In my third year the Hispanic Studies department at the University of Aberdeen began getting us all to think about what we were going to do for our year abroad. The purpose of this time abroad is to give us the opportunity to live in a Spanish speaking country, immersing ourselves in the language and culture. I wanted to go somewhere I would usually never have the chance of going, and I wanted a challenge. Being interested in indigenous rights, I was overjoyed at being accepted as a volunteer for the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), which is based in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Eastern Bolivia.
After many months of planning, organizing and saving up money, I was really excited about the prospect of finally beginning my journey to Bolivia that July of 2011. After a delayed flight from Amsterdam, a missed plane in Madrid, two nights in a hotel, a delayed flight from Lima, two hours in customs and a lost suitcase later, I had finally arrived. It was 2 in the morning, I was exhausted, nervous and hungry, but I had made it!
Santa Cruz is a city which is growing rapidly, and its streets are organized by rings which ripple out from the central Plaza. The main plaza is very beautiful, with its huge reddish cathedral that looks out over the palm trees and the locals hanging around drinking coffee. To get to work I would take the local buses, or ‘Micros’, which are much smaller than European buses, extremely crowded and hectic. It took some time to figure out the whole system, but I eventually managed to find my way around, often with the help of friendly locals. I spent most of my days there working in the library of CIDOB, cataloguing books and organizing the shelves. The offices were hot, dusty, and still in the process of being refurbished after being ransacked in a racist attack on the offices a couple of years ago, and I was happy to do every little bit to help. At times the work was tedious, but my efforts were rewarded by being invited on a couple of once-in-a-lifetime trips to various indigenous communities with the documentary team of the organization.
There are so many stories I could and would want to write about, but there is one in particular that I consider to be the most important to share with you.
When I arrived in Bolivia last year, Evo Morales and his government announced their plan to construct a highway straight through the centre of the Indigenous Territory and National Park of Isiboro-Sécure, TIPNIS (see map below where the black line represents the proposed highway and the colored region is TIPNIS). This announcement outraged the communities and was a serious concern to CIDOB because not only was this plan unconstitutional, but it was and remains, illegal. So after that my job within the organization changed and a lot of my work involved going to the local marches organized in the city, helping out to collect food and necessities to be sent to the indigenous march, and I was also in charge of collecting all of the journalistic reports which were published in relation to the indigenous march.
The government wants to construct this highway for a number of reasons. First of all, they argue that it would unite the departments of Cochabamba and Beni, make travel a lot quicker between these important regions, help Bolivian integration to the rest of South America as part of a greater plan of creating a network of highways, generate social and economic development as well as integrate the indigenous peoples to the rest of country.
However, TIPNIS was declared a National Park in 1965 through the Supreme Decree 7401, and in 1990 the area was given the official status of Indigenous Territory. Furthermore, TIPNIS was awarded the status of Tierra Communitaria de Origen (TCO) in 1997, which is a form of land ownership recognized by the Bolivian constitution where the indigenous communities hold the right to decide over the development and use of the area. Despite this, Evo Morales and his government did not consult the people living in the area over the plans for the highway (which also violates international laws on human rights and the rights of indigenous people). Instead, this “consultation” is now being carried out after the road has already started being constructed, vast areas of forest have already been cleared, and the people are being persuaded to comply through threats, intimidation and bribery.
TIPNIS is home to three tribes, the Yuracare, Mojeño and Chimanes who all have their own unique languages, traditions and beliefs, but what unites them all is the importance of the forest in their day to day lives. The indigenous people from the region generally opposed the construction project because they feared it would affect their way of life, it would destroy and pollute the forest and rivers which they depend on for hunting, foraging and fishing, it would attract colonisers, loggers, illegal coca growers to the area which would bring further destruction, and they feared the social impacts of the presence of the construction workers. Most of all, they argued that the construction of this highway would break the law and the constitution, and would violate the rights of the indigenous people with the danger of setting a precedent which could be used to legalize and justify the same type of construction projects in other indigenous territories.
The proposed road will pass through a region which experiences annual flooding for a substantial part of the year, leaving the question of how practical it is to build a road through this area. Alternative routes for the road have been suggested to go around the fragile region in question, minimizing the ecological and cultural impact of increasing infrastructure. However, the government has ignored the suggested alternative routes, leaving one with the only conclusion that this is not just about a road. Furthermore, within the last year the government has announced plans of pursuing the exploration of oil within the region which only goes to support the suspicion that the government intends to exploit the valuable resources found within TIPNIS.
To be continued in Part 2….