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Exposing 'a Model of Social Humiliation'

An article by Jerry Reynolds about the Guarani people of Itika Guasu, Bolivia, and the oil company Repsol

The Itika Guasu Investment Fund may have broken new ground in Bolivia and Latin America, and internationally. But the negotiation process exposed "a model of social humiliation" that still threatens impoverished Indigenous people wherever they press a valid claim to valuable property. When networks of affluence uphold their priorities against a community's own, they may apply pressure by withdrawing assistance, strategically intensifying the humiliations of poverty to the point that bartering silence for funding in a cash economy becomes a necessity. Exposing the model, so that it can be recognized and rooted out, may prove as important as establishing the Itika Guasu Investment Fund itself.

And that would be important indeed. The $14.8 million fund began financial activities on March 11. Returns on investment will provide the Guarani communities of Itika Guasu, an "Original Community Territory" or TCO (its acronym in Spanish) under Bolivian law, with health, housing and education services, as well as funding development projects. Without giving up any Guarani rights, the Assembly of Guarani People of Itika Guasu signed the agreement creating the fund with transnational oil titan Repsol Bolivia S.A., headquartered in Spain.

"This is the first time that an oil company has signed such an agreement in Bolivia and in Latin America," said APG IG President Never Barrientos. He added that it will have an impact on the Bolivian government's understanding of Indigenous customary rights under a much-neglected law from the 1950s that cannot now be ignored.

Amid the celebration of such precedents, however, the Guarani and their allies have not forgotten that the agreement almost got scuttled before the Guarani communities of Itika Guasu could even consider it. The stakes were existential when several non-governmental organizations or NGOs (also known as intermediaries when they are headquartered out-of-community) withdrew their funding from the Guarani at the most strategic moment of their long confrontation with Repsol.

Repsol's oil production operations had trespassed on territory of the Guarani of Itika Guasu, Bolivia, back in 1997. In 2006, after years of confrontation that forced several work stoppages, the Assembly of Guarani People of Itika Guasu approved a legal strategy developed by Equipo Nizkor, a Spain-based human rights organization that advised APG IG on legal and financial details. International law would support further proceedings against Repsol in Spain; and under the administration of Quechan President Evo Morales, Bolivia's TCO law was beginning to show teeth.

But as the legal strategy went forward with Guarani approval, documents uncovered by Equipo Nizkor proved that NGOs the Guarani had worked with for years betrayed them. The funding source of the intermediary NGOs was advising Repsol on its legal response to the Guarani. At the same time, these intermediaries were advising the Guarani to abandon any legal strategy against Repsol. The Guarani had difficulty accepting their betrayal, but in the end the documents left no doubt.

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Worse lay in store. Early support from the outside was important when Repsol first trespassed on Guarani territory in Itika Guasu. But as community dialogue grew with Repsol, it became critical that outside NGOs defer to community decision-making. Now, however, they had their own priorities for the environment and Guarani economic development. As the Guarani exercised self-determination, engaging in negotiation with Repsol while advancing a legal case against the company, the intermediary NGOs undermined the Guarani, sowing local discord even as a viable negotiated agreement with Repsol evolved. They proved "quite harmful on occasion and in some instances ... even represented a risk for the community's collective property rights," according to APG IG.

Finally, with a negotiated agreement in place for consideration by all the Guarani of Itika Guasu, the Repsol-allied funding source and its NGOs withdrew their assistance from APG IG. The Guarani membership organization now lacked the resources to fund decision-making processes in 36 widely separated communities. APG IG had never sought funding on its own before, as the intermediary NGOs and their funding source well knew, so it would be next to impossible for the organization to raise funds on short order. As denizens of a non-cash economy, the Guarani had no revenue, and this too the intermediary NGOs knew full well. Equipo Nizkor was already shouldering the full expense of legal research and preparation, as well as some health care costs within the APG IG membership.

"In economic terms, it was impossible," said Antonia Macias, vice president of Equipo Nizkor. "We had this really humiliating and unethical situation, a model of social humiliation, to sustain the Itika Guasu in a state of humiliation. Used in brief, this allowed the NGOs to do what they wanted to do with them."

Fortunately, First Peoples Worldwide of Fredericksburg, Va., had been on a low-key campaign for direct funding of Indigenous communities -- not of intermediaries to work on their behalf, but of Indigenous community groups that often, as in the case of APG IG, have never received direct grant funding before. First Peoples made a grant for all of $11,124 to APG IG, and a year later FPW President Rebecca Adamson remarked on how little it took to keep the negotiation process moving, so that all the Guarani communities of Itika Guasu could hear out the agreement, have their say and make up their minds.

A long-term, patient process produced a responsible decision, by and for an Indigenous community. Of several precedents set by the Itika Guausu Investment Fund, explained Equipo Nizkor President Gregorio Dionis, speaking through an interpreter, "The thing to retain here is that no NGO may replace the Indigenous authorities."

Jerry Reynolds is a reporter, researcher, and communications specialist in Indian Country USA and international Indigenous affairs.