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Reportage. The government wants to build a hydroelectric plant and a highway through the ancestral lands of indigenous communities. Their territory is protected by law, but so far that hasn’t meant much.

In Bolivia, indigenous people rally against megaprojects — and Morales

Opposition from social movements and indigenous communities is growing stronger against major construction projects. Planned out of a mindset of unbounded extractivism, the proposals would destroy ancestral lands: the so-called TCO (Tierras Comunitarias de Orígen, or Native Community Lands), protected by the Constitution as property owned by indigenous peoples through collective title.

“The government is condemning us to a silent death,” said Alex Villca Limaco, from the Coordinator for the Defence of the Amazon (CODA) group in Rurrenabaque. “It is deceiving the indigenous communities and taking advantage of their state of need, and promises them services that should be guaranteed in the first place.” On Oct. 10, 2016, on the anniversary of 32 years of democracy, thousands of people took to the main squares in the country shouting “Bolivia dijo No!” (“Bolivia said No!”)

Bolivia had, in fact, said “No.” The slogan referred to the outcome of the February 2016 referendum, when the Bolivians rejected the constitutional amendment that would have allowed Evo Morales to run again in the 2019 elections, for the fourth, and purportedly final, time.

“Morales was confident he would win the referendum, but forgot at what cost the Bolivians had gained their democracy. People are well aware of the risk that his renewed re-election would bring. We are coming close to an open fight: Morales is trampling over the Constitution and the will of the people,” says Gustavo Soto Santiesteban, founder of the CEADESC (Center for Applied Studies on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) in Cochabamba, active until 2015.

Santiesteban is referring to the appeal filed by Morales’s party in September at the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal. This court action aims at having five articles of the electoral law declared unconstitutional, and four articles of the Constitution inapplicable — namely those that limit the number of consecutive terms that a president and vice president can serve to two. The Tribunal has 45 days to decide, and now the question has been referred to the Organization of American States (OAS).

At Cafe Casablanca in Cochabamba, I meet Fernando Machicao Bowles, nicknamed “Boxer,” a retired flight engineer and an environmental activist for seven years. “The government wants to start a series of large-scale works that are not sustainable from both an economic and an environmental point of view, because they are supposed to be built in protected territories.” An example is the case of the two proposed cascade dams, El Chepete and El Bala, in the Parque Nacional Madidi in Bolivian Amazonia.

The evaluation study conducted by Geodata, the Italian company working on the project, states that the construction would be profitable only if the energy produced were to be sold at $70 per megawatt hour. Currently, the selling price to Brazil, Bolivia’s largest trading partner, is $52 per MWh.

The final project put together by Geodata is due in December, and, in the following month, the government would already have everything it needs to start construction. The Madidi region is a TCO, a territory on which the right to prior consultation applies, which means that before starting work on any type of project, the state must obtain the permission of all the indigenous communities that live there and are granted the right to make use of the land.

Yet, of course, these rights are in effect on paper only. It is enough to think of the many years during which the local communities have been struggling against the construction of a highway through the Isiboro Sécure National Park (TIPNIS). In this case as well, the state acted illegally: The first stretch of the highway, connecting Villa Tunari and Isinuta, was completed in September 2016, while Law 696, which removes the inviolable status of the TIPNIS, dates from Aug. 13.

Ever since this new law, the National Park has been at the mercy of every type of extractivism and raw material exploitation: deforestation and timber trade, the extension of coca leaf cultivation intended for drug trafficking, the extraction of oil and natural gas — all concealed under the deceitful word “development.”

“A road is necessary and useful, but you can build it somewhere else,” Fernando continues. “There are alternatives that were not taken into account, because in reality there are other interests focusing on the TIPNIS. Everyone knows that the coca grown in Poligono 7 in the Chapare Province, inside the TIPNIS, is not an indigenous cultivation at all, but is being used almost exclusively for the production of cocaine for drug trafficking.”

Morales was for years the representative of the trade union of coca growers, who still represent the hard core of his supporters. Now they want to expand their crops, and the president cannot afford to lose their support at such a sensitive time. And one of the geopolitical reasons for building the highway is centralization: the Chapare is the hub of exports across the Pacific, and is of high economic and political importance. All the soy produced in Santa Cruz passes through the Chapare; a blockage in this area would lead the Bolivian economy to paralysis.

In Rurrenabaque, in the Beni region, is where I meet Villca Limaco of CODA, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the defense of the Amazonian lands. “The Madidi is one of the leading nature preserves in the world in terms of biodiversity,” he says. “The flooding caused by the El Bala hydroelectric project would have an enormous impact, not only on animal and plant species, but also on the 17 indigenous communities located along the river, which have been investing in eco-tourism in recent years.

“The estimated cost is $7 billion, and it is the first time in Bolivian history that so much money is being spent on a single project, whose only beneficiaries are the government and multinational corporations, not the people who inhabit these lands. Before commencing any study on our territory, the government should have obeyed the law and organized a prior consultation, which, however, did not happen.”

“In November 2016,” he continues, “with a protest that lasted 12 days, we got Geodata to go away. First, the government said they were actually from some right wing pro-American NGOs that opposed the development. Later, they sent their representatives to the communities offering money and basic services which should have been guaranteed from the beginning, such as running water in homes, electricity, roads, hospitals and schools.”

The government in La Paz, in the accusatory judgment of Villca Limaco, “is taking advantage of the state of need of some of the communities: it deceives them, divides them, and, when it can, it buys off some of the leaders. Our culture is inextricably linked to these lands, which have fed, clothed and cared for us in the past, and which need us to protect them, because we are a part of them. The government says it is of the Left, that it supports indigenous rights and respect for Nature, but in reality it is implementing the worst of the same neoliberal policies of always.”

“Relocation is an issue that is of great concern to my community,” says Noè Marcos Macuapa, corregidor (local elected leader) of the community of San Miguel del Bala, on the Beni River.

“San Miguel is a village that has always lived by hunting and fishing. However ever since the National Park was created in 1995, we decided to invest in eco-tourism, sought funding for the construction of facilities, and educated ourselves by going to study in the city. Now, without asking us at any point, the government is telling us that it wants to transform our region into South America’s energy center, and that it will move our communities elsewhere. Our elders have already said that they will only leave this land when they are dead, so we remain united in this struggle.”

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