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Social conflicts in the times of the plurinational state
Fernando Valdivia Antisolis
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Indigenous rights clash with a government that declares it is defending Good Living.

Criminalization of social protest in Bolivia has always been associated with rebellious actions of social movements against a state that doesn’t act in defense of or represent their interests. In the past this has frequently led to violent confrontations. But, what happens when the new state is governed by a party of the social movements themselves?

The anthropologist Soledad Valdivia Rivera contends in her doctoral thesis that “the Bolivian case shows that the entrance of social movements into the political sphere has meant the genuine participation of groups that were previously excluded by the dominant political system,” referring particularly to the more than thirty indigenous and original peoples that live in Bolivia.

Consequently, with the approval of the Political Constitution of the State in 2009, criminalization of social protest would have taken more subtle forms, such as the delegitimizing of demands from the interior of the social movements that are the protagonists. So understands Hernán Ávila, director of the Center of Legal and Social Studies (CEJIS), an institution linked to the defense of the indigenous peoples in the country, who considers that “the outcome of the process is that the established power has been incapable of carrying out the spirit of the constitutional power” of the social, indigenous and campesino groups in particular.

The connecting thread of this theme is the challenge facing the social change process, of harmonizing development policies — whose organizing principle is economic growth — with the challenges of Good Living, understood as respect for nature as expressed in Pachamama, mother earth, along with other concepts.

Mining and indigenous rights
The biggest conflicts that the government of President Evo Morales, in office since 2006, has faced are those linked to this sui generis contradiction. This is the case of mining, whose sustained growth in the last decade increased environmental pollution and/or the occupation of indigenous territories. According to the National Institute of Statistics, from 25 tons registered in the year 2000, Bolivia increased exports to 120,000 tons in 2014.

Exports have reached historic highs in the last decade in Bolivia with zinc, lead and tin exports generating a total of US$12.3 billion, according to a report from the Ministry of Mining of Feb. 2012.

Among recent complaints of pollution by mining activities, are those of representatives of the original communities of Porco, Manquiri and Cantumarca in the southern department of Potosí, as well as indigenous groups from the northern border region with Brazil and Peru about exploitation of gold in the Amazon region.

In the first instance, the Declaration of the Third Meeting of Environmental Leaders celebrated this past August en Potosí affirmed that the “Mining and Metallurgy Law makes individual and collective rights vulnerable and is in contradiction of the Political Constitution of the State and international conventions. This mining law does not recognize the rights of Original Indigenous Peoples and Campesino Nations and only benefits the cooperative and salaried mining sector and limits the application of the right of consultation, self-government and self-determination of the Original Indigenous Peoples.” The government has responded to popular mobilizations with police repression. The breaking up a roadblock in Potosí in July 2014, for example, resulted in three arrests: Isidoro Jesús, age 39, José Quispe, age 45, and Román Gómez, age 47.  They denounced mistreatment by the uniformed men.

Silvia Antelo, editor of the daily Sol de Pando, stated to Noticias Aliadas that in the department of Pando, that borders Acre, Brazil and Madre de Dios, Peru, the exploitation of gold by Brazilian citizens continues in spite of the government offer to have prior consultation and include royalty payments to the indigenous communities who reside in the Amazon areas where gold is abundant for auriferous exploitation.

In July 2010, the then director of the Agency for the Development of Macroregions and Frontier Zones (ADEMAF), Juan Ramón Quintana, reported serious environmental damages to the flora and fauna of the region caused by mining operations.

For denouncing this illicit activity, along with the abuses inflicted upon the Pacaguara indigenous people by the timber companies and other corrupt activities, on July 11, 2011, an edition of the Sol de Pando was confiscated by government agents and the newspaper had to deal with various types of harassment.

“We suffered criminalization by the state for defending one of the nations recognized by the Political Constitution of the State,” affirmed Antelo.

The case of TIPNIS
The case with the most national and international resonance has been the postponed construction of a highway crossing the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), that borders the departments of Beni and Cochabamba. Since 2011, this proposed highway mobilized the indigenous communities of the region both against and in favor of the project.

In this conflict, however, the government took a step backwards and on Feb.10, 2012, it promulgated a law calling for a consultation with the communities of TIPNIS. On Dec. 7 of the same year, the government officially announced that it had consulted 58 communities of the 69 planned consultations and found a favorable position for removing the inviolability of TIPNIS. However, the International Federation of Human Rights along with the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia, questioned the validity of the results of the consultation, concluding in their final report that “the consultation process was not free, nor were people informed and the principle of good faith was not respected.”

Those who opposed the highway construction and who are against the government policies that promote the project should confront criticisms from within the indigenous movement of the lowlands (in the Amazon basin) which led to the formal division of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) the middle of 2014.

Another example is related to the struggle for the land. Ávila points out that the Law 477, called “Against Subjugation” in force since December 2013, “is nothing but protecting the large landowner private property.”

The rule establishes sanctions against “invasions or occupations as well as the execution of works or improvements, with violent or peaceful incursions, temporary or continuous, of one or several persons who do not prove ownership on the property, legal possession, rights or permissions on individual or collective private properties, assets that are the patrimony of the state, assets of public domain or fiscal lands.”

According to Ávila, now “it is impossible for a social movement that does not have lands” to have access to them, given that the rule establishes mechanisms to sanction and punish those who intend to act to occupy them.

The Bolivian experience complements the approval of laws by the pro-government majority with a novel form of criminalization of social protest marked by the delegitimizing of demands from within the social movements that raise them. For now the discontent seems to have been expressed in the result of the elections for governors and mayors that took place on Mar. 29. Even if the ruling party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) continues as the first and only national political force, the setbacks in departments such as La Paz, where it lost the control of the local government, are warnings that the majority that it holds is not a blank check.—Latinamerica Press.


IX Indigenous March in defense of TIPNIS, Feb. 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of CEJIS)
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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