Bringing the Fight over Bolivia's TIPNIS Road to Washington, DC

Bolivian indigenous leaders denounce human rights violations in Isiboro-Sécure case in Washington

Fernando Vargas, president of the TIPNIS Sub-Central federation of indigenous communities, outlining the violation of indigenous rights to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Credit: Andrew Miller / Amazon Watch

Subcentral TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas Mosua and Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), addressed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Friday, March 15. The hour-long hearing was the culmination of a weeklong trip aimed at putting the Isiboro Sécure situation on the hemispheric human rights agenda. The visit came in the third year of high-profile campaign to prevent the Bolivian government from building a highway through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).

Since their march to La Paz in 2011, residents of TIPNIS have experienced restricted freedom of movement. Military detachments, variously labeled an "environmental brigade," an anti-narcotics measure, and part of "integrating the territory under state control," restrict access and have hampered the activities of external organizations. Boat fuel, the essential ingredient of mobility on the rivers, has been tightly regulated as a "narcotics precursor." Meanwhile the Bolivian government backed its own parallel leadership for CIDOB and assisted in evicting Adolfo Chávez and the rest of its elected officers from their headquarters in Santa Cruz. Domestic and Amazon Basin-wide indigenous organizations continue to recognize his leadership.

At the headquarters of the Organization of American States, the indigenous representatives offered a wide-ranging presentation concerning all of the events since the inauguration of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway project. Adolfo Chávez introduced his compatriot and to ask that indigenous and individual rights be protected by the IACHR. Fernando Vargas described the territory and the project and presented the struggle of his people as a defense of the territory, of their rights, and the natural environment. "We cannot be accomplices," he said, "to the destruction of the environment and global warming."

The leaders called the IACHR's attention to a series of violations of the collective and individual rights of the sixty-four indigenous communities. Their community structures, including local traditional leaders called corregidores and the territorial organization Subcentral TIPNIS, have been bypassed by the government as decisions are made about the route for a Cochabamba-Beni highway. Police officers and military troops attacked and imprisoned hundreds of members of a  pro-TIPNIS indigenous march on September 25, 2011. Despite formal complaints and the presentation of forensic reports on injuries to seventy protesters, the official investigation into abuses that day remains stalled. 

At the conclusion of the 2011 march, the government capitulated and passed Law 180, designed to permanently protect the territory as an "intangible zone." However, a December 2011 agreement between the government and the indigenous communities to implement the law was never put into effect. Instead, the government has unilaterally declared that "intangibility" means that nearly all economic activities – including eco-tourism, sustainable nut and cacao harvesting, and other projects previously approved – must be suspended until the communities accept the construction of the highway.

In 2012, the Bolivian government approved a Law 222 allowing for a community consultation on the future of the territory. However, the terms of this consultation were never coordinated with the local indigenous organization, despite an order from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal that the consultation would only be legal if agreed to. The government's consultation went ahead despite multiple institutions complaining that it failed to meet the most basic of international standards. The "consultation" was accompanied by the public bestowing of gifts and development assistance that were explicitly conditioned on acceptance of the highway. Late last year, a joint survey team led by the Catholic Church and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, found that the consultation was neither free, nor informed, nor prior – the essential conditions of its legitimacy.

Fernando Vargas sought the Commission's presence to clarify the facts, its intervention to maintain in force Law 180, and its determination that the Bolivian government's obligations to protect the TIPNIS indigenous' collective rights have not been met.

The Bolivian government brought a sizable delegation to the Commission, led by Minister of Government Carlos Romero. For its part, the Bolivian government's presentation reviewed another version of the TIPNIS story that focused on who should represent the interests of the indigenous community. Most of its allotted time was given to pro-government indigenous leaders, Melva Hurtado, Pedro Vare, Carlos Fabricano, and Gumercindo Pradel. Respectively, they come from the parallel CIDOB leadership elected while the 2012 indigenous march was still in La Paz, a Beni indigenous organization, and communities on the Sécure River and in the colonized zone of TIPNIS who are affiliated with the coca grower's movement. . The strategy of the government had two sides: bringing these allies to speak on one hand, and on the other hand treating their demands as totally independent of its campaign to promote the highway. In response, Adolfo Chávez offered another point of view by saying that these figure's presence was the best illustration of the division among indigenous communities created by the government, and of the lack of respect it has for indigenous people's own processes of self-government.

In his presentation, Minister Romero denied that any highway project yet exists in TIPNIS, continuing to claim that Segment Two of the highway is entirely independent of Segments One and Three. With the annulling of the government's contract with the Brazilian construction firm OAS, he said, the project which had begun is now "merely a possible road" in the future. Therefore, he claimed, the 2012 consultation is now a "prior consultation" as required by international standards. He said the current government is more indigenous than any previous one, describing the representation of indigenous people in the national executive and legislature and the titling of Native Community Lands like TIPNIS.

With a session of just one hour, and the lengthy presentation by the government (finally cut short by the Commission), little time remained for questions from the dais. But two members of the commission offered some. What was the form of environmental impact statement generated before the consultation process? What were the norms that regulated that consultation? What was the specific evaluation offered by the indigenous of the likely environmental and social impact of a highway? 

The Bolivian indigenous leaders brought with them abundant documentation ranging from their legal title to the territory to detailed community-by-community documentation of the flawed consultation process of the government. They extended an invitation to the Commission to visit the territory and to take a stand on the legality of government actions over the past two years. A full response from the Commission is expected in the months to come.

During their trip, the indigenous leaders also aired their concerns with the American Bar Association,  American diplomatic officials, legislators in the House and Senate Human Rights caucuses, and Georgetown Law School.

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