Sacred TIPNIS and an unending fear
In the heart of Bolivia lies a 1,236,296 hectares environmental jewel that has been qualified as a “life magma” by many researchers: the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS by its acronym in Spanish). Extraordinarily rich in flora and fauna, TIPNIS was recognized as a National Park by the Bolivian government in 1965 and as an Indigenous Territory in 1990. The latter legal action was taken following a pressure from the local tribes as TIPNIS, ancestrally, has been home to three indigenous groups: Chimán, Mojeño and Yuracaré. However the Evo Morales-led government is mulling to build a highway through the center of TIPNIS, dividing the territory in two and irreparably damaging the ecosystem.
After the plans of building highway were announced in 2011, the indigenous inhabitants of the area have been protesting in different forms of resistance different actions of resistance only to face brutal repression from the government forces. The irony of having an indigenous ruler violating the rights of indigenous people and protected areas is more than a mockery to the Bolivian population: it is a clear violation of their rights.
Valuable TIPNIS and its richness
The peculiarity of the TIPNIS lies not only in its legal status as a National Park and Indigenous Territory but also its rich history. Biologist Huascar Cayoja Bustillos repeatedly stated in Bolivian media that TIPNIS was one of the few areas in the World that remained unscathed by glaciations during the Pleistocene, 1.6 million years ago. Compared to other national parks, TIPNIS is rich of peculiar flora and fauna.
It is a mega-center for biological diversity where diversity coexists: 30% of mammal species in Bolivia, 14% of reptiles and 28.5% of amphibians in the country live there. These statistics translate into 858 species of mammals, 39 species of reptiles and 53 species of amphibians.
When it comes to flora it is estimated that the TIPNIS contains over 602 species of plants, while many others have not yet been properly classified and presumably there are more to discover. The area also houses mammals whose numbers are falling rapidly. These include the porpoise or river dolphin (which is also the only Bolivian cetacean), wild dogs and the anteater – which is the largest of its kind in the World.
At the same time, scientists are aware of the existence of unique species of orchids in the area that have not yet been properly discovered and recognized worldwide. Most importantly, TIPNIS also plays an important role in flood cycles in Bolivia.
Located between the transition zone of the sub-Andean mountains and plains of the country, TIPNIS holds huge amounts of overflowing water which vary with seasons rarely affecting nearby areas. This National Park regulates watersheds, thus becoming a moderator and protector of vital importance especially in recent decades in which the phenomena of the Niño and Niña have struck Bolivia with great force.
Aware of their habitat’s importance, the TIPNIS indigenous have stood for the area even before the Morales-led government came to power. Indigenous marches in the country have built social value since 1991. It was on this date, under Jaime Paz Zamora’s government, that the first march of indigenous people from the country’s lowlands took place with the name “March for Dignity and Territory”.
The tribes demanded recognition of indigenous territories as ethnic groups’ properties and rights for natives to administrate or have control over them. It was during this administration that the Bolivian State amended its legal framework and included the degree of Community Lands in Bolivia (TCOs by its acronym in Spanish), thus recognizing through Supreme Decree 22610 the Isidoro Secure National Park as Indigenous Territory of Chimán, Mojeño and Yuracaré people (TIPNIS). After the 2011 decision of building highway threatened the existence of this sacred territory, all 36 indigenous groups staged a mass protest under the name “VIII Indigenous March” to La Paz that began from August 15 of that year.
The heroics of VIII Indigenous March
The first weeks of the March saw various interruptions due to talks with government officials that ultimately ended inconclusively. Just over a month later, the participants in the March were detained by police who, according to government, were in a bid “to avoid clashes with residents of nearby towns who were pro-government supporters”. The following day, on September 25, the police proceeded to surround the marchers’ camp in Chaparina annoucing it as a routine act. An hour later, security forces fired tear gas shells on the camp despite being aware of the presence of minors and elders. The gas was shelled from all directions making it difficult for the marchers to escape or defend themselves. The testimonies later heard that policemen were shooting the tear gases directly to the marchers’ bodies.
It was an extremely violent represssion. Evidence gathered in the Ombudsman’s report and press videos shot in the place confirmed that police officials brutally attacked protesters: the marchers were beaten, knocked down, handcuffed and had duck tape placed around their wrists and mouth. Journalists were also targeted snatching their cameras. Even the pregnant women and those holding children were not spared. The Ombudsman’s report highlights very specific cases of aggression against minors during the crackdown. One of them is that of an 11-year old girl who was beaten, tied up and abandoned under a bridge after fainting. In another barbarian act, a mother of a two-month old baby was denied access to medical aid despite the infant fainted several times due to tear gas.
In the buses hired by the government, the policemen took the marchers, mostly men, to the San Borja community. Government officials assumed that the marchers (mostly women and children) escaping the repression would accept to reunite with their relatives in San Borja and thus abandon the March. Those children, in an attempt to escape the repression, lost in the woods were left unattended. The marchers’ pleas to set them free so that they could find children were unheard. They were forced to board the bus and severly beaten. But a surprise waited for the policemen in San Borja. Incensed by the repression, the San Borja community denied entry to government buses blocking the roads.
The San Borja residents freed some indigenous marchers from the vehicles and transported them to community’s church and hospital. Police fired more tear gases but the situation had gone out of their control. As a result they decided to move to another community, Rurrenabaque, where a military plane awaited in the airport. Residents of Rurrenabaque and neighboring communities coordinated movements and took the airport by force in defense of the marchers.
The move in itself was an achievement as the Entel Telephone Company, owned by the government since 2008, had cut its signal in the area soon after the repression had begun. While the handcuffed marchers sang the national anthem, the Rurrenabaque residents blocked the airport runway with tires, branches, stones and seting fire. Boarding marchers on to the plane was next to impossible. The security forces finally gave up setting the marchers free. The next day, protesters bravely resumed the March from Rurrenabaque. It was later reported that about 240 natives were released in Rurrenabaque while 300 more had fled to San Borja.
The VIII Indigenous March finally arrived to La Paz on October 19th. The 1500 indigenous marchers and their slogan “The TIPNIS must not be touched!” was received to a heroes welcome. The pressure prevailed as Morales goverment decreed the TIPNIS as intangible ecological zone free of roads on October 24th. The government, still, attempts to build the inimical highway altering the same Decree.
Still under the threat
Responsibility trials for the Chaparina case have not reached a verdict yet, although it has proceeded to the dismissal of most of the authorities accused – except for one. In his statements to prosecutors on October 23, 2014, Morales disclaims any responsibility alleging he and the Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti had no knowledge of the repression. However, several government officials have recognized Llorenti as the one who ordered the repression and rendered the money to be financed.
Former director of Internal Affairs in the Ministry of Government, Boris Villegas, former Deputy Minister Marcos Farfán and the former deputy commander of the Police, Óscar Muñoz Colodro were some of the officials recognizing Llorenti. Colodro is the only authority who is still under trial. Meanwhile, Llorenti has been promoted to a new position. He is now Bolivia’s Permanent Representative and Ambassador at the United Nations, and ironically, Bolivia’s Representative in the UN’s Human Rights Council.
The Supreme Electoral Court of Bolivia held a consultation in the indigenous communities of the TIPNIS from July to December 2012. The results allegedly indicate that 80% of this population approves the road’s execution. However, several institutions (including the Caritas of the Catholic Church and the Permanent Human Rights Assembly of Bolivia) reported in La Paz that such consultation was illegally held: More than 11 communities were not involved in the consultation, while many others allegedly involved were not even notified about it. Furthermore, 30 of the 35 indigenous communities consulted by these independent entities expressed their opposition to the implementation of the road, unlike what the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s report indicated.
Despite these allegations, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera announced on June 9, 2015 that the highway’s execution will take place since the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s consultation indicates approval by natives. The danger that lies in this project is motivated by a double-edged sword. On one side, this road will link the Chapare region, where Morales began as union leader for coca growers groups, to a main road that connects with Brazil. The UN itself reported in 2014 that 92% of all coca planted in Chapare goes directly to drug trafficking for cocaine production.
On the other edge, Bolivian government approved a Supreme Decree in May this year authorizing companies to conduct oil exploration in protected areas. Therefore, the TIPNIS will be open not only for coca growers to expand their areas of cultivation, but also for companies to use its hydrocarbon resources. Already back in 2011, the Venezuelan oil company Petroleos de Venezuela announced jointly with Morales government that the TIPNIS had oil reserves.
Needless to say, many natural resources which are subsistence resources for indigenous communities will be irreparably lost. Environmental damage to an area so rich in flora and fauna will have an impact that cannot be reversed. TIPNIS expert biologist Bustillos said in an interview that the ecosystem will be lost in its entirety in a matter of 15 years once the highway is constructed.
Meanwhile, Adolfo Chavez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, said in an interview that indigenous people of the country will not allow this outrage to their homes and their rights. “In our Indigenous Territories and National Parks our youth can discover medicines and share them with neighboring countries that might need them, that’s what the government does not understand,” he said and emphasized: “They want to destroy the pharmacy that will cure our children”.
All Rights Reserved with The Oslo Times