Excuse me, isn’t previous previous?

Not always. In Plurinational Bolivia it could be post.

Ever since indigenous people from the Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (best known by its acronym TIPNIS) began opposing a road that, if completed as planned, would rip off the park, president Evo Morales and indigenous people traditionally  living in the area have become outright enemies. And nothing but defeat or victory seems likely to deter both contenders.

Just a year ago, natives from the Bolivian plains and Morales appeared bonded in a solid marriage. After all, it were indigenous people from those regions who in the early 1990s planted the roots of a popular movement that ended up with Morales winning the presidency in late 2005. The government and traditional inhabitants of the triangle-shaped territory of roughly 1.2 million hectares (about the size of Connecticut), situated right in Bolivia’s center, looked bound to live together happily ever after. Then the government began building a road that would complete an international network joining the Brazilian coast with the Chilean ports in the Pacific.

TIPNIS leaders and environmental groups cried about the disruption the road would cause in the life of natives and hundreds of flora and fauna species. The area is still considered an ecological sanctuary despite uncontrolled immigration of settlers, mainly coca leaf growers. But their cries went unheeded. Then, between August and October about a thousand natives marched 350-mile en route to La Paz. Brutally repressed by police that ambushed them at midway, the marchers galvanized Bolivians who gave them a hero welcome upon arriving in La Paz. I have no memories of such an enthusiastic and spontaneous welcome before in Bolivia.

Because of the increasing national and international sympathy for the movement, and fears it would end up posing a clear and present danger to his government, Morales backtracked. After apologizing  for the police onslaught on the marchers,  he promulgated a law declaring TIPNIS  “untouchable”. Only to backtrack again, once settlers began pressing –at his prodding- to go ahead with the road.

Ostensibly supported by the government party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), a contra-marcha, a counter march favoring the road began in December. The new marchers were mostly “colonos”, settlers who live and work in a northeastern place of the region known as Polígono 7, a land swath of 90,000 hectares, roughly three times London’s.  Recent data shows they are over 100,000, compared to the slightly over 12,000 original TIPNIS inhabitants. The latter live in communities where land belongs to all, while the former are mostly coca growers organized in unions whose members hold individual land property titles.

Gumersindo Pradel, a coca grower and head of the pro-road movement, has been quoted as saying Morales promised the road to cocaleros so they could expand plantations into TIPNIS territory. (You should note Morales is also president of the Federation of Coca Growers to which Pradel belongs.) The new march was far shorter in distance, time and popular sympathy. It started in Cochabamba, a government stronghold. President Morales paid a visit to them shortly after their arrival in La Paz, where they were fed and sheltered in a sports stadium and given medical attention. (By contrast, the earlier trekkers stayed in the open, at the Murillo Plaza, right in front of the Government Palace.)

In February, a new law was passed thanks to the government overwhelming legislative majority and despite warnings from original TIPNIS population and their leaders it would trigger a new march.

The new law instituted “consulta previa” or previous consultation which was already enshrined in the Bolivian constitution, and in ILO’s 169 Convention on the rights of indigenous people. Deputy Chamber president Rebeca Delgado hailed the new law. “We have approved the law of previous consultation for our people”, she said.

Ever since the government propaganda has been claiming TIPNIS people are now ready to exercise their right to be consulted previously __on a road whose mayor segments have already been completed, missing only the part that would go through the park. It is a mind-boggling headache since no previous consultation has taken place. The government has paid no attention to the oxymoron. A few days ago, former Cochabamba governor Rafael Puente, considered a close friend of Morales and  influential voice in the government’s closest circles, stated, “It has no sense pretending to carry out a consultation saying it is previous while it is not, as everybody knows”.  Many have been saying the same

Even if it were previous, other people point out, the consultation should be held among the real TIPNIS population, excluding settlers. Otherwise, the government would secure victory given the almost 10-1 population ratio favoring settlers.   Because of the mayhem, Puente and other notable leftist leaders are said to have distanced themselves from the government. Postly.

Harold Olmos


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