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Bolivia: the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory’s struggle for autonomy

BY CATALINA RIVADENEIRA CANEDO FOR DEBATES INDÍGENAS

While awaiting a referendum to approve their statute and initiate the new Indigenous Autonomous Government, the communities need to improve the management of their territory and natural resources. The territory's high biodiversity and the communities' livelihoods are being threatened by illegal logging, poaching and fishing, as well as the construction of a road that is facilitating illegal access to the territory.

Photo: Community of San Antonio del Cuverene. Photo: Fátima Monasterio

Located in the southern Bolivian Amazon, the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory (TIM) is a unique case of the intercultural coexistence of five Indigenous Peoples: the Mojeño Ignacianos, Mojeños Trinitarios, Yuracaré, Movima and T'simane (or Chimán). A total of 26 Indigenous communities live on this territory, accounting for 3,429 people in the 2012 census.

These Indigenous Peoples have been searching for the “Loma Santa” for centuries: a sacred place in the middle of the rainforest where the oppression of the karayana (as they call the white and mestizo population) does not exist and where they will finally find happiness. Their treks and exoduses have taken place within the so-called Chimanes Forest, a region in which different forms of territorial occupation and use coexist, along with different traditional forms of social, cultural and productive organization.

Over the course of history, occupation of the territory has taken place under four different circumstances: the communities established on the basis of former Jesuit missions, the settlements established during the search for the “Loma Santa”, the constant movements of Indigenous families through the area, and displacements due to climatic, economic and social events.

The road to autonomy

The TIM has historically shown an interest in achieving autonomy. A long process of political, social and organizational change commenced in 1990 for the Indigenous Peoples of the lowlands with the march “For territory and dignity”. This mobilization led to the signing of supreme decrees recognizing four Indigenous territories: TIM, TIPNIS, Sirionó and Chimán.

In 2010, at a meeting of Corregidores - the highest traditional decision-making authority - held in San José del Cavitu, the communities again expressed their desire to progress towards full Indigenous autonomy. The Territorial Assembly of the TIM was formed a year later, with a mandate to draft their Statute of Autonomy. In 2015, the Ministry of Autonomies issued the government’s viability certificate, establishing that the TIM had the administrative capacity to implement its autonomy process and manage its resources.

Subsequently, in 2016 the TIM's Deliberative Body approved the Statute of Autonomy, which was then sent to the Plurinational Constitutional Court. Following its constitutional review, it is hoped that a referendum in the TIM will endorse the Statute of Autonomy and thus give rise to the new Indigenous Autonomous Government. The peoples of the TIM are working on one of the key tools to promote territorial and natural resource management: the Community’s Territorial Management Plan, a State requirement for the allocation of public resources and to finance the powers allocated in the Constitution in this regard.

The TIM is thus gathering primary socio-environmental information for the development of a biodiversity monitoring tool. Led by the Subcentral (the community’s organizational structure), the women's organization and all the communities, it has become a highly participatory process that aims to incorporate Indigenous visions of resource use, management and conservation. This strategic vision has thus been incorporated into a document that not only fulfils a management purpose but also meets the State’s requirements without negatively affecting the peoples’ ways of life.

A territory with high biodiversity

The TIM is part of the Llanos de Moxos (Moxos Plains), an ecoregion identified as an area of high biodiversity with unique plant and animal species. Its biodiversity includes around 254 species of fish, 85 amphibians, 101 reptiles, 566 birds and 150 mammals. In addition, 12 ecological systems have been identified, comprising different types of environment such as forest, savannah, swamp and a variety of water bodies including streams, rivers and lagoons.

Including the surrounding forests, the entire Beni plain is home to more than 5,000 species of plant and the various savannas add another 1,500 more. In addition, 77.4% of the TIM lies within the Rio Matos Ramsar Site, designated in 2013 as a wetland of global importance. This status means that the TIM plays a key role in water dynamics and is important for migratory species regionally.

Ten endemic fish species and one species of reptile (Eunectes beniensis) have been recorded in the TIM. Due to its features, it is a conservation area for several species categorized as endangered or vulnerable to extinction nationally, such as the jaguar (Panthera onca), the river dolphin (Inia boliviensis) and the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger).

On a cultural level, the multi-ethnic nature of the TIM is a unique feature since Indigenous Peoples of different cultures, customs and languages live alongside each other in harmony, albeit together identifying as a single territory. It is also a territory rich in archaeological remains that clearly demonstrate the mark left by the pre-Columbian Indigenous Peoples. Despite the weather and the inclement environmental conditions, ancestral constructions such as canals, embankments and ridges used for agriculture can be seen and ancient ceramics and pottery can also still be found in cemeteries.

Logging: threats to the ecosystem and illegal logging

In the mid-1980s, sectors interested in logging the Chimanes Forest succeeded in gaining approval of Supreme Decree 21,483. This removed the forest’s status as a “reserve” and declared it a permanent timber production forest. The objective was to enable its concession for logging, despite the presence of Indigenous communities that would suffer from the impact of this extractive activity.

As a result of Indigenous Peoples’ mobilizations and recognition of their territories in the 1990s, these concessions were overturned and the Chimanes Forest became part of the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory. This reorganization process took longer than expected, however, due to the existence of contracts lasting up to 20 years.

Logging is currently being carried out in some communities under Annual Forest Operating Plans and General Forest Management Plans, authorized by the Authority for Social Control and Supervision of Forests and Lands (ABT). The communities thus sign a direct agreement with the company, which must then be endorsed by the Subcentral. In addition, a Forestry Committee is organized to monitor the distribution of benefits to the participating communities.

Although the companies now work under the TIM's control, the villagers' perception of logging is that the contracts are not favourable, the prices are low and the price only improves after the third year. Community members have noted weaknesses in the technical processes for negotiating better conditions and signing timber harvesting and sale contracts. In addition, they argue that logging should benefit not only the communities involved but the territory as a whole.

From an environmental point of view, forestry activities must be based on sustainable use and consider the selective loss of species that such activity usually entails. Several years of logging within the TIM have caused the communities to observe a reduction in the number of trees and they are concerned about illegal extraction. Timber piracy is practised mainly at night, both by outsiders and by the community members themselves. In some cases, trafficked timber is of high value and causes internal conflicts.

For these reasons, the inhabitants of the TIM are warning of the need to improve monitoring within the territory. In fact, an important part of the timber trafficking is facilitated by road and river access. In April of this year, as a result of a series of aggressions and illegal incursions, the leadership issued a resolution declaring a state of emergency.

IWIGA Debates Indigenas Bolivia Agosto 2021 2

In addition to the environmental impact, the road facilitates the extraction of illegal timber and the entry of poachers, and has resulted in increased numbers of collisions and traffic accidents. Photo: Fátima Monasterio Mercado

Scarcity and illegal hunting of wild animals

In recent years, the community members have observed a decline in wildlife numbers and now have to make greater efforts to find animals such as tapir, peccary and fish. In the past, hunting used to take a few hours but now it can take days. In addition to the ecological impact, the scarcity of wild animals has a detrimental effect on the peoples’ traditional activities of hunting and fishing: these are the main sources of protein in the communities’ diet.

The factors identified by the communities as responsible for this decline in wildlife are flooding and fires, along with the entry of outsiders who hunt and fish illegally. Some people come from San Ignacio de Moxos or Trinidad to fish and some are even foreigners. These fishers use nets, and do not respect minimum sizes or the closed season. They also pollute the water by leaving fish and lizard remains in the rivers.

Illegal hunting has increased with the construction of the road between San Borja and San Ignacio de Moxos, which makes it easier for hunters to enter the area. The communities are denouncing the fact that Chinese nationals involved in the road construction are encouraging trafficking by buying wild animals such as jaguar. In recent months, national and international complaints of illegal hunting of jaguars have been successful in curbing smuggling. Community members have, however, reported the entry of Indigenous people from outside the TIM to hunt monkeys, peccaries, tapir and paca.

This situation is worrying because wildlife plays a key role in the dynamics of the forest and is the main source of resources for all the communities. Uncontrolled hunting jeopardizes its conservation and natural regeneration. In addition, it is not known why other Indigenous groups are coming into the area to hunt: whether it is because there is no wildlife in their territories or if there is a commercial interest underpinning this illegal activity. In any case, the TIM communities are aware that they must improve control of their territory and care for their fauna and flora.

The need to monitor natural resources

While roads can bring great advantages to communities, such as access to services, health, education and transportation, they also have their drawbacks. The communities settled along the new road have noted an increased inflow of outsiders, crime, collisions and roadkill, both of pedestrians and of domestic animals and wildlife.

This demonstrates why it is important for the communities and leaders of the TIM to take a leading role in monitoring the road’s construction. The construction companies must comply with the social, economic and environmental mitigation and compensation measures set out in the contract.

They also understand the need to monitor the water dynamics, which are affected by this type of infrastructure as it restricts the natural drainage of water sources. It is also important to monitor the sites allocated for the extraction of infill material, to continue restoring deforested areas, to check the existence of speed bumps, to ensure compliance with signage, and to respect wildlife crossings in order to prevent animals from being run over.

The TIM has a great natural wealth that needs to be properly managed and administered to ensure the future of the next generations. The Territory needs studies on the capacity and potential of its forest. They are aware that many resources are being affected by a lack of control and management: timber and non-timber forest products, water, flora and fauna.

Planning measures need to be taken and consideration given to new rules for internal control that will enable a sustainable use of the natural resources and a fairer distribution among the communities. It is essential to strengthen a sense of ownership of the biodiversity as a value of the territory and a determining element of its survival, one that requires care, management and protection.

* The article collects the work of an interdisciplinary team made up of Leonardo Tamburini, Ninon Rios, Shirley Palomeque, Dennise Quiroga, Miguel Fernandez, Juan Carlos Catari and Severiano Mátenes.

Catalina Rivadeneira Canedo is Oré's Research Coordinator, a biologist from the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés with a Master's in Interdisciplinary Ecology from the University of Florida. She has spent the last 15 years working on biodiversity conservation projects in Bolivia.

Tags: Land rights, Autonomy , Debates Indígenas

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