Kirsten Francescone*

August 15 2011 marked yet another historic event in Bolivia’s long and rich history of struggle. At nine in the morning, after a support rally from their allies, the Confederacion de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB- national indigenous organization) along with their bases, the people of the Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS as they are referred to in Bolivia) opted to re-take up the historic march for Tierra y Dignidad (Land and Dignity). The march in the 1990s strongly influenced production of the new constituent assembly and propelled the institutionalization of the Pacto de Unidad, marking the historic participation of indigenous and campesino organizations. The Pacto de Unidad was created in order to propel popular participation upwards for the majority of those excluded from politics. Presently it has a membership of five indigenous-campesino organizations which serve to represent the majority of Bolivians institutionally. It is worth noting that presently the legitimacy of the Pacto de Unidad is also under scrutiny for supporting the government on policies and actions which have negatively affected their bases. The Gazolinazo incident in 2010, and the most recent approvals of the Ley de la Revolucion Productiva and Ley de la Madre Tierra provide us with examples of a demobilization of social movement politics.

The TIPNIS, from the department of Beni, are seriously discussing the concept of the consulta previa (pre-consultation) regarding the construction of the “Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos” highway. This highway will be largely financed by the National Bank of Brazil and IIRSA — the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America – an international institution which is funding infrastructural projects all across Latin America, the majority of which are highways.

The government says that the highway is necessary for the economic development of the indigenous peoples living in the territory, arguing they will have the opportunity to bring their products to market. Coca is always being discussed in terms of facilitating and expanding coca production. But the highway would also provide access to the Cruceña region facilitating gas exports as well as seaway export access to China, which is of interest to Brazil. Civil society organisations claim, however, that there have been explorations that reveal prospects of oil in within the territory,

This highway, according to civil society organisations supporting the TIPNIS, and the authorities of this community, was introduced without honouring the rights that indigenous Bolivians have to a free and informed process of consultation and consent. The right to the consulta previa is guaranteed by the New Constituent Assembly of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Article 30, paragraph 2, subsection 15. The TIPNIS argue that as the original indigenous people of the land, they have the right to participate in a real consultative process to define what happens in their territories. They argue that the government should be concerned about the well-being of its own people, and not cater to the interests of transnational corporations.

Consulta previa
The concept of the consulta previa is one that is presently gaining attention from indigenous and campesino organizations in Bolivia. For example, in reaction to the recent approval of the Ley de la Revolution Productiva Communitaria Agropecuaria (LRPCA), the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu ((CONAMAQ) highland-origin indigenous people) spent two days in the end of July producing a new law that would re-iterate their rights as indigenous people to free and informed consultation process.

As a background to this, between 2009 and 2011,CONAMAQ and the other four organizations that compose the Pacto de Unidad worked with their bases to elaborate their own agricultural production law the Ley de la Decada Productiva. This law outlined the importance of addressing the national food crisis, defined a specific role for the state in directly transferring funds to the communities to encourage small-scale production, and emphasized the importance of ecological production. Upon presenting the law to the government, the law went into a tri-council revision where the ministries of Autonomy, Productive Development and Plural Economy, and Rural Development (without the minister of the environment) together with interests of the capitalist agricultural sector, representatives from ANAPO and CAINCO (1) of the oriental lowlands re-worked the law. This tri-council not only altered the name of the law, but the overall vision that the Pacto de Unidad had projected for the future of agriculture in Bolivia.

What emerged after this revision in June of 2011 was a law which permits the use of transgenically modified seeds, is oriented towards credit systems that would encourage production for market, and benefits large-scale industrial production, particularly in the department of Santa Cruz. CONAMAQ opposed this law, refused to sign its approval, but the LRPCA was approved by the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) government, without modification. It is from this context that CONAMAQ then elaborated the law of the consulta previa, and opted to put aside historical differences between highland and lowland indigenous peoples to support the march. The CIDOB, along with their highland Andean sisters and brothers from CONAMAQ, embarked on this march after signing a solidarity pact which outlined two themes; the construction of the highway and the allowance of transgenically modified organisms. These themes, according to the leadership of both organizations, require the consulta previa within their communities, which they are being denied at the behest of transnational capitalist interests.

The March to La Paz
The march left from Trinidad, Beni, on 15 August and is set to arrive in La Paz approximately 33 days later, marking nearly 1200km of travel through hot jungles of Beni, into the colder, drier highland regions of La Paz. Approximately 3500 people commenced the march in Trinidad, and the numbers have been fluctuating as the march enters and leaves communities, with an average of around 1500 marchers marching at all times.

The march hasn’t been easy, and if you know how difficult the terrain can be in rural areas, this is no exception. The extreme heat and humidity that the marchers are facing during the day (30-35 degrees) and the distance, which averages about 30kms a day, is debilitating at times, forcing the marchers to march at night.

There are approx 80 children marching between the ages of 0-4, pregnant women, and older people making this march anything but romantic, but a powerful message of what people are willing to risk in their fight against transnational capital. This past weekend a 12-year-old child lost his life while returning back to the march when the truck in which he was travelling hit a rut in the road. He was ejected from the truck, hitting his head. People are forced to leave the march daily with infections and illnesses, and there is an extreme shortage of water. The 33 plus days of marching is an incredible sacrifice. Yet, the marchers argue that it is 33 days of suffering in an attempt to prevent the entrance of capitalist interests and the destruction of their communities.

At day ten of the march, some very interesting movements, both in terms of emerging alliances and growing support from the Bolivian people, can be seen. Beyond the historic participation of CONAMAQ, every day the marchers are receiving support proclamations from communities across the country. Beyond the increasing participation from other sectors of the popular classes, it is clear that this movement is not being driven by the leadership of these particular organizations, but rather that it is being propelled by their bases.

This march has served as a catalyzing point for a lot of Bolivians and the movement supporting the TIPNIS is gaining support. For example, I attended a protest in Cochabamba aligned with the launching of the march in Beni. At this protest/march we were about 40-50 people. Yesterday, 10 days later, there was another protest and march in Cochabamba to support the TIPNIS. We were nearly 500. We are also seeing a lot of movement from the urban middle classes against the development of the park and supporting the protection of the flora and fauna of the region and the indigenous peoples’ rights as guardians of that territory. But beyond simply bodies, it is clear that this issue is drawing in divergent groups from humanists to Trotskyists, from indigenous rights activists and campesinos to high school students.

From the variety of posters that were painted on the morning of the latest march in Cochabamba we saw messages like “We are defending ourselves from destructor capitalism, long live the march!”, “Voice of the people, not of the imperial” and “What is the value of life? Life doesn’t have a price” which echoed in the air in various chants, denouncing the transnational capitalist interests behind the highway and supporting the indigenous community’s right to consultation and their right to define what happens in their territories. Last weekend, communities from Potosi and El Alto – two other areas in the country that are presently claiming the right to consultation on their own issues — left their homes to march in support with the TIPNIS. These mobilizations are revealing not only a support of the cultural-identity demands of these communities but also a return to the older anti-capitalist politics that we saw (but not exclusively) with the water and gas wars and with the gazolinazo in 2010 where after only a few days of mobilisations the MAS partially revoked their decision to increase gas prices. The gazolinazo revealed a clear attempt at implementing a neoliberal policy that resulted in a weakening of the MAS’ support base, with even some of their most avid supporters denouncing the action. These mobilisations represent a demand from the masses upwards, an explicit rejection of capitalist and transnational capitalist interests, and a movement to produce an alternative way of living for the people and by the people. 

MAS confusion
In contrast, we have also seen increasing attempts on the part of the government to destabilise and delegitimise the actions of the marchers and the march in general. In the days leading up to the march, Minister of the Presidency Romero and Vice-President Alvaro García Linera appeared in the press presenting two opposing claims regarding the march. Linera claimed that the highway was guaranteed and that it would enter construction with or without the consultation of the TIPNIS, and Romero appeared arguing that the TIPNIS would get their consultation. There were attempts made to meet prior to the march, with the TIPNIS under the direction of CIDOB claiming that they would be willing to meet upon their arrival in La Paz, which was followed by President Evo Morales making a statement that if the march commenced the TIPNIS would not get their consulta. After a day of marching, Morales sent three ministers to Beni to consult with the marchers in response to the demand by CIDOB that all meetings must take place in the march. The Morales government has also received some international pressure, with the Brazilian ambassador, prior to the commencement of the march, announcing that funding for the project would be suspended until an agreement is reached with the communities.

So far, no agreements have been made between the CIDOB-TIPNIS and the government. The government’s public position is that the TIPNIS are being motivated by foreign NGOs in the country, and that they are unaware that this project is what Bolivia needs to develop. And so, because they are being bought and manipulated by foreign NGOs, the government has taken the position to make the informed decision for them, and implement the highway in their best interest: a position that speaks to a long history of colonial and neo-colonial projects in indigenous territories. This is not to say that this decision is one that is easy. There are often conflicts that are marked between the “needs of people” and the “needs of the environment”. That being said, for more than two years, civil society organizations like FOCOMADE and Fundación Tierra have been working with the TIPNIS and developing alternatives routes that will be less destructive, and will not cut through the TIPNIS territory. However, until now all the alternative routes – which are longer — have been rejected by the government, with some arguing that the money that will be lost ultimately in transportation costs by extending the highway is heavily influencing this decision.

What is perhaps more disturbing is that this project, one that has its origins in the previous Gonzales de Sanchez government, is going to be implemented by the MAS government, the very leadership that fought with the masses to have him thrown out of government. This fact is a painful one for Bolivians who fought and died in the streets of La Paz and El Alto in 2003, a battle and collective history of struggle that is not easily forgotten. The financial and geopolitical motivations for this project are clear, with the power dynamics in the South increasingly shifting towards Brazil. And, with other recent national policy changes to agricultural, forestry, and transport laws, political foundations are being laid that may well end up serving to welcome transnational interests into the country.

What is important to remember is the position that the MAS government — the champions of “la madre tierra” — has held internationally as a vanguard for the protection of the environment. It was not long ago that Bolivia hosted the First People’s Climate Change Conference to be followed by Morales presenting the only oppositional voice at the 2010 UN climate conference in Cancun. Nationally there is also a lot of energy and effort put into discursively propelling the protection of mother earth. That being said, Bolivia is still primary resource-extraction oriented and has left a lot to be desired in terms of nationalising the hydrocarbon and mining industries. It appears as though the MAS government is proceeding with a model of resource extraction that is reminiscent of previous governments. However, with the large (and national) upcoming Lithium mining project, they have an opportunity to extract in a way that considers the environmental and social impacts of this project and emerge as a vanguard for environmental politics. They have the opportunity, but only if they opt to explore and develop environment-centric extraction, and not the green-washing capitalist alternatives being pursued globally. And it is in this direction that the TIPNIS have based their argument in that they are not against development per se, rather this old form of development that privileges the expansion of capital at all costs. 

What is still unclear is whether or not this march will mark the beginning or the end of a new wave of protest politics in Bolivia: whether this march is a catalysing point for something broader, like the October 2003 movement against the proposal to export gas through a Chilean port, or if the movement will lose momentum upon arrival in La Paz. With the government announcing on September 8th that they would be sending 450 police offers to Yukuma, a community where a counter-blockade has emerged by campesinos, we are facing what could potentially be a violent eruption of violence with brothers fighting brothers.

What is clear is that people are reacting now and young people in particular are taking an active role not only in the mobilizations, but also informing and campaigning in their schools and neighbourhoods about the dangers of this precedent for their future. The powerful images in the Plaza Murillo in La Paz in October 2003, where high school students from all across the city presented themselves in front of the government and the military to reject the neoliberal capitalist policies and politics of the Gonzales de Sanchez government are being recalled. Some were wounded and others lost their lives defending the vision that they had for their future, a vision that did not and will not permit the management of their country at the behest of transnational capitalist interests.  These are images that Morales and the MAS government know well.

* Kirsten Francescone is a graduate student at Carleton University, Ottawa, in the department of Political Economy. She is in critical solidarity with the Bolivian proceso de cambio and has been following the development of these popular reactions to recent government policies for the past six months.

1.  ANAPO: The Association of Oil Seed and Wheat Producers and CAINCO: Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Both are agri-business friendly.