The political movement that brought Evo Morales to power incorporated a latent conflict between highland and lowland Indigenous communities.
Attempt to build highways revealed that Evo Morales would not honour his campaign promises to lowland Indigenous groups when it conflicted with the interests of the more numerous and politically assertive interculturales.
INRA has done a fairly competent job of processing the huge backlog of land claims, but there is no indication that any government will end the distribution of public land.
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The political movement that brought Evo Morales to power incorporated a latent conflict between highland and lowland Indigenous communities. The lowland nations are intent on recuperating their ancestral territories, which had been appropriated by families of European extraction or, more recently, allocated to timber companies as long-term forest concessions. The promise of recovering these lands was the reason lowland Indigenous groups overwhelmingly supported Evo Morales in 2005. In contrast, highland Indigenous groups believe they have a constitutional right – as Bolivian citizens – to settle unoccupied public lands, particularly the forest concessions that were rescinded in the early days of the Morales’ administration. The highland and lowland Indigenous groups are competing for the same land.
This conflict is manifest in the evolving self-identity of the Andean migrants, who for decades referred to themselves as colonizadores. Since about 2000, however, they have self-identified as interculturales, a term that recognises their status as Indigenous people who have left their ancestral homeland. They are politically powerful, in part because they maintain familial and commercial ties with a large population of urban migrants, but also because they have organised militant syndicates skilled in the tactics of economic blockade. They exercise their electoral power by demanding that INRA, which is controlled by the central government, distribute land via settlement associations affiliated with the Confederación Sindical de Comunidades Interculturales Originarios de Bolivia (CSCIOB) or the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB).
The alliance among the highland and lowland Indigenous groups was fractured in 2011 when the Morales administration announced its intention to build a highway through the Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro – Securé (TIPNIS). The proposed highway ignored several legal precepts, including the requirement to obtain the ‘free prior and informed consent’ (FPIC) for the highway project from the Moxeño, Trinitario, Yuracaré and Tsimane peoples who have held communal title to the reserve since 1990. The official justification for building the road was to integrate two regions of the country, but the inhabitants of TIPNIS know that it will also trigger a land rush by the coca-growing farmers of the Chapare, who have already colonized the southern sector of their reserve (Human Modified Landscape or HML #32).
The attempt to build the highway revealed that Evo Morales would not honor his campaign promises to lowland Indigenous groups when it conflicted with the interests of the more numerous and politically assertive interculturales. The Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano (CIDOB) expressed solidarity for the tribes native to the TIPNIS, an action that coincided with a slow-down in the titling process for the TCO reserves for ethnic groups affiliated with CIDOB.
Simultaneously, INRA administrators ignored requests by Chiquitano and Guarayos organisations for the restitution of ancestral territories that had been incorporated into forest concessions in the 1990s. Instead, they began distributing land to associations affiliated with the interculturales.
The conflict between the Indigenous groups is part of the shifting political coalitions that have defined recent elections. Although they lost power at the national level, Cruceño elites still dominate local and regional governments and now support the territorial demands of Chiquitano and Guarayos communities. This regional coalition is advocating for the creation of multiple-use protected areas controlled by local jurisdictions, which would allow timber extraction by the region’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous inhabitants. Implicit in this political manoeuvring are strategies focused on the demographics of Santa Cruz and the fear (aspiration) that an expanding population of interculturales will lead to the electoral success of the political party associated with Evo Morales.
Overlaying the ethnic and political conflicts is the ever-present spectre of corruption, which permeates almost all land transactions and involves unscrupulous individuals within every stakeholder group. This includes land grabbers, military officials and leaders of campesino syndicates that use their political connections to obtain large-scale landholdings for resale to corporate farmers and Mennonites. Even lowland Indigenous leaders have been tempted to participate in the political melee, most notably when the government created a parallel slate of Indigenous leaders within CIDOB that supported their attempt to violate the TIPNIS.
The expansion of the agricultural frontier
INRA has done a fairly competent job of processing the huge backlog of land claims, but there is no indication that any government will end the distribution of public land. Over the last twenty years, INRA has issued title to thousands of landholdings within two forest reserves specifically created to ensure the long-term management of timber resources.
The first to be dismembered was El Choré and the same process is underway within the Guarayos Reserve, even though it enjoys dual status as a TCO and forest reserve. A third forest reserve, Bajo Paraguá, is at the centre of the competition between Chiquitanos, Interculturales and local politicians. Recent statements by INRA functionaries indicate they view land claims by settlers as having precedence over efforts to create municipal protected areas within forest reserves.
The jockeying for land reflects a broad consensus that expanding the agricultural frontier is in Bolivia’s national interest. This includes all major political parties, the central and regional governments, the agribusiness sector, ranchers and intercultural settlers. These policies originated in the administration of Evo Morales (2005–2019), which approved five laws between 2013 and 2019 that facilitated access to public lands, legalised landholdings appropriated during previous administrations and opened the door to deforestation and the use of fire. These policies were embraced by the transitional government of Jeanine Añez and the administration of Luis Arce Catacora, who was elected in October 2020 as the candidate endorsed by Evo Morales.
The controversial policies led to a spike in wildfires in 2018 that coincided with a review of the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) project that financed INRA’s land tenure programme. Among its findings were: (1) the agency had issued no new titles for Indigenous communities; (2) the ongoing distribution of public lands had generated new social and environmental conflicts; and (3) the disregard for national laws and environmental regulation violated the IDB’s policies. The IDB halted disbursements of funds in 2018 and is awaiting actions by INRA to address the concerns documented in the monitoring report.
Banner image: A storm in the Bolivian Chaco. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).
Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 4 here: