More than fifteen communities in the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, known by its Spanish acronym TIPNIS, are blocking government access to their towns.
The Bolivian government is carrying out a consultation process with indigenous groups within the park regarding a long-contested road project that could cut through their land, but has been unable to reach the northeast corner of the TIPNIS. Some communities in that area object to consultation and have blocked waterways leading to their homes, which are only accessible by river.
The conflict is the latest in a series of clashes over the proposed road, which has made consultation with Indigenous Peoples a headline story in the Andean nation.
According to Bolivian State media, 41 of the 69 communities in the TIPNIS have been consulted, and 40 of those communities approved of the road project. Most of the successfully consulted communities are in the southern part of the park, which is more dependent on an agricultural economy than the north, and have voiced support for the road over the past year as a link between their isolated homes and the rest of the country. Meanwhile, communities in the northeast corner of the park vow to resist consultation.
"They are in a state of what they call peaceful resistance, which means that they've set up blockades on the river near Gundonovia to bar the entrance of officials from the state," said Devin Beaulieu, a doctoral student in Anthropology the University of California in San Diego who recently returned from the blockaded section of the park. "People have absolutely no confidence in the government, and it's generated an atmosphere of intimidation, fear and paranoia."
Fernando Vargas, leader of many of the communities in resistance, says the government is undertaking the consultation too late in the road-building process. He also says the Bolivian government is trying to win residents' consent with items like solar panels and outboard motors. "They've started to bring gifts into the TIPNIS, and it seems this government has just remembered the TIPNIS exists, and begun to show the communities it is concerned about the TIPNIS, which it never did before, not this or any other government." he said. "There comes the act of bad faith – an action whose only goal is winning the communities' consent with gifts."
Moises Mercado, consultation coordinator for the Ministry of the Environment and Water, disagrees. He says the government is trying to meet the needs of a long-neglected population, and doesn't carry out the consultation process if communities don't agree to participate.
"We send them a letter before doing the consultation, and ask for their permission," he said. "If the leader of the community doesn't give us permission, we don't do the consultation. We can't go into someone else's house through the window-it has to be through the door, and we think this is a good faith consultation because of that."
A Contentious Path
In September 2011, more than a thousand indigenous marchers walked 350 miles to La Paz, the country's administrative capital. At the time, construction on the road that would cut through the TIPNIS was underway, as two branches of highway closed in on the park.
The government had not met its obligation to consult with the people of the TIPNIS before beginning the road, and protesters demanded the project's cancellation. The TIPNIS jumped onto the front page of newspapers across Bolivia when police attacked the march with tear gas and batons at the town of Chaparina, and tried to load marchers onto buses to return them to their communities. That violent episode was recently resurrected when Sacha Llorenti, the minister responsible for the police force at the time, was appointed Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations. Llorenti resigned from his post as minister days after the police action in Chaparina, but denied previous knowledge of and responsibility for the event.
Pushed by massive public outcry, the government cancelled the road in October 2011, but months later, following a pro-road march, the project was back as President Morales signed a law mandating a consultation. A second cross-country march failed to pressure the government to change its position, and at that time some leaders from within the TIPNIS agreed to the consultation. Others vowed to resist, saying any consultation would fail to be both prior and in good faith as required by the Bolivian constitution.
According to Katya Salazar, executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation in Washington, D.C., undertaking consultations with indigenous groups is a relatively new process in Latin America. In fact, it is now undergoing a transformation from an idea present in international agreements into national policies that require a variety of institutions to make consultation a daily reality.
"The fight over the past three to five years has been to push Latin American States to realize this is an international obligation," Salazar said, adding that in South America Colombia has advanced the most toward defining and institutionalizing consultation processes.
The two major international documents on consultation with Indigenous Peoples are the 1989 International Labor Organization Convention 169 (ILO 169), and the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Those agreements, endorsed by many Latin American nations, assert the right to consultation, but do not define how it should happen. Salazar says concrete definitions of consultation are a result of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights.
For example, this year The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Ecuadorian government violated the Sarayaku indigenous group's right to consultation when it allowed oil exploration on their lands. In that ruling the court also set out guidelines for how consultations should be undertaken, according to Amnesty International.
The United States and Canada have not signed the ILO 169, and both voted against the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In an August statement, Amnesty International said it is concerned the consultation process in the TIPNIS "falls short of Bolivia’s international human rights obligations," and that "failure to involve Indigenous Peoples early in this process has alienated many communities and created a climate of strong opposition to the road’s construction." The Bolivian organization Fundacion Tierra also expressed worries about the consultation process, mainly that conversations undertaken with communities may make residents feel the future of services such as schools and hospitals are implicitly tied to acceptance of the road.
The Bolivian government stands by the process, and holds that resistance to the consultation is politically motivated and the work of a few extremists. The government recently expanded the timetable for the consultation by two months, and is now scheduled to complete it in November.
Meanwhile, resistance in the northeast part of the park shows no sign of flagging, leaving the future of this consultation in doubt.
For more information: NACLA