Last week, I had the honor of accompanying two Bolivian indigenous leaders, Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and Fernando Vargas, president of the Subcentral del TIPNIS, to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) to speak out against the TIPNIS highway that the Bolivian government seeks to construct through their ancestral Amazonian home.
At last Friday’s hearing, Adolfo and Fernando told the Commission a clear and detailed account of how the communities they represent reject the proposed highway project. They spoke of the lack of good faith consultation that is owed them under both Bolivian and international law, of the failure of the Bolivian state to consult prior to signing the project contract, of the repression and violence they face when they express these views, and of the state’s tactics to divide the indigenous communities and manipulate their traditional leadership structures so that the project might be approved through a “sham” consultation.
The Bolivian government’s reaction was unexpected, to say the least, and only proved the truth of Adolfo and Fernando’s assertions. When the time came for the Bolivian state to respond to the points raised, the Bolivian officials did something entirely new and different: they got up out of their seats and brought in a different group of indigenous leaders (whose authenticity is questioned by the indigenous communities but who the Bolivian government prefers and supports). Many in the audience were aghast as this delegation launched a character assassination against Fernando and Adolfo, claiming that they were not “real” leaders in their communities. Then the Bolivian Minister, Carlos Romero, continued the attack by claiming, without any evidence, that Adolfo and Fernando were being funded and manipulated by NGOs and that Fernando and the NGOs had contracts for illegal logging and trade in animals inside the TIPNIS reserve.
This latter allegation was picked up by at least one Bolivian media outlet, and interpreted as a direct accusation against the four human rights NGOs that were present at the hearing to provide support to the Bolivian delegates. As a lawyer for one of the NGOs accused of this activity – ERI has been supporting the Subcentral and the CIDOB in their efforts to ensure that their legal rights are respected – I was speechless. It was incredible to me that the Bolivian officials could, with a straight face, insinuate that human rights NGOs such as ERI were interested in TIPNIS because we have “contracts” to exploit flora and fauna there!
You know the Bolivian state is standing on weak ground when it resorts to vague and shameless accusations without presenting any evidence (not even phony evidence), and lets the press fill in the blanks.
Needless to say, ERI is not in the illegal logging and animal trade business.
The Bolivian state’s fingerpointing is just that: an effort to distract from the real issue—the state’s failure to adequately consult with the indigenous communities—and onto an artificial and manufactured issue far removed from the underlying dispute. In so doing, the Bolivian state only confirmed the extent of the manipulation and repression of which Fernando and Adolfo spoke.