction on the two other road segments leading to and from the park, and other irregularities. Once the consulta endorses the road, as the government anticipates, the contract would then be rebid.

Critics accuse the government of dissembling in order to create the appearance that the upcoming “consulta previa” is indeed prior to any definitive action taken towards construction of the road, as required by international law and the Bolivian constitution. They note that while the loan agreement with Brazil to fund the road does consist of three “subcredits,” which may be separable, there is a single construction contract covering all three segments of the road, which cannot be unilaterally modified. The government says it’s prepared to pay any indemnity. Still, it’s unclear how or when (before or after the consulta) the construction contract and loan agreement will be modified.

Ironically, the United Nations Human Rights Commission stated this week that cancellation of the OAS contract is not required for a legitimate consulta. But the consulta also cannot be imposed unilaterally on sectors that are unwilling to be consulted (or, as in the case of the TIPNIS communities, who have pledged to resist its implementation). Under current polarized conditions, says the Commission, a legitimate consulta cannot take place.

While their own ranks are divided, lowland indigenous groups have formed a broad coalition with the highland indigenous federation CONAMAQ (National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu), urban social movements, international networks (including the Guaraní of Brazil, Argentina, and potentially Paraguay), and unions represented by the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) to participate in the April 25 march. Government leaders charge that the inclusion of outside sectors “distorts” the purpose of the mobilization, but the march’s agenda is not only to protect the TIPNIS but to defend indigenous, environmental, and human rights in Bolivia and elsewhere.

A key force in this emerging alliance is the COB, which has threatened a general strike next week to pressure the government over its annual wage demands. The COB membership has been at odds with its new (more pro-government) leadership over the TIPNIS issue. Some wonder if the COB’s position on the TIPNIS might ultimately be swayed by a promise of substantial government concessions. Whether the COB will use the TIPNIS conflict, like the Guaraní , to leverage its own sectoral interests, or will see those interests as better served by reinforcing its alliance with lowland indigenous protesters, could be critical to the outcome of the TIPNIS controversy.