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Indigenous peoples recede into the background
Ruy D’Alencar
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Government seeks to speed up exploration in indigenous territories and protected areas.

The government of Evo Morales — Bolivia’s first indigenous president — has had two phases. The first, between 2006 and 2010, provided protection to the country’s 22 national parks and to the territories that are home to the 38 ethnic groups recognized by the Constitution of 2009, as pushed forward by Morales. The second, from 2010 onwards, which has seen a 180 degrees change in policy towards indigenous communities.

In August 2006, at the beginning of his first term, President Morales nationalized forestry, gold-mining and petrol concessions in the country´s protected areas in a ceremony full of symbolism near Madidi National Park, in the northwest of Bolivia. Flanked by soldiers, Morales stated that the protected areas were being returned to the state and the indigenous peoples in order to be protected.

The inauguration of President Morales to a second term in January 2010 was called a historical day by the Bolivian government, as the day when Bolivia was reborn as a plurinational state with a strong indigenous presence, under new Constitution, as well as the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (ALP).

 These advances, and the adoption of plurinationality, planted the seed for a new indigenous institutionalisation within the state.

 “Indigenous peoples have seven seats in the ALP, their communities are recognized as indigenous autonomies and their values and customs are respected by justice. All that was achieved during Morales’ first mandate,” explains Pedro Nuny, former indigenous representative of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS).

Paragraph 15 of article 30 of the Constitution establishes that indigenous peoples have the right “to be consulted by appropriate procedures, in particular through their institutions, each time legislative or administrative measures may be foreseen to affect them. In this framework, the right to prior obligatory consultation by the State with respect to the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources in the territory they inhabit shall be respected and guaranteed, in good faith and upon agreement.”

Seven years later, there was a major change in the government of change, representing a breakdown for indigenous institutionalisation within the state.

From protection to extractivism
During the Third Bolivian Gas and Oil Congress, held in the eastern city of Santa Cruz on May 22-23, Vice President Álvaro García Linera revealed that the government plans to "explore national parks in search of hydrocarbon reserves" and called for prompt scans, under the watchful eye of executives of Spain´s Repsol, Brazil´s Petrobras and of Argentinean YPF.

At the same congress, the head of state-owned company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), Carlos Villegas, suggested reducing the timeframe for the acquisition of environmental oil operation licenses, simpler consultation processes with indigenous peoples living in national parks and the opening of exploration on indigenous land.

However, Bolivian sociologist José Mirtembaum explained that “there are no forests without the indigenous, nor can indigenous peoples live without forests,” regarding the interdependence between native peoples and ancestral lands, generally located in protected areas.

From his analysis, the proposal to search for and exploit hydrocarbons in national parks represents a dilemma between economics and the livelihood of the communities that would be affected by the environmental impact.

“In my opinion, the position of wanting to allow oil or mining exploration in parks such as Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) reveals the government’s decision to prioritize revenue before the peoples livelihood,” says Fernando Vargas Mozúa, president of TIPNIS, former ally of Morales and now part of the opposition to his government because of the state project for a road that will cross this protected territory.

In the past three years, three indigenous protest marches linked to the management of protected areas have shown the break in relations between the government and leaders like Vargas and Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), one of the organizations that supported the reform proposals of the governing MAS.

For Nuny, during his seven years in office, Morales shifted from “the discourse of protection of Mother Earth to extractivism, which he criticized former presidents for.”

Melva Hurtado, president of the pro-government CIDOB, a parallel organization formed in July 2012, says that there are indigenous people who want to use the natural resources of their lands and other protected areas and that other indigenous leaders “want to veto the progress of [her] brothers to be the only ones to benefit from it.”

For his part, García Linera, said during the oil and gas conference that several declarations of protected areas were proclaimed in the 90s, in “neoliberal times,” and were made by people who “were not interested in nature (...) it was so that people from the North could explore it,” alluding to the US.

“We respect the Mother Earth, but we are not going to live like 300 years ago, as the government will use this wealth while taking every care to comply with the norms for mitigating environmental damage,” he said.

According to the investors, article 30 of the Constitution is not the only obstacle to the progress of gas and minerals exploration and exploitation in the territories that are home to native peoples. For that reason, the Vice President asked Villegas to loosen the procedures for exploration.

“The exploration is due yesterday, we are delayed in everything,” he said, directing his complaint at Villegas at the hydrocarbons congress.

Indigenous rights put aside
The government, now seeking investment for exploration in protected areas and community lands, confronts a paradox here, because the Constitution includes safeguards that protect the rights of indigenous people to participate in and be consulted on the use of the riches that are in the ground where they live.

However, after the Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth, — organized by the government in April 2010 in the central department of Cochabamba — the officials and native peoples started diverging due to differences on opinion on the management of protected areas and territories, which led to today’s break, finalized after the order by Vice President to explore these areas.

One of the conclusions that stood out at the summit is that countries must put a halt to the exploitation here initiatives in woods and forests that are “based on mercantile principles and that propose non-existent and conditional results.” It was proposed to force governments to implement “a global program to restore native forests and jungles, managed and administered by the peoples, using seeds from native trees, fruits and flora.” It was also established that “governments should eliminate forestry concessions and support conservation of the oil in the ground and urgently stop the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the jungles.”

Three years later, not only are there plans to build roads that would cross protected areas, but the exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons is also encouraged. And while the investors applaud, the indigenous people look on with suspicion.
—Latinamerica Press.


Indigenous peoples of eastern Bolivia who initially supported President Evo Morales feel cheated now. (Photo: Nelson Vilches / Indymedia)
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