Bolivian Indigenous Peoples Against Highway


The Guarani indigenous leader, vice-president of CIDOB, (Federation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian Amazon) sighed and cried, while launching her accusation. It could not be otherwise, since she was addressing her country's indigenous president Evo Morales. Her voice full of emotion, in front of an audience of hundreds of delegates of indigenous peoples from all over the Amazon Basin in Manaus, she pointed her finger at Evo's "betrayal", at his pursuance of development and extractive policies that contradict his indigenous background and his commitment to the rights of Mother Earth. 
 

It was the eve of the Bolivian indigenous peoples' march against the highway project supported by the government and financed by BNDES (The Brazilian bank for Economic and Social Development, a financial giant that invests in Latin America and Africa) that would cross the TIPNIS indigenous territory and protected area. Indigenous representatives gathered in Manaus labelled it as an attack to indigenous peoples' rights. It would not be the last, since, according to Bolivian government's plans, extraction of oil and lithium reserves would increase in the future, in order to ensure a flow of currency to bolster state budgets. On top of that Evo's government has adopted controversial laws such as that on food sovereignty, that would introduce GMOs in the country, or the law on the rights of Mother Earth, that, according to many indigenous leaders, would strengthen State control over their land, thereby denying their rights to self-determination and sustainable use of their resources. 

The Guarani leader's was not an isolated cry. After her, it was the turn of Raoni Kayapo, the legendary leader of the Brazilian Amazon Indians – he hit the headlines together with rockstar Sting a couple of decades ago, when both were campaigning side by side to protect what had been named as the "Green lung of the Planet". In his traditional outfit, the lower lip deformed by a round terracotta disc, he uttered the rage of his people towards the government of Dilma the "iron lady" that had prioritized the completion of the Belo Monte megadam on the Xingù river, as one of the key goals of her mandate. 

Belo Monte will be the third biggest dam in the world after the Three Gorges and Itapù, and will cause the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples and local communities, notably the expulsion of the former from their traditional lands, with the ensuing risk of a cultural genocide. According to some accounts, the plan for the Three Gorge Dam originated from a poem by Mao Zedong, and his dream of an eternal monument to progress and magnitude of the revolution. Belo Monte (Belo Monstruo as it has been rechristened) will become the icon of the Brazil of the future, an economic giant, with plans to become a regional and global superpower. 

Some images of the past come to mind, those of the unprecedented gathering held some twenty years ago in Altamira, when an old indigenous woman went as far as to put the blade of her machete right on the face of a FUNAI official, as a sign of protest against the devastating impact of megadams in the Amazon. 

The echo of the shrilly sounds of the Shuar language followed Raoni's. A representative of the Shuar people of the Ecuadoran Amazon, his face painted with traditional warrior signs and framed in a multicoloured feathered headgear, accused the government of Rafael Correa of expanding the oil extraction frontier in the Amazon. The same government that is now going at full speed in the implementation of the Manta-Manaus canal, that in a few years will link up the old capital of the rubber cycle, and oil-rich forests to the Pacific coast harbour of Manta, the entry point to wealthy Asian markets, first and foremost China. The Manta-Manaus multimodal axis is part of the IIRSA, a network of infrastructures and megaprojects whose purpose is that of creating the backbone of economic and commercial integration of the Southern American continent. 

A handful of minutes, and the words of three indigenous leaders from different countries, were enough to give a clear picture of the contradiction and tensions that have been accumulating in the continent in the last few years, during which progressive governments have gone to power in many countries, with the direct or indirect support of social movements and indigenous peoples. These governments had set ambitious goals in terms of re-elaborating their social and economic reference paradigms while building alternative development models. In reality they are now facing an impasse caused by the social and environmental costs of their development policies, the undisputable urgency of increasing public expenditure for health, education, culture, citizenship rights, and the fact that this is being covered by the gains associated to the export of their raw materials. Oil and its by-products, minerals located in the subsoil of ancestral lands of indigenous peoples in the Andes and the Amazon, are badly needed to keep the electoral promises and ensure popular support, also at the cost of mortgaging the future. Ecuador has already cashed in as many as 2 billion USD in advance oil sales to China, while Venezuela, according to sociologist Edgardo Lander, has already received 10 billion USD that will have to be paid with sustained deliveries of oil in the coming years. 

Indigenous peoples' delegates went to Manaus to attend a conference organized by COICA (Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples' Organizations of the Amazon Basin) to discuss traditional knowledge, forests and climate change and the process towards the Rio+20 conference, This meeting will take place in Brazil next year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the historical United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and to assess progress made on global environmental governance and the implementation of the commitment undertaken at that time, including those inscribed in the Climate Change and Biodiversity Conventions. 

The mantra at that time was about sustainable development a concept that had since then been indiscriminately used by transnational companies, governments, social movements and environmental groups alike. The big deal at that time was to reconcile environment with economy, an attempt that has delivered ambiguous results (some of which are very low-key, as evidenced by the catatonic state of the climate change negotiations for instance). Now the terms of the deal have to be necessarily different, and indigenous peoples offer an important contribution. Those people that are now considered as the "green entrepreneurs" par excellence, key actors in the "Green Economy" point out that the priority is not with "green economy" or "sustainable growth" or any false solution, such as carbon markets. The absolute priority has to be the recognition of the ecological debt, and the pivotal role of human rights as keystones of a responsible transformation of economic and production models. 

The contradiction between ecological and social debt comes up again vehemently. This is the core of the impasse experienced by progressist governments that are accumulating an ecological debt towards the generations to come, to pay a social debt to the current generations, thereby opening another contradiction between communities' rights and a presumed general interest. Listening to the representatives of the indigenous communities living along the Rio Napo in Ecuador and that would be affected by the Manta Manaus hydro way, similarities could be found with similar struggles in Europe and Italy, such as those in the Susa Valley, where a community is resisting against a large railway project that is part of a transcontinental network aimed at linking up Eastern Europe to the Atlantic shores in Portugal. In both cases communities express their dissent towards an infrastructure that will not bring any direct benefit to their living conditions, but rather substantial social and environmental impacts. In both cases these megaprojects are part of multinational projects aimed at narrowing the distance between territories of origin of raw materials or processed goods and consumption markets along horizontal axes linking up East and West and return. 

There will be no way out of this impasse, if the basic assumption rests in unlimited quantitative growth and the consequent urge to accelerate global trade in raw materials, in the absence of a long-term perspective aimed at generating financial resources outside of an extractivist monoculture. In this context the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples collides with the exercise of economic sovereignty by central governments that do not hesitate to resort to police repression. Scores of Ecuadorian indigenous leaders are accused of terrorism by the Correa government, some key leaders of the Peruvian organization AIDESEP , including its president Alberto Pizango, had to seek protection in Nicaragua after the bloody crack down operated by the Peruvian army against indigenous peoples calling for the respect of their rights to "territories" in Bagua. Indigenous peoples call it "territorialidad", (not land), not land property right, but right to sovereignty over ancestral territories. Interestingly enough, this claim, that has been a recurrent theme in the discussions in Manaus, does not imply a call for autonomy, but rather the possibility of creating truly plurinational and multiethnic states. This is evidenced by the recent creation of a broad progressist front in Ecuador, composed of political parties, urban and "mestizo" social movements, and indigenous peoples' organization, or by the project to found a progressist party with strongly indigenous foundations currently going on in Peru.

Ollanta Humala's victory in Peru can offer a new opportunity or turn out to be a further failure if the newly elected President does not manage to solve the contradiction within which other progressist presidents – such as Evo, Correa and Dilma – got entangled, notably social vs. ecological debt, economy vs. rights, territories vs. general interest, local vs. global. 

These contradictions are party enmeshed in the past history of Manaus, former global capital of the rubber cycle, until a unscrupulous Englishman stole a Hevea Brasiliensis plant to replant it in the colony of Peninsular Malaysia to produce rubber at low cost, thus displacing Manaus from the global market. Then came Mr. Henry Ford, that needed that rubber for the tyres of his cars, founded a model city in the middle of the Amazon, Fordlandia (sounds like the script of a Werner Herzog movie) that then fell in disgrace, being the forest and tropical weather not manageable in fordist terms. The pompous past of Manaus is evident in the facades of refined buildings, the Amazonas Theatre, the old market in the Harbour, the Customs ("Alfandega") building, the impressive steel bridge, disassembled in England and reassembled in situ. The memories of a wealthy – but ephemeral – past hide misery, poverty and a visual and physical violence that the Free Trade Zone of Manaus, with its tax free electronic goods and cheap apparel has not managed to bring to an end. The hope is now to seek better fortune as a transit port to China.

Francesco Martone is a leading activist on environment and minorities. He was a member of the Italian Senate. 

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