TIPNIS: the saga for the rights of nature and indigenous people

by Pablo Solón

[Versión en español] The story of TIPNIS is a story of dignity, struggle, glory, betrayal, heroism, repression, victory and renewed betrayal against the rights of Mother Earth and of indigenous people.

The home

TIPNIS is at the same time protected area and indigenous territory in Bolivia. The name TIPNIS stands for Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Secure. Isiboro and Secure are the names of two rivers that limit this land that had originally an extension of 1.225.347 hectares. If TIPNIS would be a country it would be bigger than Puerto Rico, Lebanon or Kosovo.

The national park of Isiboro Secure was declared in 1965 and the recognition of the indigenous territory happened in 1990 after the “First March for indigenous territory and dignity”. Three hundred indigenous people of the lowlands of Bolivia started this “first march” and walked 640 km for 34 days from the jungle to the high mountains until they arrived to the city of La Paz.

Nineteen years after the victory of the “first march”, the government of Evo Morales gave the indigenous people of TIPNIS the collective title of their territory but for only 1.091.656 hectares. By the year 2009, several settlements of peasants that are mainly coca producers had entered the national park and indigenous territory, occupying what is called the “Polygon 7”.

TIPNIS is the territory of Yuracares, Tchimanes and Moxeños Trinitarios that are indigenous nations recognized in the Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia of 2009.

TIPNIS is also home of 858 registered species of vertebrate animals. Among them are 470 species of birds, 108 mammals, 39 reptiles, 53 amphibians and 188 species of fishes[1]. When it comes to insects, there are 178 species registered. At the level of plants there are around 2.500 species. Several of these species of animals, insects and plants are endemic and in danger.

In TIPNIS, we can find different types of forests and ecosystems. The altitude of the territory goes from 180 to 3.000 meters above sea level (m.a.s.l.), with an average of 350 m.a.s.l.. TIPNIS is the region where there is more rain in Bolivia, with a rainfall that exceeds 3.000 mm per year. TIPNIS is one of the most important oxygen lungs and water pumps of the country because of its forests. The famous French naturalist Alcides D’Orbigny (1802-1857) explored the region and said it is “the most beautiful jungle in the world”.

The legal shield

According to article 385 of the constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia of 2009 “protected areas constitute a common good, and they form part of the natural and cultural patrimony of the country” and wherever there is an overlapping of “protected areas and indigenous territories, the shared management shall be undertaken, subject to the norms and procedures of the indigenous nations and peoples, and respecting the goal for which these areas were created”.

In Bolivia nature and therefore protected areas and all the biodiversity and ecosystems have rights according to Law Nº 71 of the Rights of Mother Earth adopted in 2010. This law says that “the dynamic and complex communities of plants, animals, micro organisms, other beings and their environment” have legal standing and several rights including the right to live, to the integrity of their systems, to a healthy environment, to diversity of life, and to preserve its capacity to regenerate. Law Nº 71 establishes the obligation of the State to “develop public policies and systematic actions to prevent, early warning, protect, precaution to avoid that human activities lead to the extinction of populations of beings and the alteration of the cycles and processes that guarantee their life”.

The assassin road

The story of a road to connect the cities of Cochabamba and Trinidad is very old in Bolivia. The project of a road from the population of Villa Tunari in Cochabamba to San Ignacio de Moxos on the way to Trinidad appears in several decrees and laws adopted by neoliberal governments until 2003. But the project began to have real shape when in 2008 the government of Evo Morales granted a contract of 415 million dollars to the Brazilian construction company OAS. One year later, in 2009 president Ignacio Lula da Silva from Brazil signed a protocol to finance 80% of this cost.

The government of Evo Morales divided the road into three tranches. The first from Villa Tunary to Isinuta (47 km), the second from Isinuta to Monte Grande (177 km) and the third from Monte Grande to San Ignacio de Moxos (82 km). The second tranche is the one that cuts TIPNIS in two.

Before granting any contract to build the road the national government didn’t do an integral environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the three tranches of the road. There is only an EIA of the first and third tranches done in 2010. Until now there is no EIA of the second tranche.

Resistance, repression and victory

On August 15th 2011 around one thousand indigenous people of the lowlands of Bolivia started in the city of Trinidad the “Eight March of Indigenous people” in defense of TIPNIS. The march was dismissed by the government from the beginning. When it arrived the 25th of September to the locality of Chaparina five hundred policemen intervened violently and dissolved the march detaining hundreds of people.

The public in Bolivia was shocked by the images of police repression and president Evo Morales had to declare that he or none of his ministers gave the instruction to intervene in the march. After six years of investigations, the attorney’s office has not clarified who gave the order for this repression, but a special report of the Ombudsman dated November 2011[2] points to high authorities of the government.

The indigenous people managed to reorganize the “Eight March” and after 65 days arrived to La Paz in the middle of a great welcome of solidarity. Evo Morales had no choice but to sign on October 24th the law Nº 180 that declares the intangibility of TIPNIS and establishes that the road Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos will not pass through TIPNIS. It was the moment of glory.

The counter offensive

A few months later, in February 2012, the government struck back and approved Law Nº 222 that establishes a process of “consultation” to the communities of TIPNIS to see if the “intangibility” should be maintained and the road Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos be built.

In April 2012, the “Ninth March” of indigenous people started rejecting Law Nº 222 and defending Law Nº180 that only six months ago was adopted. The indigenous people arrived to La Paz and for ten days they asked for an interview with president Morales that never happened. With great pain and sorrow they returned to TIPNIS.

In the second semester of 2012, the government began the process of “consultation” inside TIPNIS. After some months the government announced that the majority of indigenous communities don’t want the “intangibility” of their territory and are not against the road. Two shadow reports of the Catholic Church and the Human Rights Assembly of Bolivia with the participation of the International Federation of Human Rights[3] question the validity of that “consultation”. They say that according to international standards there was not a proper prior informed process of consultation and that several violations happened like the manipulation of the term “intangibility” by government that said that TIPNIS communities would not have access to health, education and tourist projects if that concept was not erased from the law.

The government waited for several years to implement the results of that manipulated process of consultation. When many of the leaders of TIPNIS had changed, in August 2017 the government approved in the blink of an eye, Law Nº 929 that eliminates the intangibility of TIPNIS and opens the door for the construction of the second tranche of the road. When signing this law, president Morales said that those that are against are enemies of the development of indigenous people that live in TIPNIS.

Ecocide and ethnocide

The road will not bring development to the indigenous people of TIPNIS because the majority of the 69 communities that are inside this indigenous territory will be more than 50 km away from the road. A Strategic Environmental Evaluation of the TIPNIS done in 2011 by the National State Office of Protected Areas (SERNAP) warns against these kinds of projects saying that they will impact on indigenous peoples lives, undermine their culture and force them to adopt patterns of production and consumption that are based on a different logic[4].

The road will benefit mainly the new settlers and coca producers that have already invaded the national park. Already 60% of the area of “Polygon 7” has been deforested to plant coca[5]. According to the report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) between 2015 and 2016 there has been an increase of coca plantations of 43 % in “Polygon 7”[6].

A study from the Program of Strategic Research in Bolivia (PIEB) of 2011 shows that if the road is built through the heart of TIPNIS, 64,5% of the forest will be lost in 18 years[7]. This means to clear 610.848 hectares of jungle that is the habitat of hundreds of animals, insects and plants and territory of Yuracares, Tchimanes and Moxeños Trinitarios

The impact will not be only in the territory of TIPNIS but also in neighboring areas including big cities like Cochabamba that already suffer from droughts. Less trees means less humidity in the air and less rain. To build a road through the heart of TIPNIS is an ecocide and an ethnocide.

The return of TIPNIS

A new process of resistance has begun. The situation is more difficult than in 2011. The leaders of many indigenous communities are being coopted by the government or went into politics joining right wing parties. A new young generation of indigenous leaders taking up the struggle is emerging in TIPNIS. In the cities, hundreds of environmental activists are mobilizing. In urban areas there is an increasing consciousness that rain and forests are linked because last year there was a big drought in important cities.

In the front of the road, the contract with the construction company OAS was broken because it was overpriced. The Brazilian National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDSE) cancelled the grant to build the road. Tranches one and three of the road are being built by national companies with public funds and several delays. Tranche two that will cut TIPNIS has not started and the government just declared that they don’t have the money to finance this sector of the road. The danger is that some bridges are being built illegally in the area and that the process of illegal settlements can spread inside the National Park.

TIPNIS in Bolivia is a word that now has a spirit of its own. TIPNIS means that the rights of nature and indigenous people that have full legal recognition in the country should be implemented in practice. TIPNIS means that what you say is what you should do. The cry of TIPNIS was delivered in the Vice-presidency hall by a young woman activist the day that Evo Morales was being awarded by the Latin American Council of Social Science (CLACSO). TIPNIS is here and needs your support.

[1] Fernández, E. y Altamirano, S., 2004

[2] http://www.defensoria.gob.bo/archivos/Informe_Defensorial_Intervencion_Marcha_Indigena_DP.pdf

[3] https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/bolivia609esp2013.pdf

[4] http://www.cambioclimatico.org.bo/derechosmt/092011/280911_1.pdf

[5] http://fobomade.org.bo/2017/09/02/tipnis-deforestacion-poligono-7/

[6] https://fundacionsolon.org/2017/08/11/el-tipnis-y-la-coca-segun-unodc/

[7] http://www.pieb.com.bo/sipieb_somos.php

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Tunup@ Nº 02/2015 E 

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