Bolivia’s Evo Morales Re-Launches Controversial Forest Reserve Road
NACLA’s Emily Achtenberg explains the background of President Morales’s decision to re-launch the TIPNIS road and how the move is being received among different sectors of Bolivia’s population.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Last week, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales replaced a law that has prevented his government from constructing a 190-mile road through the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, known as TIPNIS Reserve. Back in 2011, the government acquiesced to indigenous and environmental groups’ opposition to the construction of this road. During a signing ceremony last week, though, allowing the road’s construction after all, President Evo Morales criticized Western environmentalists for opposing the law. Here’s what he said.
EVO MORALES: Bolivia puts out 0.1% of Bolivian gases. However, brothers and sisters, Bolivia’s trees absorb. Bolivia cleans 2% of the world’s pollution. This means we clean 20% of the environment for the entire world, but it turns out, brothers and sisters, that the rich countries aren’t worried about poverty. They’re not concerned about integration. Brothers and sisters, they don’t want us to develop.
This so-called colonial environmentalism isn’t interested in the indigenous movement having schools, hospitals. They’re not interested in the indigenous movement having electricity or that we have highways.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us to discuss this new development in Bolivia is Emily Achtenberg. She is a member of the editorial board of NACLA and author of NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog, which covers Latin America, social movements, and progressive governments. Thanks for joining us, Emily.
EMILY ACHTENBERG: Thanks.
SHARMINI PERIES: Emily, what has happened recently in Bolivia to revive the TIPNIS road controversy all over again?
EMILY ACHTENBERG: As you said, on August 13th, Evo Morales signed this new law that basically annulled the intangible status of the TIPNIS that had been in effect for six years, preventing construction of this controversial road. They haven’t actually approved the road or even confirmed a route or committed financing or hired a contractor, but it’s very clear, very explicit that the new law would allow them to do so, and those words are stated as such in it.
SHARMINI PERIES: Emily, this road was originally proposed back in 2011, but was canceled after many protests. Tell us about the background here. What are the government’s arguments in favor of this road?
EMILY ACHTENBERG: Let’s just review what happened. It was actually a very dramatic time in Bolivian history. When Morales inaugurated construction of the road without consulting the indigenous communities in the TIPNIS, they began a trek from the Amazon Basin to La Paz, about 1,000 people and their allies along the way. This was almost to the day six years ago, August 15th, 2011.
Then, along the way, there were counterprotests, and in a spectacle that really shocked the world, the police of the national government, the indigenous president being the leader of it, repressed brutally these marchers. About 70 were wounded. It was a terrible tragedy. When the marchers did finally arrive in La Paz in October, Morales in the wake of this tragedy agreed to cancel the road and signed this law assigning the TIPNIS this untouchable status, which effectively put the road on hold even after subsequently the government organized a consultation process to poll the communities within the TIPNIS and have them determine their options. Actually, the government concluded that 80% of the communities agreed with the road. That’s much disputed, but even despite that, nothing has been officially done since that 2011 declaration of untouchability.
SHARMINI PERIES: Why is this road so important to the government?
EMILY ACHTENBERG: The government makes a number of arguments. The first is that it’s really being done on behalf of the indigenous communities of the TIPNIS, who are very poor, lacking in basic services, infrastructure. The argument is that this untouchable designation prevents the government from doing anything on their behalf.
Secondly, they’re arguing that in accordance with this consultation process, the communities actually want the road. It is a fact that some indigenous communities did sponsor this new legislative proposal, but beyond that, the argument is one of unity of the country, integrating the Amazonian and Andean regions of Bolivia, which has really been a dream since Bolivian independence. The liberation of the Beni department, which is the Amazonian section of the road, one of the two departments that the road will pass through, liberating Beni from its historical isolation and integrating its economy with the rest of the country.
Finally, at this point, the government actually argues that the road is a fait accompli because the two segments leading into the TIPNIS, from the north and south, which were part of the original contract but were split off, are actually under construction already. One of them has been completed. The government took over those contracts and reassigned them, so you have these two sections of the road leading in right now to nowhere. It’s just the third section that they argue remains to be completed.
SHARMINI PERIES: What are the arguments against building this road?
EMILY ACHTENBERG: The indigenous groups of the TIPNIS and their environmental and other civil society allies argue, first of all, that only a handful of communities inside the TIPNIS will benefit from the road. The fact is, the road that’s proposed is on a north-south axis, going right through and bisecting the reserve. Most of the communities are river villages located way over in the eastern section of the park. A few are near the road, but the vast majority are a few days away by river and even longer by foot, so they’re not going to benefit from the fact that this road is providing enhanced access.
In fact, they argue that over the last few years, after the declaration of intangibility, at one point Evo Morales declared that the TIPNIS road would not be built until extreme poverty was eliminated in the TIPNIS, which he thought would take about three years. This was conveniently right before the 2014 elections, so the government poured a bunch of money into the TIPNIS to build schools and hospitals. Some of this has been done. Somehow they managed to do it while the untouchable law was still in effect.
The second point that the road opponents make is that this consultation process that was carried out by the government in 2012 was deeply flawed. There was a follow-up report issued by the Catholic church and some human rights organizations that found that the basic requirements of a consultation process which is imposed by international law as well as the Bolivian constitution is a requirement for free, prior, and informed consent. That standard was not met in Bolivia. In fact, of the 35 communities that were surveyed by the commission, 30 told the commission that they opposed the road. There was a lot of division, and there was documentation in this report that the government had manipulated and divided the communities by offering them conditional benefits in exchange for their vote, and had created parallel organizations, pro and anti-road factions, which is part of the reason why you see these groups now coming forth sponsoring the new legislation. These are groups that were created during that process.
I would say the most important argument that is made is that while there are few benefits to the communities, the costs will be enormous. Here, indigenous leaders talk about environmental degradation, deforestation, and colonization, all of which are in past experience with other roads typical follow-ups in this kind of situation. There’s been a longstanding controversy with coca farmers pushing up into the TIPNIS from the southern border of the park. These are actually also indigenous groups. They’re Aymara and Quechua settlers who have come looking for land from western Bolivia and colonized the southeast. They are primarily coca growers. This is a process that has occurred over the past 50 years, but there’s always been tension between those groups and the native indigenous of the TIPNIS.
Let’s remember that the Cocalero Union Federation of the Chapare, which is the Cochabamba tropics, which is the southern gateway to the TIPNIS, that federation of unions was founded by and to this day is still headed by Evo Morales. The cocaleros have recently won a law allowing for an expansion of their coca growing acreage. Some TIPNIS leaders argue that this is a law that is going to benefit cocaleros, and that maybe 35,000 cocaleros are poised to take over the TIPNIS.
I don’t subscribe to that, but I think there are other problems, such as the fact that the Morales government is openly encouraging hydrocarbons exploration in the national parks. There are already three concessions held by transnational oil companies. Taken together, all of these risks really do pose a substantial threat to the livelihoods and culture and really the very existence of the native indigenous peoples in the TIPNIS, not to mention the environment and the fragile ecological balance that exists there.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. In that clip we ran, you have Evo Morales actually attacking environmentalists or criticizing them for opposing the road. He used colonialism as an argument in favor of building the road, because he actually says that environmentalists don’t understand that people living in these areas actually need develop, need access to these roads, and so forth. It’s an interesting position.
What is the reason for reversing this decision now? What is the timing of all of this?
EMILY ACHTENBERG: Right. I think that to answer this question we have to understand the current political context in Bolivia. That is that Evo Morales, though he’s a very popular president in large part, does not have the legal ability right now to run again for president in 2019. He sought to change that through a popular referendum last February, and he lost that bid by a very narrow margin. It was a complicated situation in which there were a lot of scandal. There was scandal-mongering by the opposition and unfair tactics used, but nevertheless he did lose that bid for a fourth term.
Now, his constituents do want him to run again. He wants to run again, so he has to come up with a strategy to reposition himself, to actually manipulate the existing system, perhaps by allowing his resignation six months before the end of his term so that the candidacy seems like a fresh one. In all of this, what he’s doing, I believe, is appealing to the constituents that are most closely tied to him. Let’s remember that the TIPNIS conflict has enormous political and social repercussions for Bolivia and the Movement Towards Socialism, MAS Party, which is Morales’s ruling party. Previous to the TIPNIS, the coalition that brought Evo to power were the social movements, indigenous, highland indigenous, lowland indigenous working together through the Unity Pact. This was completely disrupted by the TIPNIS conflict.
What you had was a repositioning of the party to encompass a whole different social base. Basically the core of it is this rural urban popular business bloc or indigenous bourgeoisie, groups that have benefited from Evo’s economic policies. These include farmers and coca growers who would greatly benefit from this road, farmers and coca growers seeking improved market access for their product from Cochabamba, the burgeoning commercial, transportation, and construction sectors based in Villa Tunari, let’s remember that a cooperative from the Cocalero Union Federation actually is building the section of the TIPNIS road that enters into the park from the south, agricultural and meat producers in Beni, and an emerging business class in the capital city of Beni, which is Trinidad.
These are all core constituencies for Morales and a critical element of his pro-growth, pro-development coalition that was consolidated after the TIPNIS and has been the engine behind the MAS Party for the past at least six years. With this constituency, Morales has advanced a very ambitious development plan that focuses on public investment in roads, bridges, railroads, dams, and other infrastructure that both is having the effect of advancing Bolivia’s agricultural and mining and hydrocarbons frontier, and at the same time is providing continued growth opportunities for these popular business sectors. We have China emerging as a major financier and builder of these infrastructure projects, so it’s all in place.
The TIPNIS road is part of that constellation. I think that Morales feels this is a bet on his part that if he can shore up these core constituencies, especially to ease their anxieties about the looming economic downturn which is occurring in Bolivia and throughout Latin America, and reassure them that he is there to meet their needs through this symbolism and reality of this road, that that is his political bet for how he’s going to be able to legitimately seek a fourth term and win this election.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Emily. I thank you so much for joining us today, and for your analysis. We’ll follow this story and hope to have you back really soon. Thank you.
EMILY ACHTENBERG: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.