RELEASE DATE: 01 Nov, 2011


The Bolivian TIPNIS, denoting Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory, is named for its two primary rivers: Isiboro and Secure. Within the park the two rivers meet and converge. And just like these two vigorous bodies of water, in recent months the people of Bolivia have be-come unified in their defence of the TIPNIS against imminent invasion by a government planned motorway.

In the issue we mark the pitch of Bolivian TIPNIS fever: Georgiana Keate opens by exploring the political and historical context of the protests. On p10 Omari Eccleston-Brown considers how the affair reflects upon unity and division in Bolivian society, and gives us a taste of the emotions afoot when the indigenous protesters arrived in La Paz. We also hear the story of Nazareth Flores Cabajo (p12), a selfless leader who lost her unborn child in the struggle to protect her territory. Finally, on p14 we place the TIPNIS furore within thewider context of Bolivia’s protest culture.

But what does this culture imply for Bolivia’s future? One response is to worry at its capriciousness: it was the protests of 2003 that brought incumbent president Evo Morales to power; yet today the people dissent again, but with no alternative substitution or credible opposition. This vigorous form of political participation can at times seem to condemn the country to perpetual discontent and paralysis.

Nevertheless, within certain spheres, Bolivian discontent has proved to be an effective recipe. To give one example, in a recent article for the Harvard Journal Revista, Elisabeth Rhyne, recounts her outrage when the 2003 protesters ransacked a leading Bolivian micro-finance bank. At the time it had seemed to her contradictory and tragic that the people should turn on an institution whose micro-finance initiatives had been so effectively invested in the interests of the poor. Yet she goes on to relate how the aftermath of that popular action has forced her to reassess her romantic perspective on institution’s work. Now in 2011, she can admit that the protests ultimately achieved a higher standard of micro-finance service and at a lower cost. Today Bolivia is often cited as a micro-finance success story. Far from destroying the initiatives, the protest culture cemented their success.

We can hope that the same is true for the people’s relationship with their president: protests might serve less as unconstructive defiance than as formative steps to influence policy. The role of protests can then become central within an unconventional list of checks and balances. In a state where there is widespread mistrust of media and democratic institutions they become true measures of public opinion.

The values that these protests express are certainly inspiring: the people of Bolivia are prioritising their indigenous cultures and rights of self-determination over the economic development and gain promised by a highway. Where previously Morales himself symbolised indigenous power and protection of the environment, now a new symbol has taken root in the Bolivian national psyche: TIPNIS. As such, it is not surprising that the ancient rainforest might strike a more profound chord than any politician ever could. These are mighty roots that shared by all Bolivians: within TIPNIS territory diverse rivers and ecosystems, Andes, Amazon, and now sentiments, merge into one. Recent developments have given rise to many more questions than answers, yet one thing is certain: Bolivia’s policy makers must prepare to negotiate a literal as well as figurative jungle, because the TIPNIS is here to stay.


Monthly review: La Casona

28 Feb, 2012 | Robbie Macdonald

Av. Mariscal Santa Cruz, next to Walisuma La Paz, Bolivia The 'working lunch' menu seems to be much more of a common practice here in South America than the other continents. Some countries are sta...

A united front

28 Feb, 2012 | Omari Eccleston-Brown

Bolivia does exist, but it’s a nation divided along invisible lines: East and West; loose borders that separate one ancestral community from the next; and perhaps most strongly, the breach between the...

Nazareth Flores Cabao: A marcher’s story

28 Feb, 2012 | Sharoll Fernadez and Xenia Elsaesser

Nazareth Flores Cabao is the Vice president of CEPIB, Central de pueblos indigenas de Beni. She is of Italoma heritage and comes from Magdalena, a town in Beni near the Brazilian border. She recently...


28 Feb, 2012 | Georgiana Keate

At the heart of the storm, there appeared a division between morales as an indigenous leader and a socialist leader. For the last few months in Bolivia, tipnis has been on everybody’s tongues. It ha...

The culture of protest

28 Feb, 2012 | Georgiana Keate

The history of protest in Bolivia is an illustrious one – you could even say it is one of the many national symbols of the new Plurinacional state You leave your house and home behind, taking nothin...