Since I arrived in Bolivia the debate, and along with it the fierce recriminations, about TIPNIS have raged on.Today, President Evo Morales made a pivotal decision, bringing this conflict much closer to its end. Much closer, but by no means there yet. Talks with the protesters begin again at 5am tomorrow. Nevertheless, it’s now a month since I’ve been here, so it seems like a good time for reflection.
As I write, the 1,000 strong indigenous group of marchers from the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park in the heart of Bolivia’s Amazon are probably bedding down in various parts of La Paz having finally made it here to a hero’s welcome on Tuesday.
Their slow and arduous journey along broken dirt roads and through varying climates began on the 15th August. They left from Trinidad in the eastern lowlands with women, children and elderly members in tow, their eyes set on the capital and a meeting with the president in the Government Palace.
Along the way three of their number died, and two of the many pregnant women lost their babies. As well as their banners and flags, they’ve carried these heavy losses with them.They have sixteen demands. Their main one was that the government abandon its plans to build a major 185mile road that on its way from Bolivia’s Andean highlands to its Amazonian lowlands would have passed through the heart of their native land. Today, Morales bowed to mounting pressure and announced that that road – nor any other for that matter – would be built through the TIPNIS park. Fine. But the marchers have fifteen more demands. The president will have to do much more bowing and perhaps some scraping yet before the marchers agree to march themselves back on home. But those are days to come. Back to the past 68 that have brought us to this point. Morales’s ruling party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), argued that the road would link long-isolated communities and provide vital access to education and health facilities. There is no doubt that these are woefully lacking in many parts of the country and ironically this is among the indigenous marchers 16 demands. However, the marchers have always maintained that the road – or rather its offending second section which was set to cut through their land – would destroy their traditional way of life and damage the flora and fauna irreparably. They also feared that the road would allow a group of migrant farmers called “colonisers” to enter their land and claim it for themselves and their coca crops. MAS continued to claim that the road was essential and would help fund a national social programme that would benefit all of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. Again fine. But the issue was that MAS signed the agreements with the Brazilian company contracted to build the road before consulting the specific indigenous communities in TIPNIS. However, the new Bolivian constitution introduced by Morales himself in 2009 guaranteed all indigenous communities prior, free and informed consultation on any development that would impact on the natural resources of their native land. That same right also happens to be guaranteed by ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations. And therein lay the problem. There had been no consultation and yet construction was well underway. Many, but not all, the communities in the park protested and talks with the government did at least begin. But they got nowhere and on the 29th June Evo Morales declared that like it or not the road would go ahead. The indigenous community didn’t like it. They began to march For over a month they walked on unimpeded and even welcomed by many communities along the way as support for their cause grew across the country. And then the 25th September happened. It was the day after I arrived in Bolivia. Four hundred armed police officers bound, gagged and beat the marchers. Tear gas tinged the air and hundreds were arrested. The images were plastered across the country. In every household, pictures of distraught children, lost and separated from their parents played over and over again.The lights from the cameras highlighted where fresh tears streamed down the tracks of tears already turned to salt. Outrage. A national strike day was called and in La Paz the main union, the Central Obrera Boliviana, blocked the roads while angry citizens flooded the town centre. Along the Prado, the Ponchos Rojos, drafted in on the side of the government, cracked their whips at furious crowds that hissed and booed them. But who’d ordered the crackdown by the police was the real question that was dominating the headlines. Heads began to roll. The Defence Minister in conscience resigned in protest; the Interior Minister and his deputy resigned still protesting their innocence. The day after the police intervention Morales issued a national apology. He declared a temporary suspension of the building works and promised a referendum in Cochabamba and Beni, the two areas affected by the road. But this wasn’t enough. The marchers regrouped, recovered and returned to their relentless march. Cracks began to appear in Morales’ traditional support base. In 2005, he has swept to power carried on a wave created by five influential Bolivian social movements. As he was ordained into office he was hailed in Bolivia and the continent over as Latin America’s first indigenous leader. He was an example to all. It was meant to be a new dawn, but for several weeks now the sun has set on a protest vigil in the centre of La Paz organised by two of the most powerful of these social movements – a visible sign of the tides turning for the man who said he would guarantee the rights of water itself. Meanwhile, compassion for the wounds suffered by the peaceful indigenous marchers began to cut across all sections of society. Morales’ government was looking down the barrel of a gun, the bullets etched with the words ‘crisis of legitimacy’. However, his government were strangely tight-lipped. They refused to reveal who’d given the order. Instead they announced that commission would investigate. People have little faith in commissions here. Meanwhile the opposition capitalised and oppositional media spun story after story. Then on the 4th October, Morales made a surprise statement in an television interview. The intervention had been orchestrated by corrupt elements within the police intent on damaging his reputation, he claimed. He said the police brutality had been filmed not by journalists and their camera crews, but by corrupt police officers with a clear agenda. His comments caused outrage among police officers and rumours circulated that they would revolt. They didn’t. But the bitterness was clear. Meanwhile the indigenous marchers claimed that the police had in fact been infiltrated. There were Venezuelan and perhaps even Colombian police officers there. The conspiracy theories deepened. The truth – whatever it is – still hasn’t surfaced. And then on the 7th October the chief of police was suspended indefinitely while the case was investigated. The investigation continues. As it did, the indigenous marchers continued their 500km trek towards La Paz. They swore they’d never forget what happened to them on the 25th September and neither has much of the country. In every town they passed through they were celebrated. Locals donated food and clothes, sometimes by the truckload. A week ago the column of marchers – now swollen to around 2,000 – began the final stretch towards La Paz. There the tropical lowland climates ended and the harsh and cold highland climates began. Each day the marchers gained hundreds of metres in altitude and lost several degrees in temperature. They walked hard by day and slept rough by night. The two ambulances which had been provided by the Mayor of La Paz were kept busy. Several women fainted and many children were taken into hospital with infections and pneumonia. A number of pregnant women were rushed away by doctors fearing they could miscarry. However, one was rushed away to give birth to her baby boy – the first ‘March Baby’. Meanwhile, in La Paz and across the country the Bolivian people went to the polls for the first time to elect the country’s top judges. Morales called the election “historic, unprecedented and unlike anything else in the world”. The government claimed they were a triumph for democracy and a great improvement on the back-door process of previous right-wing governments. But from the wings the opposition ran a concerted, months-long campaign to effectively turn the judicial election into a referendum on Morales’ government. The leaders of the two main opposition parties called on the electorate to spoil their ballot papers in rejection of the MAS government’s supposed excesses. They co-opted the TIPNIS march and tried to turn the election into a vote either in favour or against the cause. The marchers for their part delayed their arrival in La Paz to avoid politicising the elections. They were politicised all the same. Voters turned out in their hundreds of thousands across the country and scrawled, scratched and scored their ballot papers. Some in solidarity with the TIPNIS march, some scoring the lack of information about the candidates, and some – though no doubt fewer than will be claimed – in genuine support of the opposition. Initial exit polls showed that 43% of voters spoilt their ballot papers while a further 1 in 10 simply left in blank. The official results are almost in and they reveal a picture hardly less bleak for the government. It was a huge blow for Morales – his first election lost since coming to power in 2005 – and a substantial one at that. And then on Tuesday the marchers arrived in La Paz. Like heroes, they were welcomed into the city with a Roman triumph. They marched the final 10km into the heart of the city flanked by an unbroken chain of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of La Paz residents. The marchers were cheered and celebrated, hugged and kissed. They were showered with gifts and confetti rained down on them from every balcony. It seemed the whole country was united through those 1,000 marchers and in unison they jeered and booed the President and his government. Even the Mayor of La Paz welcomed them with open arms and in a ceremony in the main square he handed them the keys to the city and declared them lifelong guests.
However, as the day drew to a close and the marchers went to camp out on the president’s doorstep in Plaza Murillo, he made it clear that to him they were squatters and most unwanted. A police barrier was told to surround the square to stop more marchers getting in. Then on Thursday night there was a sudden clash between the police and the marchers and their supporters. Again the tear gas billowed into their air. Come the next morning, the marchers were talking of a “second police repression”. At around 11:00 Morales called a press conference and declared the end of the road. The highway wouldn’t be built through TIPNIS and nor would any other. And with that he declared the situation “resolved”. Alas, not as far as the marchers were concerned. They say they wouldn’t leave La Paz without every last one of their sixteen demands being met. And just like they have done on their long march, they say they’ll advance point by point, demand by demand, but come what may they’ll get there. On the other hand, as one elderly gentleman put it to me, it seems that Bolivia’s president has run out of places to go.