Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BOLIVIA: 69-Year-Old Native Leader Heads 1,500-Km March

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jun 25 2010 (IPS) - Indigenous elder Ernesto Noé, 69, is once again leading his people on a long march from Bolivia’s Amazon jungle, to protest environmental damages caused by the oil industry and demand respect for native land rights.

The 1,482-km trek from Trinidad, the capital of the northeastern province of Beni, to La Paz in the western highlands will be his seventh protest march.

The 700 indigenous protesters set out on Jun. 21 and expect to arrive in the capital in two months.

Noé was one of the leaders of the first march by native communities from the country’s eastern lowlands, in 1990, when some 600 people walked the same route, to protest the intense pressure from landowners, ranchers and loggers constantly encroaching on their ancestral lands.

That first march created a new public awareness on the plight of native groups in the Amazon, and the growing pressure prompted the government of Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) to issue decrees that prevented logging on certain tribal lands in Beni, restored land to indigenous groups, and marked out several collectively-owned indigenous territories.

That 1990 march, considered a landmark event in Bolivian history, helped spark the process of political and social changes that culminated in the new constitution rewritten under President Evo Morales, who took office in 2006.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon region make up 10 percent of the 10 million inhabitants of Bolivia, where over 60 percent of the population are native people, mainly belonging to the Quechua and Aymara ethnic groups concentrated in the western highlands.

The white-haired but vigorous Noé, who belongs to the Mojeño ethnic group, founded the CPIB — the association of 18 Amazonian indigenous groups from Beni — in 1989 and is now president of the “march committee” of the CPIB, which forms part of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB).

But above and beyond his formal leadership roles, he is highly respected as an elder.

CIDOB, made up of 11 regional indigenous associations, is the organiser of the march.

Noé is leading the hundreds of demonstrators who left Trinidad at 6:00 AM Monday — one month after the original start set for the march had been cancelled in the wake of hasty negotiations between CIDOB and the government of Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.

In the negotiations, the government said it would push for a new forestry law, to protect the jungle from deforestation, and said the concessions of mining and lumber companies that do not respect Bolivia’s environmental regulations and standards would be cancelled.

Another promise by the government, that it would draft specific regulations for carrying out prior consultations among indigenous communities before authorising the construction of roads or hydroelectric dams and the exploration and production of minerals, oil and natural gas, also helped calm tempers in CIDOB at that time.

But the tension flared up again when the native groups demanded autonomy in their collectively-owned Tierras Comunitarias de Origen or TCOs.

“We want to talk to the government, chief to chief, because the negotiations with the ministers have failed,” Noé told IPS by phone from the town of Casarabe, 50 km from Trinidad.

A total of 84 TCOs have been officially recognised by the government. But only 11 indigenous municipalities are in the process of becoming autonomous, after voting to do so in a Dec. 6, 2009 referendum. The autonomous communities will administer the natural resources in their collectively-owned territories and elect their own authorities in indigenous assemblies.

The problem is that the government plans to create a Constitutional Court mechanism for each community to consult with regard to the autonomy statutes they draft, which would later be approved by voters in a referendum.

But CIDOB, formerly a Morales ally, wants each community’s newly drafted autonomy laws to be approved by local indigenous assemblies.

One of the 11 associations belonging to CIDOB, the Assembly of the Guaraní People (APG), has chosen to engage in talks with the government and is not taking part in the march.

“We have never been closed to dialogue, but the constitution cannot be violated,” César Navarro, deputy minister of coordination of social movements, told IPS.

He said that behind the indigenous protests there is an aim of “political manipulation” on the part of native leaders who have the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and specifically mentioned the Indigenous People’s Federation of La Paz (CEPILAP).

CEPILAP, a CIDOB affiliate, received financing from the U.S. federal government agency to draft and publish its five-year strategic development plan. “USAID has been involved in the process and is thus influencing and infiltrating the organisation,” Navarro said.

“USAID never carries out its political plans directly, but funds non-governmental organisations and foundations, to the tune of nearly 100 million dollars” in Bolivia, he added.

For his part, Noé said “I want to tell the government that if the march were receiving financing, we would all be really comfortable. But some of the compañeros had to go fishing to feed the camp, where there is a shortage of food.”

On Jun. 22, in the central city of Santa Cruz, Morales accused right-wing parties of encouraging “non-negotiable” demands, such as the granting of land in national parks to indigenous communities, in order to hinder the government’s policies and the changes it is bringing about.

The indigenous march has the backing of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), an old ally of Morales.

CONAMAQ, which represents native groups in the western highlands, is also demanding recognition of ancestral indigenous lands to create autonomous governments that would mark a return to traditional social and cultural customs.

The association has not ruled out the possibility of joining the CIDOB march to protest the government’s draft law on autonomy, which would set a minimum number of 10,000 inhabitants in order for a town to have an autonomous government, while CONAMAQ is demanding a limit of only 6,000.

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