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Indigenous v. Indigenous; Bolivia’s Government Is Pitting One Community Against Another

With a second cross-country protest march by indigenous rainforest dwellers and their allies advancing on La Paz, it was clear that Bolivia’s Indigenous Peoples are divided on President Evo Morales, a populist and declared socialist of pure Aymara descent. The first march called to protest the controversial new highway slated to cut through the Isiboro Sécure National Park Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) in October was marred by police repression and counter-protests. Then, in January, pro-highway marchers—also mostly indigenous—held their own, smaller, march on La Paz. The government claimed this march as a mandate for the highway, and passed a law establishing norms for “prior consultation” with Indigenous Peoples in the project. The new march against the road is a clear rejection of this law.

One of the groups leading the new march against the road was an Aymara alliance, the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ)—the name referencing the villages (ayllus) and regions (markas) of the traditional Aymara realm (Qullasuyu). As the march advanced in mid May, CONAMAQ representative Davíd Benigno Crispin Espinoza was in New York City for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from May 7 – 18. He spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network on the movement against the road project, and what he sees as the struggle of indigenous organizations in Bolivia to maintain their independence from the state.

What brings you to New York?

I am here in New York to bring to the attention of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues the violations of indigenous rights that are occurring in Bolivia. This is our great concern as Bolivians: that President Evo Morales Ayma is trying to apply a supposed law of consultation that is completely contrary to constitution of the state, that is completely contrary to international treaties such as Convention 169 of the ILO [International Labor Organization], and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This project places at risk the Indigenous Peoples of the TIPNIS—the Yuracaré, Mojeño and Trinitarios. They should have been consulted before the contract was signed. So the consultation was never “prior”—neither before, nor now.

There has been absolutely no act of good faith by the Bolivian government. There are elite troops patrolling the zone under the pretext of paying benefits to the elders, or providing medical attention. There are elite soldiers in practically all the pueblos in the TIPNIS.

Distributing benefits to elders is the role of the army?

It is absolutely not the role of the army. The benefits are deposited in banks! [Laughs] It is not the role of soldiers to go to the bank and distribute the money in the communities.

They are doing this in cash?

Yes. And under this pretext, they have entered TIPNIS to intimidate the people. To determine who is in favor of the consultation and who is opposed. To propagandize the people, telling them that without the highway they will be left in poverty. And to begin to criminalize those who are opposed to the consultation.

Every step in the consultation must be coordinated with the legitimate representatives of the original Native peoples. Instead of dealing directly with the existing indigenous organizations, the government is attempting to create parallel organizations. They say, “We will create new organizations, and consult with them, and sign accords with them.” Throughout the Andean region, now, one of the regionals has broken away to form CONAMAQ-La Paz, disassociating from the CONAMAQ organization that has territorial jurisdiction in five departments. When the true CONAMAQ declared it was not in agreement with the highway that would run through the center of TIPNIS, the other CONAMAQ announced, “We support the highway, we are with the government.”

Who is the leadership of this new CONAMAQ?

Militants of the ruling party, the MAS [Movement to Socialism], functionaries of the government and the various ministries—now calling themselves CONAMAQ. Exactly the same is happening in the TIPNIS, with CIDOB [Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian Oriente]. They are creating parallel organizations with CIDOB, which called an assembly for [May 19], to elect a new national director, replacing the actual national director of CIDOB, Adolfo Chávez. They are trying to organically liquidate indigenous organizations now.

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All consultations must be made with adequate procedures—adequate information provided to the indigenous communities, in their own language, and decisions taken under their own methods and mechanisms. Sending in soldiers is not an adequate mechanism. Giving gifts of outboard motors and cellular telephones and antennas, televisions—this is not part of an adequate procedure, it is bribery.

But it is not always working. Some people who received outboard motors used them to leave for the march! They are using cellulars they received to coordinate the march!

In some parts, however, it is working. Because they are spending a lot of money.

They have not complied with these five fundamental bases of the right to consultation. It is completely unconstitutional and violates all the international norms. CIDOB and CONAMAQ are bringing a case to have the Constitutional Tribunal strike down this law. Some opposition legislators are working to repeal it. But we don’t have much confidence, because justice is in the hands of the actual government, and their family members and political friends.

What is the relationship between CIDOB and CONISUR? Both claim to represent the inhabitants of the TIPNIS…

TIPNIS is titled as original communal lands. But outsiders have started to enter the territory—first little by little, then more, then much more. Today it is an invasion of the territory. Those who inhabited this territory are Yuracaré, Chimánes and Mojeños. CONISUR is made up of the invaders. Not one of them is Yuracaré, Chimáne or Mojeño. They are Aymara and Quechua who have migrated from the Altiplano in search of new lands. They are people who support President Morales.

It is possible that perhaps five percent of CONISUR is made up of people indigenous to the TIPNIS. The rest are people from the Altiplano. And these five percent have assimilated the customs of the Aymara and Quechua. Many of them no longer speak their own language. They just speak castellano [Spanish]. They have abandoned their ancestral structures and authorities. They are not the same indigenous people as they were 50 years ago. They are colonized. Under law, they do not have the right to consultation.

So 95 percent of CONISUR’s followers are originally from the Altiplano...

Yes, originally from the highlands. They sell timber or plant coca. And not all the coca is for akulliku [traditional coca-chewing]. The original inhabitants of TIPNIS don’t grow coca. One or another may grow a little, but it is for medicine. Not like the others, who plant hectares of coca for commercial ends. And this commercialization of coca leaf is for cocaine.

What is the official role of CONISUR now?

Law 222 is obviously the work of CONISUR, and their march, which was completely financed by the government. But it is a completely unconstitutional law.

What is your view of Evo Morales?

The saddest thing of all is that our indigenous president is against the Indigenous Peoples. We supported Evo in the election. The next election will be very difficult for us. We will have to decide whether or not to support Evo. Now I would say, probably no.

What is the alternative?

Perhaps a new leadership will emerge, but these things do not happen quickly.