Waking from a dream in Bolivia: The TIPNIS victory that never was

by Nicholas A. Fromherz

Caption: Highlands indigenous leaders prepare for a hunger strike in Cochabamba, showing their support for the lowland tribes fighting against the road through TIPNIS. Photo credit: Nicholas A. Fromherz

On October 24, 2011, Bolivians breathed a collective sigh of relief.  After a two-month struggle, culminating in massive protests in front of the Presidential Palace in La Paz, Evo Morales signed a bill declaring the Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS) “untouchable.”

The controversial road connecting Villa Tunari with San Ignacio de Moxos would not pass through the national park and protected indigenous territory.  The peoples’ cry to defend TIPNIS had been heard; “Evo Pueblo” had lived up to his moniker, even if only under extreme pressure, and had listened to his constituents.  He even said so himself:  “The TIPNIS issue is resolved,” he declared. “This is governing by obeying the people.”

Or so we thought.  Though many were probably skeptical from the start, many others—myself included—thought the case was closed.  The government would still likely construct a road between Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos, but the new law dictated that it would skirt the park.  That, not prohibition of a road altogether, had always been the goal.

As the last few weeks have shown, however, the victory dance was premature.  On February 10, 2012, President Morales signed a new law bringing back from the dead the possibility a road through TIPNIS.  Three-and-a-half months after declaring the park “untouchable,” Morales signed a law calling for a “prior consultation” to determine whether the road should go forward as originally planned. How did this happen, and how can we make sense of it?

Conflict Timeline

Rather than drafting a long narrative, I decided it would be more helpful to set forth a basic timeline of the TIPNIS conflict.  In constructing this timeline—which I should note is incredibly simplified—I’ve relied on a variety of sources, both Spanish and English.

  • 2008:  Bolivian government signs contract with Brazilian firm OAS Constructora to build the road.  The total cost is expected to be $415 million with Brazil funding 80 percent of the tab. The contract was awarded without a public bidding process.
  • June 29, 2011:  Evo states, “Whether they [TIPNIS residents] like it or not, we’re going to build this road.”
  • August 15, 2011:  The march from TIPNIS to La Paz begins.
  • August 21, 2011:  Morales accuses march leaders of having contacts with the U.S. Embassy.
  • September 9, 2011:  Cocaleros in Yucumo, Beni, begin organizing to block the marchers’ advance to La Paz, threating to do so by any means necessary.
  • September 15-24, 2011:  March comes to a stand-still as police block marchers’ advance, supposedly for their own protection in light of cocaleros’ threats.
  • September 24, 2011: Marchers sequester government official sent in to negotiate, using him as a sort of “human shield” to break the blockade and ensure safe passage through Yucumo.  He is released shortly thereafter.
  • September 25, 2011:  Government sends in approximately 450 troops.  They descend on the marchers’ campsites, firing tear gas among women and children and detaining some 200 individuals.  Video footage reveals an excess of force, yet, in the police’s defense, also shows some marchers attempting to fight back. More than 100 were injured in the process.
  • September 26, 2011: As word of the police crackdown spreads, Bolivians across the country take to the streets.  Mass demonstrations erupt in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and La Paz.
  • September 26-27, 2011:  As the pressure mounts, three top government officials resign. Morales denies that he called in the police on September 25, but neither is anyone else willing to take responsibility.
  • September 27, 2011:  Morales announces construction of road will be postponed (though not yet cancelled).
  • October 19, 2011:  TIPNIS marchers arrive in La Paz and receive a hero’s welcome.  Tens of thousands greet them in the streets with chants of support, offering food and beverages for the weary marchers.
  • October 24, 2011: President Morales signs law declaring TIPNIS “intangible,” or “untouchable.”  This law effectively halts any road building or extractive activities within park boundaries.  “In the aftermath, several environmental licenses for tourism, commercial activities (such as the selling of alligator skin) and forest extraction in the park were also withdrawn.”
  • December 20, 2011:  The Indigenous Council of the South (“CONISUR”) begins a pro-road march, hoping to reverse the gains of October.  Fellow blogger Dario Kenner gives this description of the pro-road marchers:  “This is an organization that groups together 21 indigenous communities with 12 living in the south of the TIPNIS indigenous territory and another 9 in an area known as Poligono 7 that was occupied by around 20,000 people, mainly coca growers (cocaleros), that was separated off from the original indigenous territory in 2009. 15 CONISUR communities are marching: 6 from inside the TIPNIS indigenous territory and all 9 from the Poligono 7.” On countless occasions, Morales shows support for the counter-march and suggests that the prior march was manipulated by NGOs.
  • January 30, 2012: CONISUR counter-march arrives in La Paz.  “While the government daily Cambio reported that La Paz residents received the march with ‘solidarity,’ most accounts characterized the popular response as ‘indifferent’—in marked contrast to the huge outpouring of civic support that greeted the indigenous march against the TIPNIS highway last October.”
  • February 10, 2012:  Evo signs a law calling for a “previa consulta” (prior consultation) to discern whether the majority of TIPNIS residents would like the road to pass through the park.  This law is passed 102 days after Morales signed the law declaring the park “untouchable.”  The government has 120 days to complete the consultation process.

Giving the People What They Want, Sort Of

In retrospect, Evo’s decision to sign the bill declaring TIPNIS “untouchable” appears to have been a planned attempt to bring the road back to life.  How could that be?  The Morales administration knew that even if the law would prohibit construction of the highway through the park—the result the marchers wanted—it would also prohibit a range of activities that the marchers did not seek to limit.  If TIPNIS were truly “untouchable,” then how could the indigenous communities living there develop eco-tourism projects, sustainable forestry, etc.?  They could not.  And this strict interpretation of the law was exactly what La Paz was going to implement.

Sociologist Mauricio Sanchez Patzy, whom I interviewed for this piece a few days ago, offered a great analogy:  The government treated the marchers as a reluctant father might treat a toddler wishing to go outside and play.  Rather than accompanying the child outside the house and onto the street, the father simply opens the gate and lets the child walk on out, all by himself.  When the father closes the door and goes back inside, the child naturally protests.  The father’s response:  “Why are you crying?  You said you wanted to play outside.  You got exactly what you asked for.”

The TIPNIS marchers never asked for an absolute prohibition on all commercial or extractive activity within the park.  By responding in the way it did, the government set the stage for renegotiation of the law it had just signed and, by extension, for renegotiation of the road’s destiny through TIPNIS.

What to Make of the “Consulta Previa”?

The government’s tack for revisiting the TIPNIS law is, at least on the surface, consistent with democratic principles and the Bolivian Constitution.  A closer look, however, raises serious questions.   In the end, skepticism is riding at all-time high.  Many Bolivians question the good-faith of their government on this matter and feel that the results of the consultation will be cooked to produce a thumbs-up for the road through TIPNIS.

Who will be consulted? Contrary to the previous understanding of many in Bolivia—including myself—the government has announced that it will not consult with people living outside of the park.  Specifically, the government says it will not meet with people from the cocalero-dominated region of Poligono 7. If this is true, the government stands a much better chance of convincing the people that the process is not a sham.

How will the sentiments of those consulted be captured? The government has yet to define many of the details pertaining to the consultation process. Presumably this will all be fleshed out over the coming weeks, but we can probably anticipate two things: (1) there will be no formal vote; and (2) the sentiments of those consulted will be solicited through town-hall style meetings and then summarized in written reports.  If the process more or less follows along these lines, it will be susceptible to manipulation.  Even if the government approaches the process with the best of intentions and good faith, a protocol not based on the ballot box will fuel speculation and tend to undermine the outcome.

Will alternative routes be considered? This is a major concern.  In the U.S., for instance, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires agencies to consider alternatives to the proposed action, and share these alternatives with the public, in order to gauge whether the proposed project makes sense in light of all the possibilities.  As of now, it is not clear how the government proposes to frame the question.  Obviously, we would expect different results if the government asked, “Do you prefer a road or no road?” versus “Do you prefer a road passing through the park or skirting around it?”  Properly framing the question is one way the government can gain credibility for the process.

At this stage, can there even be a “prior” consultation? Another big question mark is whether a prior consultation is even possible at this stage.  The requirement of a prior consultation is set forth in the Constitution. By proposing a consultation at this point, the government is at least tacitly admitting that it failed to comply with this requirement in the first place.  Can that error be corrected after so much has already been done to bring the project to fruition?  Though the controversial part of the project is the stretch through TIPNIS, the road itself is much larger, connecting the departments of Cochabamba and Beni.  Much of the construction has already been completed, a contract is in place, and there is an incredible amount of inertia to go forward as planned.

Cocalero First, President Second

The question I’ve been asking myself over and over these last few weeks is this:  How does a president sign a law scrapping a project—apparently viewing that as the only option to save his administration—and then, only a few months later, seek to bring the project back?  What force, internal or external, is driving Morales to act this way?  There are a range of possible explanations.  To me, the most compelling I’ve heard is the idea that Morales is a cocalero first and president second.

To grasp what this means, we have to first understand the difference between the political structure in Bolivia and that in the U.S. and Europe.  In Bolivia, the path to official political power (i.e., a seat with the government) runs through sectoral interests.  The political forces in Bolivia are not official parties so much as they are industrial groups or regional cliques.  The movers and shakers are the heads of the cocaleros, the transportation workers, the agricultural sector, the miners, the Santa Cruz gas and oil barons, and so forth.  If a person hopes to rise to political power in Bolivia, history has demanded that she first rise through the ranks of one of these groups.

That doesn’t sound all that unique, you might think. Political leaders all around the world often first cut their teeth working for particular industries or advancing the interests of certain groups.  And you’d be right.  The difference, at least when compared to the U.S. and European political landscapes, is that elected officials occupying posts in national government are expected to cut their ties and show no favoritism.  This doesn’t always happen, of course, but that is the expectation.  The idea that a national leader represents all citizens may be more myth than truth, but it is a myth with a very strong hold on the Western conscience.

That myth of national representation—of not playing favorites—is not nearly as strong in Bolivia.  Even if it’s a fierce desire of the people, most politicians don’t yet feel all that beholden to it.  So, while Evo may be more than willing to heed the sentiments of the majority in most circumstances, he is not willing to do so when that would imply going against the cocaleros.

The fact that much of the coca grown in the region is destined for cocaine, and not traditional uses, complicates matters for Evo.  I personally don’t agree with the claims that Evo is trying to build a narco-state.  The evidence for that is flimsy.  And, as I have stated elsewhere, Evo has done a number of inspiring things throughout his two terms. But the fact that much of the coca goes to cocaine does make his die-hard support for the cocaleros dangerous.  So far, Evo has shown that, given the choice between listening to the majority and listening to the cocaleros, he’ll take the latter.

6 responses to “Waking from a dream in Bolivia: The TIPNIS victory that never was

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

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  3. Good balanced article. It seems that a lot of analysis of the situation leaves out the cocalero issue. I have heard from many that the highway was a campaign promise made to the cocaleros, and thus ramming it through any which way is just his way to fulfill it. The return of J.R. Quintana to the Cabinet is also no coincidence as he is known for doing the dirty work.

    I think only extremists are saying that Evo is trying to build a narco-state, but I think there is some truth in that. Not that he is actively building a state with more and more links to narcotraffickers, but inadvertently. His tolerance and blind eye to the links between the cocaleros and the drug trade is based on a justification that demand from the US is not Bolivia’s problem. And that if cocaleros are able to improve their income out of this ‘victimless’ crime then so be it. But this tolerance has gotten out of hand and we are seeing the results of that on a daily basis.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Roberto. I’ve also heard that the road was a campaign promise, and I tend to believe it. And I also agree with you that the coca issue has gotten out of hand.

    I have no problem with allowing production on a small-scale, but in the absence of a highly-sophisticated and heavily-financed police force, that just won’t happen. As you suggest, Evo’s response has been to point the finger at the consumer markets. If only it were that simple . . . .

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

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