Yesterday, a delegation of indigenous leaders travelled from Bolivia to Washington, D.C., to testify at the Inter-American Human Rights Commision’s upcoming thematic hearing on the human rights situation in Bolivia’s Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (or TIPNIS, for its Spanish acronym). These leaders, from TIPNIS and the Indigenous Confederation of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), will present information about the threats posed by a Bolivian highway project to the human rights of TIPNIS’ indigenous peoples. Their testimony will be live-streamed on Friday at 3:15pm Eastern time.

ERI’s legal team, together with our friends at RAMA, Fundación Construir, Amazon Watch, Due Process of Law Foundation and Georgetown University Law Center have organized a series of events this week to create awareness about the case and hopefully, to inspire more people to support them and their plea for justice. 

The TIPNIS park is the first conservation area to be recognised by Bolivian government in 1965 and it was also later recognized as indigenous territory in 1990. Despite these clear protections, for decades the Bolivian government has expressed an interest in traversing this biologically fragile zone to construct a road, the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would connect the lowland Amazon to the highlands.  Now there is enough funding and powerful geopolitical interests to push the construction forward. Even Bolivian President Evo Morales has heralded this highway as bringing progress and inaugurated its construction in 2011. Unfortunately for these developers, the TIPNIS park, and the ancestral home of several thousand Yuracaré, Chiman, and Moxeño indigenous peoples, lies right in the middle of their planned highway. 

The TIPNIS Sub-Central (an organization of indigenous community leaders) has been raising awareness about the destruction the project would bring to the environment and people (and the possibility of opening it up to oil and gas exploration) as well as the threat against their territorial rights to a Prior Consultation. The residents of TIPNIS have carried out a series or unprecedented marches in 2011 to La Paz in opposition to the construction of the highway. The peaceful marchers were stigmatized, harassed by public authorities, and then violently repressed by the police forces. The aggression, detentions, and abusive repression have shown Bolivian society an example of arbitrary governmental power.

Their efforts had seemingly positive results however when President Morales received the marchers and was forced to cancel his highway plans with Law 180 of 2011 that declares TIPNIS an intangible zone and prohibits the construction of highways through it.

Unfortunately, success was short lived. Two months later, in December of 2011, the government encouraged and sponsored a counter march of peasants, colonizers, and cocaleros who live near the entrance to the TIPNIS reserve, in favor of the road. Upon their arrival in La Paz, the government approved Law #222 that annulled the prior law and convened an ad hoc (and after-the-fact) consultation to make the road viable in the face of the discord. The leaders of TIPNIS have come to Washington this week to speak out against this illegal, post-hoc consultation and to let their government know that the world is watching.

One urgent action item is the need to help and support the TIPNIS Sub-Central so that it might organize a large assembly of the 62 communities in the TIPNIS zone, with representatives and members of the 62 communities therein. The goal will be to inform the community members and leaders and consult them on their position while applying the internal norms and procedures of the indigenous organizations. This will contribute to a revitalization of the organization, after which they will continue their strategy of political advocacy, public visibility, and legal defense at national and international levels.