Back to the tyranny of the majority in Bolivia’s TIPNIS dispute

by Rhodri C. Williams

After much equivocation, President Evo Morales of Bolivia has returned to his original position that the population of both departments abutting the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (‘TIPNIS’ in Spanish) – rather than the residents of the Park themselves – should decide on his long-running ambition to build a road directly through its center:

… Morales said on Tuesday that it made sense for everyone in Beni and Cochabamba to vote on the road because the residents of these two departments would be the ultimate “beneficiaries.”  In contrast, according to Evo, polling the residents of TIPNIS would potentially allow “small groups” of opponents to veto the desires of the majority (perhaps not within the park itself, but within the two departments that would be connected by the road).

Nicholas Fromherz reflects on this news from a procedural justice perspective at South American Law, pointing out that President Morales’ repeated failure to respect the rules on consultation he himself gave constitutional status represents a fundamental injustice.

Granted, the millions who live in Cochabamba and Beni would, as Morales indicates, be the prime beneficiaries of this project.  But would they also suffer the severest of its consequences?  When deciding who should have a say in the matter, we would presumably agree that it would be improper to hand the decision over to the potential “winners” while muzzling the “losers.”

One of my current academic works focuses on this very topic.  Like all big public projects, environmentally-sensitive projects – roads, dams, power plants, etc. – imply winners and losers.  It is my contention that the upsides of these projects are often quite diffuse, inuring to the benefit of large regions or even entire nations.  The downsides, in contrast, are often concentrated in relatively small areas.

This analysis links what have been two of the core concerns discussed in this blog in relation to disputes over land and territory. First, there is the principle, widely accepted in theory and almost as widely flouted in practice, that those forced to bear the direct burden of development projects should end up in in no less favorable a position then they would have been had the project not been carried out.  As Natalie Bugalski observed in these pages, in relation to the Asian Development Bank’s involuntary resettlement policy, fifteen years of practice has brought limited progress:

The rationale behind the policy was a shift away from the perception that development-induced displacement and attendant harms suffered by those physically and economically displaced is a “sacrifice” some people have to make for the larger good. It is apparent, however, that despite the adoption of increasingly progressive and rights-oriented policies, the utilitarian view of development-induced displacement continues to dominate the culture and individual staff views of the ADB and many other aid and development institutions.

Second, the stakes in such controversies are even higher when the parties at the business end of development projects constitute minority groups, and particularly indigenous peoples. In such cases, the failure to give special weight to the concern of such groups can lead not only to the destruction of their livelihoods, but also the loss of their identity. The idea that indigenous peoples whose territory has been incorporated into larger states should be permitted to defend it against the whims of a political community they did not choose to be part of is integral to texts such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As I noted in my own first stab at analyzing the TIPNIS imbroglio, resort to majority rule may be tantamount to revoking TIPNIS’ status:

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.

The controversy will no doubt rumble on, particularly given that the plight of the indigenous minorities resident in TIPNIS appear to have captured the sympathy of the broader public. However, the abandonment of progressive principles by a President elected on the strength of his commitment to equitable development and accountability through consultation indicates just how much work remains to be done.

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2 responses to “Back to the tyranny of the majority in Bolivia’s TIPNIS dispute

  1. Thanks for picking up on this. And an even deeper thanks for linking it up to the broader thought surrounding development and indigenous rights.

    One thing to note — which I failed to mention in my post — is that it’s not even clear the proposed referendum would swing in favor of the road. It would certainly give the government a better chance of winning — their best available shot — but it’s not clear which side would actually carry the day. Here in the city of Cochabamba, at least, public sentiment seems to be decidedly against the road through TIPNIS.

  2. Thanks for the comment and interesting point about the results of a regional referendum not being a given. You caused me to substitute a “may be” for a previous “is” in the piece (one of the joys of blogging is the Godlike power of open-ended retroactive editing!), but the basic dilemma still remains: In a democratic society, the only way to effectively protect minority groups from the whims of the majority is for the majority to take a one-time decision to exempt such groups from their own future decision-making power.

    As in Bolivia, this decision should be quasi-irrevocable (in the sense of being constitutional and therefore requiring a super-majority to be amended). However (and again as in Bolivia), when the elected officials that promoted such exemptions then invite the majority to ignore them, it not only undermines the political position of minorities but also the rule of law for the entire population.

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