New Internationalist

Journey to the half moon

Issue 410

They call it the media luna – or ‘half moon’ – the area of the country that is giving Evo Morales his biggest headache.

Santa Cruz is a place with a reputation. Its people are described as independent of spirit, enterprising and pioneering. Frontiers people. They are also described as rich, right-wing and racist.

These are the stereotypes. The reality is more complex – and much more interesting.

The lowland tropical city on the edge of the Amazon basin has boomed in the past few decades – from a town of 50,000 in the 1950s to a city of more than two million today. Croatians, Brazilians, Finns, Russians, Americans, Spaniards, German and Canadian Mennonites: all have been drawn to this eastern region of the country, rich in agricultural land, timber, minerals, oil and gas. The area has also drawn Bolivian settlers. Many are whites or mestizos who have made – or stolen – their fortunes here; many others are impoverished indigenous Quechua or Aymara settlers from the highlands searching for a better life in the ‘wild east’.

And there’s another group of people – well, more than one group. Thirty-four different groups of people, to be precise – the original people of this area, who have to deal with the influx of all the above.

Creaming it

I’m sitting in a busy city-centre eatery, frequented mainly by white and mestizo families enjoying oversized ice creams. Anthropologist Emilia Varela is describing the political climate:

‘There is a lot of fear of those with power in the city. People keep their mouths shut. Although MAS does well in elections here, people don’t feel confident about standing up to the Right. It can be a form of “civil death” to do so. If you don’t take part in stoppages organized by the Right, shops won’t serve you. There’s a lot of racism against indigenous settlers from the highlands and against those of this area, who are viewed as nonexistent, or savages, or animals. At protests you hear people shouting “Kill them all”.’

A few streets away, near to the old colonial square at the heart of this city, is a wall daubed with graffiti, calling for ‘autonomy’ and ‘death to Evo’.

A bit further out, in one of the more modern ‘rings’ of the city, is the office of agronomist and lawyer, Eulogio Nuñez. A round-faced, friendly man, his printer spouts erudite papers as he speaks in an eloquent stream. He heads the Santa Cruz branch of CIPCA, an NGO which works with indigenous and peasant communities to help them participate economically, socially and politically, in Bolivian life.

One of the papers he shows me has a table of landholding in the region. At the top of the table sits Luis F Saavedra Bruno. He owns seven properties amounting to 249,345 hectares (the size of Luxembourg). His wife Maria Ivonne makes do with 63,751. Luis’s brother Carlos was a minister in a previous government.

The Saavedra Brunos are not alone in their affluence. Going down the list of well-endowed landowners, Eulogio points out the connections between them.

‘The land reform that followed Bolivia’s 1952 revolution never reached the east,’ he explains.

It gets worse. Recently, some 1,000 ‘captive families’ were found living as slaves on the estates of large landowners in the Chaco region, bordering Argentina. These captives were Guaraní descendants of people whose land had been invaded by white people and who since then had been bought and sold as part and parcel of the haciendas.

In August 2007 the Government passed a new law that set in motion an ambitious new programme of land reform. The aim is to expropriate and re-distribute 10 per cent of Bolivia’s land surface. By December, more than 35,000 landless families had benefited – including the captive families in Chaco. This February a further 373,653 hectares were delivered to Guaraní people – bringing the expropriated total to 526,000 hectares.

‘Previous land reform had nothing to say about slavery. Now landowners found keeping slaves have their property taken away from them and given to the people they enslaved,’ Eulogio continues.

All land which can be shown to have been acquired illegally is to be confiscated. The landowners most likely to lose property are those with over 50,000 hectares, though some with ‘medium’ holdings – ranging from 2,500 to 50,000 – may also be affected. For the first time, landholders have to meet certain social and economic criteria to show the land is being used productively.

In the past, the ancestral homelands of indigenous people could be bought and sold from under their feet. Now land cannot be sold without registration. ‘It’s like buying a car,’ says Eulogio. ‘You need to know it hasn’t been stolen.’

Meeting the élite

Not surprisingly, land reform has produced howls of protest – and worse – from the Santa Cruz oligarchy. In January 2007 Oxfam America reported a wave of attacks on indigenous organizations in the region. Death threats were received and the offices of indigenous NGOs were set alight.

Arms stashes have been found, prompting fears of paramilitary violence. While in the city of Santa Cruz itself, the notorious Unión Juvenil Cruceñista youth movement resorts to physical violence in its bid to keep the city ‘white’.

It’s time to meet the élite.

Carlos Dabdoub graciously offers me the coffee that has just been brought to him. A neurosurgeon by training and health minister in a previous government, he is now Director of Autonomy for the Prefecture of Santa Cruz. The powerful separatist lobby wants the region to have greater control over budgets, including the huge revenues generated from gas and oil exploration. Their demands are echoed elsewhere, in the neighbouring region of Tarija, to the south, and Beni and Pando to the north.

Though a well-known Santa Cruz oligarch, Dabdoub is at pains to tell me he owns ‘not a hectare’ of land. ‘I want you to tell the world, through your magazine, that it’s not as many people outside think. We, the whites of Santa Cruz, do not want to destroy the Indians. We are not friends of confrontation, and if there are latifundistas they are very few.’

According to him, the struggle for autonomy was born with the founding of the city in 1561. The area, he says, was always neglected. There wasn’t a tarmacked road until the 1960s. Then it began to boom, as white Europeans were invited to settle in the area and exploit its natural resources.

He dismisses claims that the interests he represents insist on autonomy because they want control over oil and gas revenues. ‘This is a lie they have thrown at us,’ he says. ‘We believe in autonomy because the free-market dynamic will make us more efficient and will break up the bureaucracy of the State.’ Regional autonomy will ‘deepen democracy’, he argues.

‘There is an ideological confrontation of two visions of the country. That of the Government is for strengthening a centralized government that concentrates political, economic and cultural power.’ The other vision, that the Santa Cruz Right is defending, is that of ‘a social democratic state which is autonomous and able to counterbalance the intentions of a totalitarian government’.

The accusation of totalitarianism is one that the Right regularly levels at Evo Morales. Another is that he takes his orders from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

The TV station is funded by the Monasterios family which owns huge amounts of land

On the issue of returning land to indigenous peoples, Dabdoub is more circumspect:

‘We don’t support people who have obtained land illegally, but we don’t agree that someone is going to take your land away from you just because you’ve got a lot of it.’

The departmental government, he thinks, should have control over renewable resources. That means the ability to grant, for example, timber concessions. Jorge Cortes, from the research organization CEA DES C, sheds a bit of light here: ‘In 2005 just 85 families had 64 per cent of concessions between them. A lot of these families are intermarried, connected to each other. They are Bolivians, white Bolivians generally, of European or Middle Eastern ancestry. Indigenous concessions, on the other hand, are spread over more than 30 different peoples who have rights to only seven per cent. So you see, the discrimination in the case of granting concessions is a form of racial discrimination.’

Meeting the indigenous

José Bailaba knows the sharp end of that discrimination. He is a Chiquitano indigenous leader and member of the Constituent Assembly. Like so many indigenous people around the world, the 80,000 or so Chiquitanos live in areas rich in natural resources but derive least benefit from their exploitation.

Bailaba is not well, and he’s finding the heat oppressive. Patiently he explains: ‘Land is the big issue for us. Without it we cannot subsist, nor can we develop, politically, economically. Today there is tremendous land speculation by white people, companies and individuals, who behave as though they were lords. Indigenous people are forced off land by cattle ranching which destroys the environment.’

In September 2007 fires started deliberately to clear tracts of forest created a vast polluting pall that stretched all the way to La Paz. Agri-business has expanded exponentially in recent years, especially soya grown on fragile Amazonian soils. Within four years the land loses half its productivity, prompting further expansion into indigenous territory.

The growth in soya and biofuel cultivation in neighbouring Brazil, as well as exploitation of El Mutún, a massive iron ore deposit on the Bolivian side of the border, has inspired the European Union to fund a trans-America bi-ocean highway, to the detriment of indigenous communities in its path. It is estimated that within 20 years the fragile ecology of the Bolivian Pantonál region will be destroyed.

‘Mineral exploration is happening in our territory,’ José continues. Mining is notoriously destructive, both environmentally and socially. It pollutes water and uses a lot of it. Preferential rights are given to the mine, causing shortages for local indigenous communities.

‘The mineral code we have up to now has got to change,’ he adds. ‘It favours mining companies and does not protect our rights. The Environmental Law is also very ambiguous.’

Photo: Vanessa Baird
Chiquitano deputy José Bailaba: ‘We know how to look after mineral resources. Our way of life has taught us not to degrade and destroy.’ Guaraní activist Marisol Solano: ‘The oil and gas companies don’t take enough care – they don’t invest in safety.’ Photo: Vanessa Baird

Oil and gas

Sitting across the table from José Bailaba is Marisol Solano. She is Guaraní, and until recently was the director of an organization that represents five different ethnic groups.

‘We have a lot of problems with transnational oil and gas companies. We’re trying to get land titles but there’s a lot of invasion by companies,’ she says. The multinationals working Bolivia’s oil and gas fields include Total (France), British Gas (UK), Repsol (Spain), Petrobras (Brazil) and Amoco (US). The Bolivian company Transredes, in which Shell has a large stake, provides pipelines.

‘The companies don’t take enough care,’ says Marisol. ‘They don’t invest in safety.’

Old or faulty pipelines lead to leaks, fires and contamination. In the gas-rich area of San Alberto a faulty duct led to an explosion and fires that consumed an entire village. ‘The companies often leave the site despoiled. They contaminate rivers and this leads to deformities in people and animals.’

Transredes and the Spanish giant Repsol are named as persistent offenders.

For many years gas and oil companies enjoyed deals that made Bolivian oil the cheapest in the world to extract (in 2003 BP-Amoco was paying $0.97 per barrel while the world average was $5.60). Under Sánchez de Lozada (himself a wealthy mine-owner) the oil and gas fields were privatized and royalties paid by multinationals were slashed from 50 to just 18 per cent. When Evo Morales re-nationalized them he reversed the revenue flow so that 82 per cent went to Bolivia and 18 per cent to the multinationals. They cried foul and threatened to leave – but not one of them did.

Since nationalization there have been some improvements on the ground, says Marisol. ‘Before there was no consultation. The company would invade, start operating, then talk. Now we are mobilizing to make sure they consult with indigenous communities first. With this government there’s a bit more openness, but there’s still a lot of distance. There are those who back the interests of the multinationals.’

Bolivia’s new hydrocarbons law states that indigenous people have the right to consultation; to five per cent of the tax revenues; and there is to be a new decree on how to protect the environment and share benefits.

But resource extraction remains fraught with dangers. Guaraní people are the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. ‘A company may easily cause division within the community. So we have to make sure our organizations are strong. We have to fight, to continue fighting, or else we will lose everything,’ says Marisol.

She isn’t exaggerating. You only have to look over the border in Brazil to see how a combination of private enterprise and government resettlement polices has had a catastrophic effect on the Guaraní people (see Facts).

Anti-indigenous propaganda

Meanwhile, in the Bolivian Chaco, the oil companies are engaging PR experts to win hearts and minds. Owning the media helps. The right-wing Santa Cruz daily, El Nuevo Día, for example, belongs to a Spanish transnational group, Prisa, which is linked to the oil company Repsol.

Local journalist Marcelo Patsi belongs to Desafio (Challenge), an NGO that works with neighbourhood unions and indigenous groups to create alternative TV, radio and print media which challenge the distorted views of indigenous people presented in the mainstream.

The Santa Cruz-based TV channel Unitel is the worst offender, he says. ‘For example, an indigenous leader may be speaking and they will accompany it with, say, footage of violence that contradicts what he’s saying.’

The TV station is funded by the Monasterios family which has vast amounts of land, some of it illegally acquired from indigenous people, he claims. ‘Unitel’s an instrument of the Right working alongside the transnationals. But the worst thing is that it fosters racism. Middle-class mestizos – like myself – have a lot of racial prejudice and ignorance which is being used politically by the Right.’

He cites the example of Civic Committee leader and cooking-oil boss Branko Marinkovic. One of the richest men in Bolivia, he orchestrated an anti-Government protest against the rising cost of food – though the companies hiking the prices were owned by him and his colleagues. ‘The media, controlled by the Right, blamed the Government and the middle-classes thought: “We have an indio for president; that’s why the economy isn’t improving, that’s why prices are rising and life is more expensive.”’

But Marcelo thinks the Government is partly to blame for the power of the Right in Santa Cruz. ‘It doesn’t understand the reality here. It’s very different from the west. You have to apply different politics, different ways of relating to people. Most of the MAS deputies for this zone are not from here, which doesn’t help.’

He echoes a view I’d heard elsewhere, that MAS made a ‘fatal error’ when it caved in to opposition demands that candidates for the Constituent Assembly be linked to political parties. This suited indigenous Quechua and Aymara communities connected to MAS , but eastern lowland indigenous groups were more independent. The result was that only four of the 256 members of the Assembly are indigenous people from the eastern lowlands – José Bailaba being one of them. It’s not only indigenous people in the region who feel let down. ‘We on the Left feel isolated, endangered, unsupported,’ says Marcelo. ‘Evo Morales needs to listen to us, here.’

Evo, Evo, Evo!

It looks as though Marcelo’s plea might have been heard as crowds gather in central Santa Cruz. Often rallies in this city present a sea of green autonomy flags, waved by mainly white and mestizo separatists. This gathering has a different complexion. Multicoloured wiphalas – the symbol of indigenous unity – are everywhere. The features of the hundreds gathering in the late afternoon sun are overwhelmingly indigenous. Most are Aymara and Quechua migrants from the highlands. A strong contingent are street vendors.

The local media claimed that people were being paid to attend. If so, they deserve Oscars. You’d be hardpushed to find a more joyful and committed gathering. The warm-up speeches take several hours. The crowd cheers, heckles, engages. Street vendors boo off one of their own spokespeople. ‘No sirve’ – he’s useless – a woman explains to me between her loud calls of ‘be off with you!’

‘No-one will be spared, and the wealth that some country, some region, or some capitalist may have, will be useless’

Finally, the man arrives. The wiphalas wave, the cheers go up – Evo! Evo! Evo! He’s taller than I expected and an impressive communicator. There’s no sign of posturing or condescension. He talks clearly but in detail about the economy, ‘your’ economy. The hydrocarbon wealth, ‘your’ wealth. For the first time in its history, Bolivia has a fiscal surplus. Why did this not happen before? The wealth from natural resources was always there. Where was it going?

The mood is upbeat, but there’s no hysteria. Just a sea of faces listening, glowing in the dark. A dignified old man is smiling broadly. There is an almost tangible sense of: ‘Yes. We’re here. We have returned.’

What now?

The Constituent Assembly has agreed the basis for a new constitution with significant pledges to collective indigenous rights and autonomy (see box page 7). Santa Cruz and three other regions have responded with violent protests and have declared themselves autonomous.

The ante has been upped. The right-wing media says the country is out of control, that the Government will use the army to impose its will – a claim it denies. An anti-Morales delegation has appealed to the Organization of American States and the US.

Much is a stake. Conflicts are inevitable – and not only between polar opposites, but between current allies too. ‘Andino-centrism’ is a problem for all people in the lowland areas, indigenous or not. And although the MAS is informed by grassroots social movements and indigenous thinking, in government it has become an institution and thus lost some revolutionary potential. There is disappointment that opportunities for creating a more radical participatory democracy have been squandered.

New laws governing oil and gas exploration and mineral extraction should in theory make for more meaningful consultation with indigenous communities, fewer destructive practices and a more equitable sharing of the wealth that natural resources bring. But fossil fuel exploitation by multinational corporations – even if they are having to pay more for it – is still an odd fit with indigenous stewardship of nature. There is also the delicate issue of climate change; it is ironic that the country that is showing such progress in achieving indigenous rights is so dependent on the extraction and sale of CO2-producing fossil fuels.

Evo Morales seemed aware of the scale and depth of the problem, however, when he told a recent UN gathering on climate change: ‘Where does this pollution come from? It comes from, and is generated by, the unsustainable development of a system which destroys the planet: in other words, capitalism.’

He went on to say: ‘I want to call on sectors, groups and nations to abandon luxury, to abandon overconsumption, to think not only about money but about life; to think not only about accumulating capital but to think in wider terms about humanity. Only then can we begin to solve the root causes of these problems facing humanity. Because if we don’t think that way, if we do not change, it won’t matter if business owners have a lot of money, no matter if they are a multinational or even a country – no-one can escape these ecological problems, environment problems, and climate change. No-one will be spared, and the wealth that some country, some region or some capitalist may have will be useless.

The challenge is huge, the threat too – made worse by recent floods and rising inflation. But the Government of Evo Morales has shown that even a country with a crippling legacy of poverty, decades of bad government, debt, corruption and inequality, can make real headway in promoting dignity, carefulness, respect and equality; despite the efforts of a determined, wellheeled opposition linked to multinational capital. In Bolivia, different strands – of indigenous consciousness, socialism and environmentalism – are in the process of being woven together in one of the world’s most exciting and precarious experiments. Perhaps, given a chance, Pachacuti – the big change – is more than just wishful thinking; and its ripples will spread far beyond the borders of one, landlocked, South American country. At the moment it’s still a big ‘perhaps’.

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