Evo Morales vs. the TIPNIS
By David Montoute
Early in 2010, Evo Morales went to the movies for what was –reportedly –only the third time in his life. Showing on screen was James Cameron’s box office breaking Avatar – the sci-fi allegory about the struggle of isolated indigenous peoples to defend their traditional way of life against the depredations of industrial capitalism. For Bolivia’s president, the movie was “a profound example of the resistance” to such depredation and a “fight for the defence of nature.” Little more than a year later, Morales would find himself in a real-life drama reflecting Avatar’s ecological parable. But unlike the heroes of the movie, Bolivia’s “first indigenous president” placed himself, not on the side of the indigenous forest-dwellers, but on the side of the bulldozers driving through their territory.
The TIPNIS reserve – over a million hectares of savannah and dense, pristine, Bolivian tropical forest –is an autonomous “Indigenous Territory” in the heart of Bolivia. It is the ancestral home of the Moxeño, Yuracaré and Chimán – the mostly nomadic native peoples who enjoy a relative cultural isolation and live by hunting, fishing, and food-gathering. Living with them are 11 endangered animal species and thousands of unique plants, all within a recognised hotspot of biological diversity.
Although the status of the TIPNIS is enshrined in Bolivia’s constitution, timber companies over the years have gradually made inroads, gaining forestry concessions and pushing a slow colonization of the territory. But by 2008, a new threat had crystallised –one threatening to definitively end the TIPNIS’ tranquil isolation. The Bolivian government announced the construction of a highway that would cleave the park in two and open a path to the Pacific coast for the export of Brazilian exports. If completed, the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway will bring more than just soya and sugar cane and tropical hardwoods to the international market –coca leaf farmers and the drug traffickers that shadow them will inevitably follow. Behind the traffickers there will follow the illegal loggers and hydrocarbon companies. Natural gas deposits have been discovered within the boundaries of the park and the state hydrocarbons company has already announced its interest in exploring oil. With the number of agricultural colonists estimated at 15,000, they have now exceeded the native people inhabiting the reserve.
As activist Carlos Crespo says, “on paper, it looks grim: a government implacably implementing its “great industrial leap” strategy; a contract already signed with Brazil for that route and no other; global capitalism’s (and particularly Brazilian capitalism’s) support for these kinds of projects; the reign (read: tyranny) of the car in Bolivian society which looks favourably upon anything that smells of cement, oil and speed. In sum, everything looks bad for the movement on paper.” (2) But Crespo goes on to remind us that this was exactly the situation of the movement against Cochabamba’s water privatization at the end of 1999. After five months of popular struggle, however, the multinational Bechtel consortium was forced out of Bolivia and Cochabamba’s water supply returned to local control.
The historic “Water War” signaled the beginning of a process of nationwide radicalization that would culminate with Evo Morales’ election victory in December 2005. For many on the international Left, Evo’s rise to power –part of a trend of left-leaning, reformist governments sweeping Latin America –looked like the dawning of a new age. A long time union leader for coca-leaf growers, Morales’ humble origins and apparent indifference to the trappings of power suggested that a new way of governance had emerged. The rhetoric flowed, as the President’s party promised to “govern by obeying” the people. Into the populist mix of resource nationalism and social welfare programs, the governing MAS party also incorporated a strong ecological discourse and a loose set of (mostly abstract) proposals which would culminate in the 2010 “World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” hosted in Cochabamba.
But it was at this conference that the hidden face of the populist governance came sharply into light. In addition to the official 17 working groups at the conference, the extra-official “Table 18” dissident group proposed a serious, uncompromising revision of the government’s developmentalist economic strategy. As 30,000 international delegates and activists descended on Cochabamba, the Table 18 dissidents were urged to keep their criticisms to themselves. “Don’t embarrass me” Evo told them, but when the dissidents insisted on going ahead, the police were sent in to eject them.
Only a year earlier, the General Assembly of the United Nations had named Evo Morales "World Hero of Mother Earth" in recognition of his international proposals to limit climate change and environmental degradation. But anyone listening to Evo’s self-congratulatory identification with Avatar’s “Na’avi” aliens could only experience a strange kind of cognitive dissonance. It had long been clear that Vice President Garcia Linera’s masterplan (a 5-year leap to “industrialisation”) was on a collision course with what remained of Bolivia’s intact ecospheres. The plan to institute what Garcia Linera called “Andean Capitalism” had, at its core, a huge potentiation of Bolivia’s extractive, raw materials industries –itself predicated upon stable commodity prices on the world market –together with a faithful application of the continent-wide territorial rearrangement known as the IIRSA. (1) As James Petras pointed out, Evo’s Bolivia had, by this time, more mining and multinational-favourable oil & gas contracts than any other Latin American country.
Designed to connect the departments of Beni and Cochabamba, the road is hailed by the Bolivian government as both urgent and necessary for the country’s development. It is, in Evo’s words, in the strategic interest of all Bolivians. But the financing of the project itself reveals broader interests that have little to do with Bolivia’s needs. The road is being built by a construction consortium from Brazil, whilst most of the $415 million cost is being met by a low-interest loan from the government of Brazil.
According to CEDIB’s Pablo Villegas, the true objective of the highway is not to connect Cochabamba with the Beni, but to connect Brazil with the Pacific Ocean:
“To understand the route of this highway, it is necessary to understand Brazil’s plan to penetrate Bolivia via five distinct points; through the north via Cobija and Guayaramerín, (the “Northern Corridor” plus the Rio Madera dam complex and its viaducts), through the south via Puerto Suárez and San Matías (the Interoceanic Corridor) with the TIPNIS being the fifth penetration point.” (3)
These axes of penetration are a core component of the continent-wide IIRSA project that is carving up the Amazon principally in order to empower Brazil’s export economy. So the TIPNIS road will link the Pacific Ocean with Guajará-Mirim in Rondonia – Brazil’s most exhausted and over-exploited agricultural zone. This agricultural strip that runs parallel to Bolivia’s northern limits is separated from it by a buffer zone of national parks and indigenous reserves, but in Guajará-Mirim the break is found –an unprotected corridor, that has already been settled by farmers. Recent, independent studies (4) have predicted the destruction of 64% of the TIPNIS reserve within the next 18 years should the road go ahead, whilst the director of the national park service Adrián Nogales says it will cause “the greatest ecological destruction in Bolivia’s history,” and wreak damage throughout Bolivian society. Bolivia’s former Vice-Minister for the Environment agreed, and when the government refused to consider alternative routes for the road, he resigned from his post in protest.
But the centre stage of this cause has been taken by the indigenous peoples themselves. On August 15, 1,500 marchers, backed by the indigenous federations CIDOB and CONAMAQ left Santa Cruz for a march of over 300 miles to the Bolivian capital. The marchers have now braved the elements for more than 40 days, and whilst heavily pregnant women have almost given birth on the road and one eight-month old child has died, the authorities’ response has been to send its campesino sympathisers to set up hostile blockades and stop the march in every way possible. In San Ignacio de Moxos, they had the windshields of their support vehicles smashed whilst public stores and facilities were forced to close, depriving the marchers of access to food and water. And upon reaching the small town of Yucumo the marchers were again blockaded, firstly by gangs of government-sympathising campesinos and then by the police (the latter under the pretext of “avoiding a confrontation” between the two groups).
But the response of the wider Bolivian population has been very different, with aid delivered from the cities and an intensive campaign of awareness mounted by a range of popular support networks. The TIPNIS has now become a focal rallying point for a large swathe of Bolivian society that has turned against Evo’s government. If the society itself has been ignited and largely united over this protest, the President has been increasingly isolated and repudiated – a situation he has responded to with fury and contempt. Whilst the anger is open and self-confessed, the contempt is more implicit –made manifest in accusations that the protestors are being manipulated by foreign NGOs, by the eastern cattle ranching elites, by timber companies and illegal loggers, and (of course) by the United States and its various agencies. In fact, very few actors have escaped inclusion in the government’s denunciations of a US-inspired conspiracy to divide and weaken them. In his effort to show that the marchers are “instruments of imperialism” receiving funds to “poison our communities with their ideas”, the Bolivian President has openly acknowledged intercepting the telephone calls of opposition figures (and even one of his own congressmen). Spying on citizens is illegal, of course, but the government has overridden this concern through an appeal to the question of “national security”. According to the ex-Minister of the Presidency, the indigenous CIDOB organization has received $100 million from USAID –money, he says, which is used to promote the “internationalization” of the Bolivian Amazon. Deprived of any authentic protagonism, the TIPNIS marchers are described as mere tools of the imperialist strategy, a strategy using the pretext of the environment to convert the Amazon into a series of reserves and “privatize the exploitation of natural resources”. The script is not new, however, and activist Carlos Crespo contends that “[i]n Bolivia the phantom of USAID is invoked every time the government confronts dissidence and internal crises, and now it does so as a device to delegitimize the indigenous march and justify any future repression of the movement, all in the name of its "anti-imperialist" and “anti-capitalist” stance". (5)
After years of uncritical international coverage of Bolivia’s “leftist” government, most of its international sympathisers are incapable of recognizing its illiberal side. But more important than the intolerant personalities driving the Bolivian conflict is what their actions portend for the broader trends of resource nationalism playing out in the region. In 2009 Ecuador’s Rafael Correa joined Evo Morales in a joint denunciation of indigenous activism that opposed “developmentalism”. This kind of activism was nothing more than “a new kind of think tank conspiracy” by NGOs financed by extreme right-wing multinationals and intelligence agencies, chimed Correa. “They are little gringos that come to create disorder and impose here what they never accomplished in their own countries”. (6)
Other neighbourly advice has been less dismissive and counterproductive. Since the beginning of the march, the Brazilian Development Bank has made its financing of the TIPNIS road conditional upon government dialogue with the TIPNIS communities, and when Brazilian ex-President Lula arrived in Santa Cruz in last month, his advice for Evo was to tone down his bellicosity towards the protesters, the better to facilitate a negotiated outcome. But little on the ground since that time has changed, and as the marchers have progressed, they have articulated a series of specific demands, chief amongst which being the demand for “prior consultation”. The government has given lip service to this consultation (which is provided for in the country’s constitution) but it has always insisted that whatever the outcome of talks, the road will be built regardless, “whether they like it or not.” As Evo Morales has ruled out any alternative viable route for the highway, others have shifted the debate onto the country’s constitution itself, and whether it actually provides a people with the right to veto a project that directly impacts them. Interpretations differ, of course, but what is increasingly clear is that the current administration never had any intention of letting the TIPNIS communities stop its plans. The design for the road was completed in 2008, but only now is the government even talking of consultation, and that without allowing for any possible veto of its plan.
Tension is growing in the TIPNIS, and many fear that the conflict could take a tragic, violent turn. In 2009, opposition to a U.S. free trade pact (and the oil drilling it would facilitate) led to a confrontation with the army and a subsequent massacre in the Amazonian region of Bagua in neighbouring Perú. Evo was quick to denounce the aggressive and reckless behavior of his Peruvian counterpart Alan García, whilst García angrily dismissed all such criticism as subversive “foreign interference” (does it ring any bells?). With an air of colonial arrogance on full display, Garcia went on to say: “Four hundred thousand natives cannot tell 28 million Peruvians: ‘you have no right to come in here’…that is a serious mistake and whoever thinks like that will lead us to irrationality and primitive regression.”(7)
How did Bolivia’s President forget this episode so quickly and then allow his ministers to adopt the same language against the peoples of the TIPNIS? A decade ago, during a general election campaign, Evo was invited to give his opinion of his rival candidates. “I am not going to speak ill [of them]” he said, “because the issue is not which individual governs Bolivia, but which kind of mentality governs Bolivia”. It was a brilliant answer, and, like so many others, I often wonder what became of that radical vision that propelled Evo to power, the vision that created a more inclusive society in which the country’s indigenous majorities discovered self-respect for the very first time. If anything remains of Evo Morales’ idealism, he must stop and contemplate where his government’s actions will now lead.
Former TIPNIS spokesman Adolfo Moye has clearly described the invasion of the TIPNIS as an ongoing cultural extermination: “In many villages only the elderly remain. Some communities…have been extinguished and we don't know where our brothers and sisters who lived there have gone”. Between 2002 and 2010, eight such communities disappeared in the colonised areas of the TIPNIS. (8) How could it be that merely a year after his excited admiration for James Cameron’s ecological allegory, Evo has thrown its premise out the window and begun work against the real-life “Indians” depicted in the film? What is clear in the world of fiction has become opaque in Bolivian reality: a slow ethnocide that is either invisible or irrelevant to strategic considerations. Whilst the strategist-in-chief, García Linera, justifies the government’s industrial expansion with the appeal to overcome geographical isolation and “combat poverty” (the Beni contributes only 2.5% of the country’s GDP) he forgets that “the poverty indicator he used corresponds to a neoliberal, capitalist model of development, whose framework and means of measuring the people’s welfare is far removed from the work, way of life, customs and identity of the indigenous people who inhabit that province.” (9)
In other words, ‘poverty’ is not a state of nature, but a social relation (the absence of power). Anybody who has stepped beyond García Linera’s Leninist conception of society will perceive in the TIPNIS a natural abundance can in no way be described as a “state of poverty”. As Norman Lewis pointed out in his own powerful lament for Venezuela’s disappearing hunter tribes:
“[T]hey had evolved in a relatively benign climate in which the seeds could be grown and harvests gathered all year round; the forests provided an abundance of game and the rivers were full of fish. These were the pre-conditions under which a competitive society never developed.”
And this is the irony –that in the name of creating “communitarian socialism”, the Evo Morales-García Linera government is now destroying a patchwork quilt of real communitarian socialist cultures – cultures which neither knew nor required academic learning in order to live, work and dream together. Such is the blindness of the homogenising culture of the global capitalism – incapable of seeing and responding to anything that stands in the way of its own requirements.
For the outstanding French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, all cultures were ethnocentric. They all created a fundamental division between their own exemplary humanity and that of other cultures who could only participate in humanity to a lesser degree. But if all cultures were ethnocentric, Clastres observed, not all cultures are ethnocidal. (10) So what was it about the West, he asked, that facilitated its relentless destruction of everything that escapes its orbit? Finding his answer in the industrial world’s ravenous economic system, he defined capitalism’s inability to stay within boundaries as the real machine of destruction:
“Races, societies, individuals; space, nature, seas, forests, subsoils: everything is useful, everything must be used, everything must be productive, with productivity pushed to its maximum rate of intensity. This is why no respite could be given to societies that left the world to its original, tranquil unproductivity. This is why in the eyes of the West, the waste represented by the non-exploitation of immense resources was intolerable. The choice left to these societies raised a dilemma: either give in to production or disappear; either ethnocide or genocide.”
The author can be reached at gnaoua22 [at] yahoo.co.uk
The following petitions call for the annulation of the proposed route for the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway:
(3) Villegas agrees that Bolivia needs roadways for internal circulation, not for oligarchies and drug traffickers, but for communities and their small-scale produce http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=134559&titular=que-brasil-y-chile-hagan-sus-caminos-por-otro-pa%EDs-
(10) Pierre Clastres, The Archeology of Violence, Semiotext(e) 1994