Bolivia’s indigenous face is wounded. Every time there are threats and actions against the native people, the nation bleeds more and more. The natural areas of the Tipnis and the Madidi, both in the Bolivian Amazon, are the settings of mistreatment of these communities, even though the country has been governed for 13 years by an indigenous president, Evo Morales.
The Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (better known by its initials Tipnis), is located between the departments of Cochabamba and Beni. Its inhabitants have organized massive marches against the government and live in a state of constant emergency due to the political ambition of building a highway that would divide the protected area where they have lived for five decades in two.
Further north is the Madidi National Park and Natural Area of Integrated Management. These natural reserves are part of the department of La Paz in the northwestern part of the country. Its inhabitants have opposed the construction of two hydroelectric dams, a struggle that has brought negative consequences to their families and villages
In both cases, dozens of indigenous leaders have been threatened, persecuted and legally harassed. From beatings to poorly veiled threats against family members’ jobs, they have all suffered the consequences of defending the rights and territories of their indigenous communities.
A road in the middle of the jungle
The Tipnis is a wondrous territory of a stunning biodiversity. It covers 13,722 square kilometers and 63 communities, each led by a chieftain or supreme indigenous authority. The south of the area suffers deforestation due to the incursion of coca growers from the Cochabamba tropics where Evo Morales’ political power hails from, explaining why these settlers’ leadership is close to the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) political party.
Several leaders rallied around Morales’ MAS party in the center of Tipnis and parts of the north, but there are still plenty of villages that resist and oppose the road. This struggle has been ongoing for eight years and has left a trail of suffering behind it.
One of the most painful episodes occurred during the Eighth Indigenous March to the seat of the national government in La Paz, in which more than 100 indigenous persons from eastern Bolivia were brutally repressed and gagged by police forces in an area known as Chaparina, between the departments of Beni and La Paz.
Fernando Vargas Mosua was the leader of that march. He lowers his gaze when asked about September 25, 2011 and says it is a painful recollection. Today, this indigenous leader does not have a job, and he insists that employers turn him down because of pressure from the government. Mosua also suffered the kidnapping of one of his daughters and had to leave the place where he lived.
His life is full of challenges, but he doesn’t complain.
“I think the struggle was not in vain, but now we don’t know what will happen,” he says, with a hint of both bitterness and hope in his voice. He lives in Trinidad, the capital of Beni, in a modest room with improvised zinc panels as walls. Inside there are three beds and a small kitchen. The house belongs to his brother, who had to take him in and protect him from the threats and harassment.
The defense of the Tipnis area dates back to 1990, when the communities of Bolivia’s lowlands organized the first indigenous “March for Territory and Dignity.” This protest, which began in Trinidad and ended in La Paz after a month of walking, capped a historic milestone because in the end they achieved recognition from the State. The first indigenous territories of the Bolivian Amazon were born as a result.
Marcial Fabricano Noe, a veteran indigenous leader who was born in the Tipnis, was one of its leaders. Now, 29 years after he led the march of Amazon natives and achieved the legal recognition of a ¡Native Communal Land’ in the Tipnis (ensuring the protection of the ecological reserve, its indigenous uses, and their traditional customs), he reflects on the situation of what he calls his “big home.”
His conclusion is that indigenous people were more respected in governments led by presidents who did not have an indigenous background, as opposed to what has happened under incumbent leader Evo Morales.
“The current government has hindered all this progress that we have achieved, concerning the ability to have our own space and equal rights as Bolivian citizens,” Noe stressed.
Noe has suffered all sorts of threats. He cannot find work, he has been persecuted by MAS party authorities in Beni, and his family has received anonymous threats. Even so, he continues to fight for his territory. In 2009, other indigenous people affiliated with the ruling party arrested him and beat him, arguing that it was a corrective action within the framework of indigenous justice, which is safeguarded by the Constitution.
The repression in Chaparina eight years ago was one of the most significant political crisis during Morales’ 13 years in power. The government was forced to organize a media campaign to counteract the impact on public opinion resulting from the brutal police intervention that sought to dissolve the mobilization of some 1,500 indigenous people. Those people marching were following the same route as the historic 1990 protest, heading towards La Paz to express their rejection of the construction of the road that would split their ancestral territory in two.
That protest led to the approval of Law 180, which declared the Tipnis an intangible area and prevented, at least momentarily, a road passing through the heart of the natural park. However, in August 2017, President Morales responded with another bill, Law 266, which eliminated the intangibility of the reservation and gave new life to the road project.
However, for now, the project is at a standstill. The Bolivian Highway Administration (ABC), which depends on the Ministry of Public Works, says it has no intention of continuing with its construction, which still has one of its three sections pending. “At the moment we are in stage zero. We have not started to build anything. That is the real situation," said its president, Luis Sanchez.
In any case, there are already two sections almost completed. In the first sector, where the coca growers’ base is, strangers are watched at every step. In the third stretch, Brazilian construction company OAS used to operate.
The Ministry of Environment and Water has ruled out plans to prosecute Tipnis leaders. Environment Minister Carlos Ortuño points out that, on the contrary, there are development plans for the inhabitants of the natural reserve.
“There is no prosecution. The government is working to ensure progress in the Tipnis,” he said after being contacted by El Deber.
Ortuño cited, for example, that there are projects for cocoa processing centers, community tanneries for the management of lizard leather within the framework of the National Lizard Program, and carpentry centers within the national park, as well as provisions to guarantee access to drinking water.
The community against the road
Trinidacito is the community that most resists the Morales government within the Tipnis. This zone, in the northern part of the protected area, receives little attention from the State, and its inhabitants live in very precarious conditions and poverty.
Their struggle to prevent building the road is costing them dearly. The people do not have drinking water, electricity or telecommunications connections. Education only reaches the primary level, and teachers are available on and off. Health care does not exist. There are no doctors or medicines.
Houses are rustic, and the area can only be reached on foot or in a small plane costing US $600, a price that is not affordable to community members. To move from one place to another, or do business in other towns, they have to walk for days. In the rainy season, the Isiboro and Sécure rivers become their primary connection.
Marquesa Teco is the leader of the Tipnis Women’s Sub-Central. She regretted that in Trinidacito there is no State presence as its inhabitants demand the preservation of their territory.
She suffered attacks in Trinidad, where she had to move because her children could not access education on indigenous land. Her family also has been the victim of threats. Because she is a political opponent, nobody wants to give her or her loved ones a job.
“My husband left after the gasification (with tear gas) and repression. The children suffered a lot, and there were abortions because of the gasification. My husband was handcuffed and temporarily taken away in a van without anyone’s knowledge. To this day, there are no guilty parts,” Teco said.
Those versions have their counterparts. Ramona Moye Camaconi is a deputy elected by Morales’ party. She is an indigenous woman who comes from the Tipnis and deflects the positions of her detractors. As a legislator, she said that she fights for the progress of her region and denies that the leaders suffer any persecution from the government. Moye is clear about her position and applauds the fact that the intangibility of the Tipnis was eliminated by the law passed in 2017.
“The residents of certain communities that live in this territory were able to access housing, health, phone connections, sports centers and projects for educational units. Now there is the road issue, which is also a request from the people. There is no persecution. Moreover, the leaders who opposed the road can freely speak to the media and some of them coordinate with non-governmental organizations,” she said.
The problems surrounding the Tipnis, which is home to the Yuracaré, Tchimán, and Moxeño Trinitario indigenous peoples, have also affected other leaders such as Benigno Noza, Félix Cayuba, Roberto Noza, Carmen Guasebe, and Catalina Moy, who denounce threats for opposing the construction of the highway.
Pablo Solón was Evo Morales’ ambassador to the United Nations. This social leader, who quit the government after the Police’s handling of the indigenous marches in defense of the Tipnis, stresses that it is necessary to understand the history of the area to better solve its problems.
Two decades after the first march, the Morales government granted the Tipnis Indians a collective title to their territory, but only comprising 1,091,656 hectares. Shortly before, in 2009, coca farmers and settlers with ties to Morales’ MAS party had entered the national park and the indigenous region, occupying what is now known as Polygon 7 even though outsiders could not come without an authorization from local communities.
The park has an immense natural wealth: around 858 species of vertebrates, including 470 birds, 108 mammals, 39 reptiles, 53 amphibians and 188 fish, as well as some 2,500 species of unregistered plants.
This biodiversity is explained by the great variety of ecosystems in an area that ranges from tropical forests at 180 meters above sea level to high mountains above 3,000 meters, including the highest rainfall in Bolivia.
“It is one of the lungs of oxygen and one of the most important water pumps in the country,” said Solon, recalling that the French naturalist Alcide D'Orbigny proclaimed it “the most beautiful jungle in the world” after his trip between 1830 and 1833
Hence, Solon speaks of the highway project as the “cursed road.” He doesn’t see benefits for the indigenous people from the natural reserve. Instead, he believes that it would only benefit the settlers who grow coca in an area where this crop is closely linked to the drug trade.
Tacana leader Adolfo Chávez took refuge in Ecuador, and Morales’ government persecuted him.
He shares a famous saying from his people: “When the tiger eats the dog, it is close to attacking its owner,” he said, commenting that it perfectly describes their relationship with the government.
To him, the tiger is eating the owner of the Tipnis.
“Don Evo Morales has raged against the leaders, men, and women, of the Amazon because what he did in Chaparina with children, young and old, its unforgettable,” Chavez said.
The Tipnis, which the Indians call “the big home,” is now a word that evokes a spirit of resistance.
Hydroelectric plants in the world’s most biodiverse park
Many indigenous people see hydroelectric power as a destructive threat. The Morales government sees it as a priority to turn Bolivia into the “energy heart of South America.”
Domingo Ocampo, a Mosetén indigenous leader, is one of those who resists the construction of two large hydroelectric dams in El Bala and El Chepete.
The Mosetenes, Chimanes, Esse Ejas, Lecos, Tacanas and Uchupiamonas form part of the resistance. These groups are ancient indigenous peoples who have always inhabited Madidi, a protected natural area considered as the most biodiverse in the world.
Last year, Bolivia brimmed with pride when an expedition of scientists found at least 124 species of animals and plants considered new to science.
Ocampo believes that defending Madidi from the advance of hydroelectric dams is a matter of life. After two and a half years of struggle, it has meant putting his own life at risk. “If we don't do it, what we do leave to our children and our grandchildren?” he asked.
The Commonwealth of Communities of the Beni, Quiquibey and Tuichi Rivers, made up of 17 indigenous communities, had to resort on November 10, 2016 to a method that had already worked 15 years earlier: blocking El Bala Strait.
However, how do you block a river? “We pull wires from bank to bank of the river so that the boats don’t pass,” said Ocampo, leader of the Torewa community, in the northwest of the park
The boats they blocked belonged to a company subcontracted by the Italian consulting firm Geodata, which was selected to carry out the identification studies for construction of the hydroelectric dams.
El Bala and Chepete dams are central to Morales’ plan to export electricity to neighboring countries such as Brazil and Argentina. His proposal seeks to achieve an installed capacity of 10,000 megawatts (MW) in several hydroelectric plants throughout the country. That's why the president declared them as projects of national interest in 2007 and, eight years later, announced an investment of 7 million dollars to make them a reality.
Achieving this goal implies a five-fold increase in current hydroelectric capacity.
“It would not even represent 2 percent of the installed capacity in South America, which is why the phrase, ‘Bolivia, energy heart of South America’, with which the government inaugurated its third administration is a slogan without a grip on reality,” said the Solon Foundation, founded by former diplomat Pablo Solon and specializing in the study of hydroelectric power.
How does this government goal affect the indigenous people of Madidi? Because the El Bala and Chepete projects would flood at least 771 square kilometers of their territory, they feel that the world’s most biodiverse national park, as well as the neighboring protected area of the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Community Land of Pilón Lajas Origin, are in imminent danger of disappearance.
The anger, Ocampo said, is that the administrative and exploration processes began without even taking into account the ancestral peoples who live there.
He said the Constitution was violated, insisting that its Article 30 guarantees the “right to obligatory prior consultation, carried out by the State, in good faith and concert.” It is also enshrined in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization of the United Nations that Bolivia signed and ratified.
Furthermore, Article 352 of the Bolivian Constitution states that “the exploitation of natural resources in a given territory shall be subject to a process of consultation with the affected population, convened by the State, which shall be free, prior and informed. Citizen participation in the environmental management process is guaranteed, and the conservation of ecosystems will be promoted, following the Constitution and the law. In the native indigenous peasant nations and peoples, consultation will take place respecting their norms and procedures.”
The way the indigenous people see it, demanding their rights as an ethnic minority was what put them at odds with a government led by another indigenous person. This is what hurts them most.
Alex Villca Limaco is one of the most active young indigenous leaders and a staunch defender of their territory. He was one of the leaders that encouraged the near-septuagenarian Ocampo to not let his guard down. At that moment, Ocampo had said he was tired of fighting Goliath and of his brothers being “co-opted” in exchange for work. Tired of seeing how the Torewa Peasant Community, of which Ocampo is secretary general, saw a parallel organization created for settlers associated with Morales’ political party and with lands titled them, transforming the original Torewa inhabitants into tenants within their own territory. Tired that he was accused of dividing the community and opposing progress for his own, of being defenestrated on social media, among other strategies that –they denounce- leaders close to the government resorted to in their quest to bend their will.
These pressures intensified after they blocked the El Bala Strait for 10 days in November 2016 and forced the company doing the studies to withdraw.
Limaco hails from the Uchupiamona ethnic group. After working as a park ranger in Madidi, he graduated in tourism at the San Andrés Mayor University in La Paz, with a post-graduate degree in the same area. He knows the territory he defends inch by inch, as well as the socio-environmental costs derived from the construction of hydroelectric dams.
Threats have also targeted him in different ways, including because of his educational training. The Minister of Oil, Luis Sánchez, doubted his indigenous identity “for having studied at a university and having an ecotourism venture.”
According to press archives, Minister Sánchez said that “obviously there are some spokespersons, but they are from the NGOs. There was a person shouting ‘no’ to the Bala project, on page one of Pagina 7 newspaper. Many other indigenous leaders told us that he owned an important tourism company and has a master's degree in a university in La Paz. So he's not indigenous anymore, his vision is hindering these projects.”
Attacks didn’t stop there. Limaco pointed out that “spokespersons” of the government also sent him threats, telling them to put an end to his activism, otherwise his business would be closed. Those threats never materialized, but they continued on the web. The creation of fake profiles on social networks to delegitimize him is something he continually deals with.
The same thing happened to another colleague in the struggle, the Uchupiamona indigenous leader Ruth Alipaz. She also obtained a degree in business administration at Santa Cruz Private University (UPSA) and currently leads a bird watching project.
Alipaz started receiving threats in April 2018 after she stated at the United Nations Indigenous Forum in New York that 51 indigenous and peasant communities in Bolivia will lose their lands or will be affected if the Morales government carries out the hydroelectric projects.
The socio-environmental Atlas of the Bolivian Lowlands and Yungas, prepared by the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN), warned that environmental changes and impacts resulting from these hydroelectric dams could be irreversible.
According to Alipaz, rivers located downstream of the dam would drastically see their flows diminished, aquatic biodiversity would decrease (breaking the reproduction cycle), affecting the surrounding wetlands and the subsistence fishing of native peoples.
Upstream, floods would tend to be more frequent, causing more erosion and sedimentation, she said, and the sum of these impacts would cause migration and displacement of communities that depend on the region’s flora and fauna. Added to this is the modification of the local climate and the loss of connectivity between mountain rivers and the plain.
According to former diplomat Solón, the Chepete reservoir would be 677 square kilometers, and the El Bala reservoir would cover 94 - an area five times larger than the sprawling city of La Paz. In total, Solon calculated that 5,164 people would have to be relocated, most of them indigenous and peasants.
Energy Minister Rafael Alarcón said in May 2018 that the Chepete, according to the pre-feasibility study, was convenient. The same did not happen with El Bala, whose high market price didn’t make it as attractive.
“There are changes in this. We are working on pre-feasibility analysis. We are not going to build something that means a loss. For the love of God, that would never build facilities that entail financial losses for the Bolivia,” he said.
For Alarcon, the versions of the detractors to these projects are based on partial documents and not on the final study, the result of which is not yet publicly available.
According to a survey by the Solón Foundation in February 2019, El Bala and Chepete already have an identification study establishing their final locations (carried out by the Italian consultancy Geodata), environmental data sheets and a pre-investment technical design study that is in preparation.
For this report, El Deber requested an interview with Alarcón, but at the time of publishing, he had not responded to our request.
El Deber also sought out Viceminister of Interculturality Rodolfo Machaca, but - caught up in a pension scandal - he refused to respond to our request. He later resigned from his post.
Minister Diego Pary, an indigenous Quechua, was requested for an interview, but the questions sent to the communication area of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about this case and the Tipnis case remain unanswered.
In late March, Morales spoke on state TV program The people are the news of his government’s plan for the 2020-2025 term, even though his decision to run once more is resisted and qualified as illegal. By 2025, Bolivia “will be a country that produces and transforms food, produces and exports electricity, taking full advantage of its hydroelectric potential,” he said.
Energy production is part of Bolivia’s “Bicentennial Agenda,” which envisions that by 2025 the country will have an electrical production capacity of 6,000 megawatts.
“I proposed 9,000 megawatts, and some ministers said I was crazy, but look how close we are to that goal. If they let us build El Bala and Chepete, we will get there,” Morales said.
The president also referred to living in harmony with nature, a central concern of communities such as Tipnis and Madidi.
“The State must guarantee the Bolivian people’s full access to these services under equitable conditions and in balance and harmony with Mother Earth,” he said.
The resistance has managed to paralyze the hydroelectric project for now. However, there are voices that seek to revive it, leading the inhabitants of Madidi to continue with their efforts. They don’t want any more blood on Bolivia’s indigenous face.
Both the indigenous people of Tipnis, who are opposed to a road splitting in two in their territory, and those of Madidi, who resist the construction of hydroelectric dams, feel doubly wounded and the need to fight against an “indigenous brother” who is now the president
They have said Morales isn’t listening to them. On the contrary, they say he sees them as opponents.