The ‘grin nervously’ school of large-scale land dispute management

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC is doing a nice job following two unrelated land disputes on opposite sides of the Pacific that are raising related discomforts for the governments that wish fervently they would go away.

In the eastern hemisphere we have China, where the government has now promised to investigate the sale of farmland to factory owners in Lufeng City (Guangdong Province), which sparked several days of ‘sometimes violent’ protests. It is not a big secret that one of the biggest current sources of political grievance in China is the ability of local authorities to capture nearly the entire value ‘created’ by turning peri-urban farmland to industrial or residential use. However, the resulting protests usually tend to take the form of something short of what could be termed ‘riots‘. In this case anger over the loss of ‘ancestral farmland’ appears to have boiled over into something more ominous:

Several hundred people were reported to have attacked a police station and government buildings, and to have used earth-movers to smash down a wall around the seized land.

Although the situation was reported as calm over the weekend, locals interviewed expressed continued anger.

Meanwhile, in the western hemisphere, Evo Morales’ pro-indigenous government in Bolivia is being rocked by indigenous protesters. Just over a month ago, protests began in the capital, La Paz, over an announcement that a road was about to be built directly through the  Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park. Despite government protestations that the road (which is heavily backed by Brazil and would connect its territory with Pacific ports) would promote regional development, local Amazonian Indians began a one month protest march to La Paz. Locals not only expressed anger that they had not been consulted over the road, but also concerns that it would destroy both the human and natural ecology of the area:

Environmental groups and indigenous activists say the road will open the region up to illegal logging, as well as settlement by farmers from the highlands who grow coca leaf – the raw material for illegal cocaine.

With the deployment of police at Yucumo, halfway along the route to La Paz, the march turned to a confrontation earlier this month. Events have moved rapidly since, with the protesters initially breaking the blockade by using the Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca (who had come to negotiate with them) as  sort of perambulatory ‘human shield’. As of yesterday, the police had been ordered to disperse the protesters and force them onto buses home, sparking the resignation of Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon.

Where the Chinese government bought time by promising an investigation, Mr. Morales “offered to put the issue to a regional referendum” on Sunday. In both cases, and in different ways, the role of democracy is of some interest. In China, where democracy is absent, an investigation remains the only credible means of delivering some meaningful form of accountability (other than further mob self-help). However, in Bolivia, the situation is the opposite.

The rationale for recognizing the territories of indigenous peoples is typically the need to protect them – as minorities – from the effects of democratic decision-making processes they can never win. This is what makes both the failure to consult with the affected communities in advance and the proposal for a referendum now more than dubious. Even at the regional level, a majority can surely be found that would prefer commerce with Brazil to the less tangible benefits of living next to some of the world’s last functioning indigenous societies. At the national level, support for the road may be even stronger. Mr. Morales may be indigenous, but he is also an elected politician.

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6 responses to “The ‘grin nervously’ school of large-scale land dispute management

  1. UPDATE – President Morales has now suspended construction of the road and announced that the affected regions must decide how to proceed. Given that a referendum would take at least six months to prepare, the question of whether significant efforts are made to put the issue to a vote may itself be a test of how much backing the road project actually has in Bolivia. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-15072166

  2. Pingback: Bolivia road protests continue | TerraNullius

  3. Pingback: Week in links – week 42/2011: land disputes in Bolivia, India, Kyrgyzstan and the UK | TerraNullius

  4. Pingback: Week in links – Week 50/2011 – Durban, Wukan, Tawergha, Hoima | TerraNullius

  5. Pingback: Nicholas Fromherz to guest post on the Bolivia TIPNIS debate | TerraNullius

  6. Pingback: Back to the tyranny of the majority in Bolivia’s TIPNIS dispute | TerraNullius

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