TIPNIS: Struggle, Protest and Conflict in Bolivia – Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

In response to these plans, CIDOB decided to take action in the form of a huge indigenous march, which they called the “7th Great Indigenous March in defense of the Indigenous Territory and National Park of Isiboro-Securé- TIPNIS, for the Territory, Life, Dignity and the Rights of the Indigenous People”.  This was the first of a number of marches to come in defense of the territory, and it would eventually take the men, women and children who participated 65 days to reach the capital.

Despite the serious reasons behind the march, the atmosphere in the office was hopeful, and buzzing with an electricity of excitement and anticipation. I was personally not immune to this. The sense of adventure was immense, and I could not help but think how amazing it would be to experience the march for myself. I know now what a naive thought that was.

I dismissed nagging concerns that this could all get out of hand, and carried on with my work in the office. I had been invited to join the march a number of times, but I was tied to Santa Cruz by the annoying necessity of having to renew my visa every couple of weeks. My colleagues at the office kept coming and going during those weeks, bringing photos, movies and stories from the march. Some were hopeful and funny, others painful and worrying. Over the weeks there were fatalities, a number of them children who had died as a result of road accidents along the way. With every death there was a deepening sense of wariness and concern for what the future held. Reports of harassment from the police began to increase in number, and by the time the marchers had reached Yucumo, close to the half-way point of their journey, there were fears of a serious clash with pro-government groups. Again, I tried not to think about it too much. At the time it didn’t make any sense to me that the government would want to attack the marchers, especially since President Morales’ image of being an indigenous president is so important to his reputation. But, our fears did materialize on the 25th of September, 2011, a day which has stuck with me ever since.

I walked into the office, and remember my boss turning to me: “Jessica, there has been a massacre.” The feeling of coldness rushing over me as the shock of that sentence sunk in is still a vivid memory to this day. Because many of the phones had been confiscated along with other journalistic materials earlier by the police, it was proving very difficult to figure out what was going on. Furthermore, as many of the media sources are controlled by the government, there was a lot of misinformation and confusion. As the day went on and I frantically searched all the media sources and social media websites, it became clear that what we were dealing with wasn’t a massacre, which came to be somewhat of a relief amid the chaos that was still ongoing. It still took many hours of piecing together reports before we had any clear idea of what happened. In the end, the following was the conclusion:

At 5pm that day, a police force had initiated an attack on the marchers’ camp, capturing many of them and forcing them onto buses destined for the town of San Borja. In the course of the attack a baby died as a result of asphyxiation from the tear gas that was used. 37 people (of which 7 were children), went missing as many of them scattered into the nearby jungle during the chaos. Images emerged of women with their hands tied and their mouths taped shut, and men being brutally beaten.

Back in the office, all the indigenous representatives were called away for emergency meetings. I was left to piece together the news that was slowly pouring in. I read through the lists of missing persons, desperately hoping not to come across any familiar names. I wondered if my colleagues were there, or if they had managed to get away before the violence began. I have never felt so helpless. In the aftermath there were worries that the government might target the offices where I worked to put an end to the whole conflict for once and for all, so most of us worked from home for the rest of the week. During that week I had more than enough time to reflect on what had happened, and to worry about what was to come. The youth group of CIDOB organized many marches in protest of the attack, and I went along to those and helped in any way I could. Those instances made me feel slightly better as marching alongside others who were equally outraged by the attack on the peaceful march made me feel like I was doing something at least.

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A ceremony to bless the protest

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Protest in Santa Cruz against the violent act of repression committed by the government, and to show support for the indigenous march

I kept thinking about the people who had sat next to me during those initial meetings to organize the march, and I found myself wondering what had happened to them. I hated myself for initially seeing this as an exciting adventure, and for forgetting the possible human sacrifice which in the end had been proven to be a reality. I will never forget the lessons I learned that day.

At the same time though, among all the painful stories which emerged there were glimpses of a kindness which restored my sense of faith in humanity at the time. The marchers which had been captured and put on buses were driven to San Borja, and the plan was to put them on planes and fly them back to their communities. It wasn’t clear at first why this had failed, but it turned out that villagers from the neighboring towns had heard of what was happening, and had run onto the runways in front of the planes with little concern for their own safety. Blocking the path of the planes, the police had no other choice but to set the marchers free. That is true courage. Every marcher on that march showed a courage I can only hope to posses; they regrouped within the next couple of days and carried on towards La Paz. But I guess that is a type of courage of people who are faced with the serious possibility of losing everything they have – their forest, their way of life, their independence, their culture.

Many of the indigenous people I spoke to expressed their frustration and deep feeling of betrayal towards President Evo Morales. After all, it was the indigenous people who made up the majority of Morales’ support base and led to his ultimate victory in the presidential elections of 2005. Furthermore, in 2009, President Morales was recognized as “Global Hero of Mother Earth” by the UN, and in January of 2011 Bolivia became the first ever country to grant rights to the environment.

Since I left Bolivia, the situation has not improved. There have been many marches since, both for and against the highway, and the government has started to “consult” the people of the TIPNIS about the construction project. However these consultations have been wrought with allegations of fraud and bribery.

Furthermore, this past July, I got a message from my former boss in Bolivia. She informed me that the day before, being the 29th of July, at 14:30 in the afternoon, the police, along with masked government supporters violently entered the CIDOB offices where I worked. The police used tear gas, violence, and an armored car to remove the indigenous representatives. Once again I was faced with the same, familiar sense of helplessness.

This situation is a lot more complicated than the summary I have given to you. There are many interests at play, not only from the state and the indigenous leaders and communities, but also from international corporations, the coca growers, local Bolivian businesses, just to name a few. This case study does however illustrate the type of problems and contradictions which can emerge when governments decide to increase infrastructure, which can carry huge consequences for the local people who live in the affected area.

At the same time however, I feel obliged to mention the pressures faced by Morales as the President of one of the poorest countries in Latin America. It is a common, global problem faced by governments – choosing between increasing development and infrastructure, and protecting the environment and human rights. Although I recognize the importance of economic growth in Bolivia, there is no question that President Morales could have avoided this conflict by changing the route to go around the territory. Moreover, I absolutely cannot sympathise with a President who has used tactics ranging from bribing to beating up and arresting indigenous marchers and representatives.

Practically not a day goes by when I don’t think about Bolivia and the people I have met. My trip ended in a very hectic way – the week of the attack happened to be the same week that I was supposed to go to the authorities and renew my visa. However, this time I encountered problems. I found a lawyer in the city, who told me my only choice was to do a visa run – get out of Bolivia and try to get back in again with a new visa. However this plan quickly crumbled when my boss told me if I tried re-entering the country with the papers I had, the authorities would certainly reject it because I was working for CIDOB. I was left with the only option of buying a ticket to Madrid and saying my goodbyes. I came to this realization with a heavy heart, there was nothing I wanted more than to see the indigenous march arrive in La Paz. However, looking back, perhaps this was the best thing, because seeing them arrive would have given me the false sense that this was all over, that they had finally come out victorious. For despite everything, CIDOB and the indigenous communities of TIPNIS are still fighting for their rights to this very day.

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One response to “TIPNIS: Struggle, Protest and Conflict in Bolivia – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Bolivia: End of the Road for TIPNIS Consulta ; TIPNIS Highway Will Deforest 1,482,000 Acres of Amazon Rainforest « toolwielder·

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