Tag Archives: Indigenous Rights

The Fight for TIPNIS

30 Nov

My apologies for my lack of blogging recently. I meant to write this blog earlier, while still current, but time got away from me. I still feel it is an important blog to write as its subject summarizes the indigenous conditions and issues in Latin America.

Proposed road through TIPNIS

Proposed road through TIPNIS


If asked a couple of years ago which Latin American leader I preferred I would have answered Bolivia’s Evo Morales. He was a leftist who seemed more interested in Bolivia’s well-being than his own, a unique aspect for a Latin American leader. He seemed to be a leader of the people, born in a working class farming family he also grew up to be a farmer. He is also Bolivia’s first indigenous President, surprising considering the great percentage of indigenous in Bolivia. It seemed that he was the ideal leader for Bolivia and it was presidents like him that were needed across Latin America.

In 2010 Morales’ popularity faced a road block when there were national protests against a decree to cut government subsidies on gasoline and diesel fuels, increasing their prices. Even Morales’ own supporters took to the streets in protests. At the end of 2010 Morales said that he was keeping his promise of listening to the people and had the decree annulled. However, now once again Morales’ popularity is threatened as a result of the recent TIPNIS dispute.

On August 15th, protesters began to march from the city of Trinidad to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, as part of a campaign against a plan to build a highway through their protected land, Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park(TIPNIS). The march was led by the Confederation of Bolivian Indigenous Peoples(CIDOB) and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), they were marching in demand of recognition of their right to be consulted over the road construction according to the Bolivian Constitution, ILO 160 and the UN Deceleration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Bolivian government failed to consult the TIPNIS communities before signing a contract with the Brazilian company Construtora OAS to build the road and before the construction started this year. Morales claims that the road is vital for national development because it would connect agricultural and commercial areas. But the TIPNIS communities protest that a road through their land would threaten their way of life and damage an area of environmental importance. Indigenous marchers have said that they would be in favor of a road, as long as it didn’t go through TIPNIS. “It seems a contradiction that an indigenous president rejects the rights of indigenous peoples, and that a president who talks across the world in defense of Mother Earth is now pushing for the construction of a road that will harm the environment,” said Franklin Pareja, a political scientist from the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz.

The march consisted of one thousand protesters and was 373 miles in total. Protesters were faced with harsh conditions, and due to the fact that they are Bolivia’s lower class they lacked proper supplies for the march. There was not sufficient water or food and many were without suitable shoes.
Six days after the march began President Morales went on television to attempt to question the credibility of the protesters. He accused the indigenous marchers of having links to the United States, Morales has always opposed the United States and its corporations. Morales tried to validate his accusation by showing call logs between the United States embassy and leaders of the march. While the President’s claims sparked debate the Bolivian government has stilled failed to provide any additional evidence linking the march to the United States government. Morales’ defamation of the indigenous protests did not stop there he has also been reported calling them misled and called them tourists. Through out the march the President was constantly disqualifying the marchers on a daily basis. During the march there was a total of eight attempts at dialogue between the march leaders and the government. Because each attempt failed the government accused the protesters of a hidden agenda and of purposely not wanting to find a resolution. However, the protesters argued that at each attempt to establish dialogue the government said there was no alternative and that the road must go through TIPNIS.

On September 20th when the protesters reached Yucumo, still 186 miles from their destination, they were blocked by police. The blockade seemed to be a result of the failed dialogues, as the pro-government colonizers who reinforced the blockade insisted that protesters resume dialogue. The blockade prevented donated supplies such as food, water and medicine to reach the protesters. On September 25th the police attacked the group of a thousand protesters whom included children, pregnant women and elderly people. Five hundred officers began to use tear gas, rubber bullets and attack the protesters to disperse them. The police wanted to round them up on trucks to bring them back to TIPNIS. It was reported that during the attack that children in the group cried and mothers tried not to be separated from their children, however apparently several mothers lost their children who ran out of fear. It was reported that a three month-old baby died from tear gas fumes. At least 45 people were treated in the hospital and the Director of the Hospital told reporters that police handcuffed doctors to prevent them from treating the indigenous protesters.

The day after the police attacks, Bolivian government minister Sacha Llorenti went on TV to defend the police assault, she later resigned. Defense Minister, Cecilia Chacon, resigned in protest saying that Morales’ government was not elected for this. Morales made a statement of apology, but stated that he did not order the attack. The coverage of the police attack sparked national and international outcry. Demonstrations in support of the protesters popped up across Bolivia, people across the country demanded justice. International Human Rights groups spoke out against the actions of Bolivia’s police. In a show of solidarity, the residents of Rurrenabaque forced police to release hundreds of marchers who had been held in jails and on trucks. Morales suspended the construction of the highway promising a local referendum on whether it should continue.

In the beginning of October protesters regrouped and started to march towards La Paz again, proving that they were determined to stop the highway through TIPNIS. As the protesters neared La Paz they had to pass through the Andean highlands where they were faced with high altitudes, a difficult situation for the indigenous native to lowlands. On October 19th after two months of marching through Bolivia the protesters finally made it to their destination, La Paz, to face the government with their demands. The marchers were greeted in La Paz by thousands of supporters who welcomed them with food, water, flowers, Bolivian flags and signs of encouragement. As they made their way to the capital’s center supporters yelled “We are with you,” and “You are not alone.” The protesters finally made it to Plaza Murillo, in front of the Presidential Palace in anticipation of a meeting with the President. Many of the children marchers were taken to hospitals in La Paz for pneumonia after the trek through the Andean highlands. The marchers did not meet immediately with Morales, they waited outside the Presidential Palace that was guarded by police who set up barricades.

Finally, on October 21st after days of waiting, Evo Morales announced that the government would approve a law stopping the road through TIPNIS. Protesters continued to camp in the main square until the law was signed on October 24th.

This is an unquestionable victory for the Bolivian indigenous community, a great example of the power and unity of indigenous communities. It shows the power of social movements and the effectiveness of protests. It is a stirring example of a civil society movement, the power of the community to have their voice heard and taken seriously. However, the fight is not over. Leaders of the march are still seeking justice for the police brutality on September 25th. And you have to stop and wonder how protected TIPNIS really is, even after all of this. This happened even though the indigenous communities had international law on their side. Even with an indigenous President in power their land was still threatened. The world will be watching to see if President Morales keeps his promise to the TIPNIS communities. This victory is one step of progress in a long struggle for indigenous communities.

Welcome in La Paz

Welcome in La Paz

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Guat’s Up

4 Aug

With my Mom being in Guatemala, as I am sitting at work wishing I could be there as well, and the trial against soldiers from the civil war just ending, I felt it was only appropriate to write the blog this week about Guatemala. Guatemala holds special significance for me. First of all, it was only a couple of summers ago I was in Guatemala with my Mom and her nursing students, working at a rural clinic. Also while I was there I had the opportunity to interview human rights leaders for my senior thesis on how the Guatemalan Peace Process has affected citizen’s rights. Guatemala has a very brutal, sad past and now in the present Guatemala is still trying progress forward.

In 1952, democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz enacted the agrarian land reform law which redistributed unused lands of more than 223 acres to landless peasants. The land owners would be compensated based on the worth of the land they claimed in that year’s taxes. This law was very controversial, and in my opinion desperately needed, for several reasons. One was that the majority of Guatemala’s land was owned by United States owned companies, most of whom did not use a great portion of the land. Also, the fact that the land owners would be compensated based on what they claimed on their taxes is almost humorous due to the fact that land owners greatly understated the worth of their land on taxes.

Now, what should have come from Arbenz’s land reform law is a Robin Hood type of justice in a very unjust Guatemala, unfortunately, there was a slight glitch. The United Fruit Company, an American owned company, (which has since renamed itself Chiquita Banana as an effort to separate itself from this controversy) owned 42% of Guatemala’s arable land, only 15% of it which it used. The United Fruit Company called in a favor to former Board member Allen Dulles, who was the head of the CIA, and his brother John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State. President Eisenhower was quickly convinced by the Dulles brothers that Arbenz was a Communist threat and needed to be ousted. By 1954, 100,000 families had received land as well as aid for sowing due to Arbenz’s land reform. Unfortunately, that same year PBSUCCESS, a coup d’état backed by the US forced Arbenz to resign and marked the beginning of Guatemala’s long civil war.

The coup d’état was led by the Liberation Army and after Arbenz’s resignation the conservative military took over the government and the country. The military government received military and economic support from the United States. Anyone who opposed the military government was quickly murdered or disappeared. In 1962, the Rebel Armed Forces, FAR, was formed to fight the military government. FAR consisted of middle class Ladinos, students and left-wing political activists. They drew their principles from Che and received support from Cuba. From 1966-68 the FAR were largely wiped out and retreated.

By the 1970s FAR had regrouped, now led by Ladinos but consisting mostly of indigenous, they were based in the indigenous highlands. In the late 1970s Guatemala’s military government started the Scorched Earth campaign, a campaign aimed to depopulate the Mayan areas where the guerrillas were operating. Not only did Scorched Earth consist of tragic deforestation but it is estimated that 100,000-150,000 people were murdered from 1981-1983 due to the campaign. The Scorched Earth campaign is now considered genocide by most historians and activists. By 1984, the Scorched Earth campaign and the large-scale massacres were over, and the guerrilla groups severely weakened.

By 1983, the massacres in Guatemala were receiving international attention and the Guatemala regime was urged to return to civilian rule. In 1985, presidential elections were held and Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo won. The new government wrote a new constitution, established a Constitutional Court and a Supreme Electoral Council, and a new post of Human Rights Ombudsman was created. Many social movements began to form but with it there were death threats, disappearances and murders of activists. By the late 1980s the guerrilla groups proposed negotiations for settlement but the army refused. In 1989, the National Reconciliation Commission sponsored a national dialogue which was boycotted by the government, army, and private sector.

In 1991, the negotiations of the Peace Accords started. With the creation of the Civil Society Assembly allowed previously excluded groups, like indigenous and women, to participate in the negotiations. In late December 1996, the final Peace Accord was signed marking the formal end to Guatemala’s long civil war. Rough estimates of the outcome of the war are: 180,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared, 400 villages destroyed, 100,000 refugees in Mexico, and 1 million displaced. With the last accord signed all the accords were activated for implementation. While the Peace Accords did end the war in Guatemala they also gave a lot of hope for human rights. One significant accord was one concerning indigenous rights, the accord promised new rights and recognition for the indigenous. This was significant due to the fact that the majority of the Guatemala’s population is indigenous and the fact that the indigenous were the main victims in the civil war and the genocide. Sadly, most of the accords concerning human rights were poorly implemented.

Until this week most of the crimes and human rights abuses during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war have never been accounted for. There has never been true justice for the thousands of victims. In 2004, there was a verdict against an officer and 13 soldiers for a massacre but the verdict was eventually overturned. Finally yesterday, four former soldiers were sentenced to 6,060 years for a massacre in Dos Erres where in 1982 250 people were brutally murdered. This is a huge step forward in the fight against the impunity in Guatemala. Human Rights activists across the world are hoping that this is the beginning of justice for the victims of the civil war. In June, Guatemalan authorities arrested a former general for ordering genocide and other crimes against humanity committed against indigenous communities in 1982 and 1983. There is also another trial happening against former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt for ordering the grave Scorched Earth campaign.

I am happy to finally see some justice coming from Guatemala’s very dark and brutal past; however this is just the beginning. There are thousands of people who still need to stand trial for the crimes that they committed against humanity. Even if that does happen, injustice still lingers in the streets in Guatemala. The Peace Accords which offered so many hopeful promises to its citizens have not been strongly implemented. There are rights which citizens have been given legally, but which are still not recognized. Guatemala’s indigenous are still marginalized, treated poorly and their rights are not recognized by the government. The good news is that it seems that Guatemala has taken the first step down the very long path to justice.