The TIPNIS Affair: Indigenous Conflicts and the Limits on “Pink Tide” States Under Capitalist Realities

Source: Christian Science Monitor, Latin America Monitor

Executive Summary

On December 4, 2011, the Bolivian government signed an agreement with indigenous leaders that clarified an October 24 law banning the construction of a hotly debated highway that would have run through the heart of Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (Parque Nacional y Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure, TIPNIS), an isolated area where traditional Amazonian native groups can be found.[1] Far from ending the controversy, the law had called into question whether the land and natural resources remain “untouchable” for both the Andean indigenous peoples who migrate there to farm and for the Amazonians native to the preserved natural expanse. The parties agreed that the portion of the law making the national park “untouchable” (intangible) would only apply to commercial enterprises, and not to those small-scale economic activities that support the traditional subsistence lifestyles that the indigenous groups living in the park depend on for their survival. Although at first glance it might seem that this ongoing conflict simply pits a government against its indigenous constituents, this view overlooks two important conflicts. The highway project, the resultant “untouchability” law, and even the recent official clarification of that law have only deepened the conflict between and within the heterogeneous Andean and Amazonian native groups, putting Morales in the difficult position of choosing between respecting the wishes of many of his indigenous constituents and improving the nation’s transportation grid. Moreover, it is not clear how far Bolivia and other Pink Tide states, or recently-elected, left-leaning Latin American governments, can progress in their redistributive efforts without encountering another source of conflict. There is significant tension between these states’ apparent need to trade natural resources with foreign investors and their professed wishes to respect the promises of preservation made to their indigenous constituents. While this controversy has brought about necessary criticism of the Morales government from the left, both Bolivians and foreigners on the right have co-opted these critiques.

Intricacies and Recent Developments

On December 4, 2011, the Bolivian government signed an agreement with indigenous leaders that clarified an October 24 law banning the construction of a hotly debated highway that would have run through the heart of Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (Parque Nacional y Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure, TIPNIS), an isolated area where traditional Amazonian native groups can be found.[2] Earlier this year, Amazonian indigenous activists had staged a 65-day march of over 300 miles to protest the proposed highway. As the protesters arrived in La Paz, and after his public opinion ratings had fallen from 44 to 37 percent within the first month of the march, Morales announced the signing of the October 24 “untouchability” law, which was hailed as a victory for the Amazonians.[3] Far from ending the controversy, the law had called into question whether the land and natural resources remain “untouchable” for both the Andean indigenous peoples who migrate there to farm and for the Amazonians native to the preserved natural expanse. In the December 4 meeting, the parties agreed that the portion of the law making the national park “untouchable” (intangible) would only apply to commercial enterprises, and not to those small-scale economic activities that support the traditional subsistence lifestyles that the indigenous groups living in the park depend on for their survival.

Although the government has reached an agreement with the TIPNIS indigenous groups about the meaning of the law, the conflict is not exactly over. The Consejo Indígena del Sur (Indigenous Council of the South – CONISUR), groups of cocaleros, or coca growers, along with the residents of Cochabamba and San Ignacio de Moxos (respectively, a department and city on opposite ends of the proposed highway), are demanding something quite different: that the government go through with the construction of the highway.[4] The organizers of a Cochabamba pro-highway demonstration on December 9 have declared a “permanent vigil” until the highway is built, and CONISUR even has announced plans to march to La Paz on December 17 in support of the road.[5] Vice President Álvaro García Linera has proposed a referendum on the highway to be voted on by residents of the national park, and President Morales has continued to criticize the cancellation of the road, insisting that such infrastructure is needed to develop the country.[6]

Traversing miles of land between Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos, the highway would have dramatically shortened travel time and provided vital infrastructure for the largely impoverished nation, in which 55 percent of the population is indigenous and 30 percent mestizo, or of mixed European and indigenous ancestry.[7] According to the BBC, “Morales had insisted that the road was needed to bring economic development to poor [Amazonian] indigenous communities.”[8] This complex conflict has not simply pitted President Morales against a homogenous indigenous bloc; rather, it has revealed rifts between his administration and various indigenous peoples, who themselves have become divided on the issue. Moreover, it is unclear how far Bolivia and other Pink Tide, or left-leaning Latin American states, can progress in their efforts to reduce economic inequality before having to address the profound conflict between indigenous rights and the need to fund social projects by extracting and trading non-value-added commodities with capitalist states and private corporations.

Cocaleros, Colonists and TIPNIS Natives: Conflicting Priorities Among Indigenous Groups

Although it might appear that the TIPNIS conflict is a simple case of a Latin American state acting against the wishes of its native citizens, the issue in fact encompasses a large number of distinct indigenous groups with very different political and economic interests. President Morales was originally elected as part of the movement of cocaleros, many of whom belong to the populous Andean Quechua and Aymara indigenous language groups; he also remains president of the cocaleros of Chapare.[9] As their soil becomes increasingly infertile, some cocaleros and other farmers migrate from the highlands in search of new areas featuring arable land for cultivation. Because this nomadic behavior sometimes encroaches on the territory of other groups, including the indigenous Amazonian peoples native to TIPNIS, migrating farmers and cocaleros are called “colonists” (colonos) in Bolivia. According to the BBC, “they see the road project as an opportunity to access new farmland in rainforest areas currently reserved for far less populous Amazonian tribes. Parts of TIPNIS have already been settled illegally by coca-growers, pushing the Amazonian tribes deeper into the forest, and the fear is this will accelerate if the road is built.”[10] These colonos, and more notably, the cocaleros as a whole, make up a central part of Morales’ base.[11] Maria Teresa Vargas Rojas, head of Fundación Natura Bolivia, poses the thought that “those in the Andes live in a different ecosystem, one that is arid, much more difficult. When they migrate to the rainforest they tend to strip the land, and destroy the ecosystem. That is why local [Amazonian] people are so afraid of this road. It will increase migration that will destroy the rainforest.”[12] Moreover, many Quechua and Aymara have engaged in small-scale mercantilism through their farming and “informal, small-scale mining.”[13] On the other hand, most Amazonian groups remain committed to a subsistence-based lifestyle, although a few are nominally involved in profit-targeted operations throughout the park, such as timber harvesting, the lizard leather industry, and ecotourism.[14] Thus, Andean and Amazonian groups interact with the rainforest environment in different ways, and therefore have varying interests in and opinions about the government’s moves towards “development.”

Nevertheless, as Federico Fuentes and Kevin Young have asserted in their writing, “it would be erroneous and essentialist to assume that all indigenous peoples, including those opposed to the TIPNIS highway, are inherently “pure” and committed to human rights or environmental preservation.”[15] The colonos, cocaleros, CONISUR, and people of Cochabamba and San Ignacio de Moxos are not the only Bolivians in favor of building the road. Kevin Young, a PhD candidate in Latin American history who reports from Bolivia for the progressive media outlet Z Communications, asserts that “significant segments of Bolivia’s marginalized (workers, peasants, indigenous, women, etc.) continue to support the road construction project” due to the potential increase in commercial activity that will be generated by the highway. Some also support the possible opening of the region for gas and oil drilling, “perhaps in part because of increased employment opportunities but also because they anticipate that the increased tax revenue would be used to fund social spending.”[16] The ethnicities of these pro-highway groups are varied: according to journalist Franz Chávez of Inter Press Service, even the indigenous peoples living within TIPNIS are “divided over the road, with peasant movements, trade unions, transport workers, shopkeepers, traders and some indigenous communities defending its construction on the argument that it would bring development.”[17] Johnny, an Osomomo chief, reported to Al Jazeera that “if they build it correctly, so that it skirts the reserve, a road could be a good thing. For example, we have very few health supplies and doctors here and it could help keep our children healthy.”[18] Thus, neither the Andean cocaleros and colonos nor the Amazonian indigenous groups are homogeneous in their stated positions on the highway’s construction. These complex conflicts both among and within indigenous groups have been brought to a head by the law making TIPNIS “untouchable.”

The “Untouchable” Conflict

At first blush, the “untouchable” provision in the new law would appear favorable to the interests of the indigenous who had been protesting the construction of the highway; both Amazonians and a subset of colonos of Andean origin, however, have spoken out against it for various reasons. Vice President Álvaro García Linera announced on November 8 that the only valid interpretation of the law is that the park is “untouchable” for Amazonian native peoples as well as for the Andean colonos and for highway construction.[19] This would have meant that a number of Amazonian native peoples’ profitable businesses, representing such industries as timber and lizard leather, would have had to cease operations in the park as well. Miriam Yuvanobé, an indigenous march leader, claims that this position is unfair, as the businesses have gone to great lengths to use the environmentally friendly framework of integrated management (el marco del manejo integrado), a set of techniques that attempts to maximize sustainability.[20] Furthermore, according to North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) author Emily Achtenberg, some “TIPNIS indigenous groups say these activities… are protected under the territorial rights granted to them by the Bolivian Constitution.”[21]

On the other side of the issue, a group of 14,000 cocalero colonists have maintained that they will remain within TIPNIS despite the “untouchable” provision, which they oppose, as it limits their cultivation.[22] Although Amazonian indigenous leaders finally signed an agreement with the government limiting the “untouchability” of the park to allow for traditional subsistence activities, the government will have to approve each enterprise before it is allowed to go forward. The Amazonian indigenous leadership has also planned a “permanent vigil” until the reaches of the provision are more clearly circumscribed.[23] The controversy caused by this section of the law, far from ending the conflicts, has only highlighted divisions among Bolivians.

Erasing Difference: Failing to Understand Heterogeneous Native Interests

Many leftist leaders and intellectuals in Latin America and around the globe have consistently made the mistake of seeing such varied cultural, racial, and economic groups as part of a homogenous working class. According to political scientist David Sulmont, “The left in Latin America has never really addressed indigenous issues. Its discourse has been about class, and it has tended to see indigenous peoples as rural poor, campesinos, rather than acknowledge their different cultures or identities.”[24] This is true to some extent in Bolivia, despite its new constitution’s declaration of a “plurinational state,” in which, according to Franz Chávez, “indigenous communities and people of mixed-race or European descent mutually recognise their different identities while declaring their unity in the Bolivian state.”[25] Political scientist Jeffery R. Webber has written that, although Morales was the first indigenous president, and was elected largely by indigenous and mestizo constituents, he has since made unpopular decisions that led to less fundamental political-economic change than many of those constituents would have preferred. According to Webber, “one of the ways the MAS sought ideologically to overcome the apparent contradiction of promoting simultaneously democratic indigenous revolution and neoliberal continuities in various political and economic power structures, was to separate the anticolonial indigenous revolution against racist oppression from the socialist revolution to end class exploitation.”[26] The TIPNIS conflict is a crucial example of the way that Bolivia’s position in the capitalist world has limited Morales’ ability to transform his country economically while respecting the rights of all of his constituents, especially the all-important indigenous groups.

The Limits of Leftist Governments within Global Capitalism

In order to reduce the nation’s economic inequality and create an effective social safety net while remaining connected in a modern manner to capitalist nations and foreign investors through international commerce, President Morales needs to sustain or even increase economic growth. As Latin American studies professor William Robinson has asserted, Latin American states are still “deeply tied – and subordinated – to the larger world capitalist system that has shaped its economic and political development from the conquest in 1492 right up to the present period of globalisation.”[27] Although its commodities have attracted much investment through price increases in recent years, Latin America has been unable or unwilling to change its peripheral role of supplying non-value-added commodities such as natural resources to wealthier core countries within the capitalist system, leaving these states without many viable options for independent development.

Although the stated objectives of Bolivia’s ruling party, the MAS-IPSP (Movimiento al Socialismo-Instrumento Político por la Soberanía de los Pueblos – Movement for Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples), include socialism, its economy is still very much tied to the global capitalist system. Mining, for instance, forms the backbone of Bolivia’s economy. In this instance, in order to profit from the exploitation of natural resources, the country must extract its metals to the surface and send them to the refiners and subsequently to market. The peripheral political-economic position that Bolivia shares with much of Latin America also necessitates building infrastructure, such as highways, to facilitate the trade of metals, timber, agricultural products, and other resources.[28] In these processes, the heavy environmental and social costs of development must be met. The TIPNIS conflict thus brings into question whether it is possible for Morales to respect the rights of all indigenous people and protect the environment while simultaneously striving for economic growth through international commerce.

Robinson has written that the Pink Tide states “are now coming up against the limits of redistributive reform within the logic of global capitalism,” and are thus garnering criticism from their leftist constituents, who often want more reform and less engagement with the global capitalist system.[29] With the slogan “another form of development is possible” (“otro desarollo es posible“), journalist Kevin Young contends that:

the message of many of the protesters… seems to be that yes, harvesting and exporting Bolivian resources is necessary in the short term for social redistribution and growth given Bolivia’s underdevelopment and mono-export economy, but there should be limits to that agenda, even if we must sacrifice something in the name of respecting indigenous rights and nature.[30]

In contrast, sociologist Sarah Hines reports from Bolivia that “Garcia Linera’s ‘Andean Amazonian Capitalism’ model hews closely to a Stalinist program of revolution in stages, arguing that Bolivia will not be ready for socialist transformation until it undergoes at least several decades of capitalist development.”[31] But Bolivia’s Amazonian native activists, like many other social movements in Latin America, are rejecting that vision in favor of “another form of development.” While the Pink Tide nations undergo a “right-wing backlash,” they endure simultaneous criticism from these leftist constituents who want more radical change.[32] Thus, the original electoral alliances that brought Morales and other Pink Tide presidents to power may have begun to unravel. Robinson asserts that in such cases as the TIPNIS affair, these social movements “are now seen as threats, to the extent that they stand in the way of resource extraction and the generation of state revenues through granting concessions to transnational capital.”[33] These governments may only be able to regain their constituents’ support by enacting more radical changes, but in doing so would risk their ability to sustain revenue flow and could provoke a more substantial conflict with major capitalist powers such as the U.S. It remains to be seen which direction this moment of bifurcation will take Latin America, and whether grassroots social movements and Pink Tide states will be moving in the same direction.

Critiques from the Left, Co-opted by the Right

In this vein, it is important to remember that most of the indigenous critics to be heard from in the TIPNIS conflict are to the left of the government, not to the right, and that most of these critics still prefer Morales to his rightwing counterparts.[34] From this point of view, it is not a simple case of the “left vs. indigenous in Latin America,” as journalist Simeon Tegel of the Global Post would have it; citizens can support a political movement and yet remain critical, working to improve that movement.[35] The TIPNIS activists, as author Emily Achtenberg reminds her readers, are “not so much against the MAS [Movimiento al Socialismo – Movement for Socialism Party] government as [they are]… for recovery of the ‘process of change’” and an effort to uphold its original ideals.[36]

Yet rightwing Bolivians have co-opted these critiques, drawing criticism for their own self-serving purposes. Achtenberg has noted that “as Morales has repeatedly emphasized, conservative groups that just a few years ago brought the country to the brink of a civil coup over their opposition to indigenous land rights are now ‘TIPNIStas,’ ardently… defending indigenous communities.”[37] In fact, the original TIPNIStas are angry partly because they believe that Morales is dividing the working class and poor, thereby providing an opening for conservative candidates and movements. Several letters to Morales from former Bolivian officials have expressed this damning critique.[38]

These conservative politicians may have historically had help from the United States in their efforts to oppose President Morales, as recently uncovered documentation demonstrates.[39] Furthermore, according to WikiLeaks cables, the U.S. government has planned to work closely with disgruntled indigenous leaders to spread dissatisfaction with the Morales administration.[40] As Kevin Young points out, “The US government approach to Bolivia… has remained consistent under Obama, with the prime objective being to combat what Washington calls ‘radical populism’—shorthand for what… State Department official Laurence Duggan… identified as the idea ‘that the first beneficiaries of the development of a country’s resources should be the people of that country.'” He goes on to point out that while U.S. citizens have the responsibility to put a stop to such interventionism, we must avoid “knee-jerk” support of independent, progressive governments and promote solidarity with the Bolivian people themselves. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Morales administration will continue to respond proactively to his leftist critics or prioritize capitalist accumulation and growth. As the Pink Tide states approach the limits of leftist government under global capitalism, their leaders will continue to face such crucial choices. Progressive social movements will have to decide whether to continue trying to effect the political and economic change on their individual agendas through the mechanisms of their respective states.

References for this article can be found here.

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