Bolivia: The Hostile Takeover of Indigenous Organizations

Community meeting and informational session on the impacts of the two dams

On January 11, Mongabay reported on the pernicious impacts that El Chepete-Balas massive hydroelectric project would have on more than 5,000 indigenous people and the biosphere of the Madidi National Park and Pilón Lajas Reserve. The construction of two dams on Beni River’s Chepete Gorge and El Bala Gorge, respectively, is a project that dates back to the 1950s, later promoted by dictator Hugo Banzer in the 1990s, and resurrected by Evo Morales’ government in 2016. 

According to a report by Jessica Camille Aguirre, the hydroelectric project is meant as a source of income, by exporting energy to Brazil, but economically unsound. Geodata, the Italian company hired to study the project’s economic feasibility in 2017, recommended Morales’ government to wait 20 years to begin the project to be able to really see profits from such a large-scale millionaire investment.

It has also faced resistance from indigenous people since the beginning. As early as November 2016, the Mancomunidad de Comunidades Indígenas de los Ríos Beni, Tuichi y Quiquibey and members of the Coordinator in Defense of the Amazon (CODA) staged a 12-day vigil to expel the companies in charge of the project from their territories. However, Morales’ government and affiliated organizations, such as the Office of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (CPILAP), moved the project forward by signing an exploration agreement with the National Electricity Company (ENDE) in August 2017. Morales’ government and CPILAP continued to pressure local communities to support the project, according to Ruth Alipaz Cuqui from the National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP). 

“CPILAP is the [state’s] operational arm and a parastatal organization used to impose these projects in our region in the Amazon,” Alipaz Cuqui told Awasqa. “And from the beginning they operate like the government, which says one thing to wash its image, but in reality they do something else.”

In 2018, the affected communities decided to present their case to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which called on Bolivia to act in compliance with free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples before moving these large-scale hydroelectric dams forward. 

Last August, for the second time, CPILAP signed another agreement with ENDE to move the project forward. “After consulting with six territories…we made people aware and informed them about ENDE’s request,”said CPILAP’s President Gonzalo Oliver Terrazas in a video interview with Chiqui Reporte Rurrenabaque. Adding that five territories agreed on the project’s exploration “in exchange for housing and electricity.” The six indigenous nations in the region under Mancomunidad de Comunidades Indígenas de los Ríos Beni, Tuichi, and Quiquibey, were quick to point out that such an agreement does not equate to a prior and informed consultation process, thus rejecting any agreement with ENDE. 

Fundación Solón produced this video a few years ago on the impacts of this project in the region

State-affiliated leaders and organizations have created severe divisions and tensions among indigenous communities. According to Guardiana, the takeover of indigenous organizations by people allied to the central government has led advocates to create parallel “organic” organizations to claim their independence from partyism. Such is the case of CIDOB, recognized by the MAS government, and CIDOB Orgánica (Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia Orgánica), which distanced itself from the government to work closer with regional indigenous allies such as the Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA). As many as eight indigenous organizations, workers unions, and the main association of coca producers have been either taken over or split up in the past 18 years, according to Pagina Siete. Now civic committees and human rights organizations like the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia (APDHB) are also under attack.

As many as eight indigenous organizations, workers unions, and the main association of coca producers have been either taken over or split up in the past 18 years.

The majority population in Bolivia is indigenous, so it is not hard to find both environmentalists and people who support extractivist projects, but at the heart of the matter, it is an issue of local indigenous sovereignty and human rights, and the impact that these government-sponsored schisms have on Bolivia’s society as a whole. Such is the case, for example, in Arce´s refusal to meet with the XI Indigenous March for the Defense of the Territory, sponsoring instead a parallel meeting with MAS-aligned leaders in the region. Or the creation of a parallel organization to the Bolivian Association of Forest and Conservation Rangers (ABOLAC) by none other than SERNAP, the institution in charge of overseeing national protected areas under the Ministry of Environment and Water, opening these areas to extractivist projects.

This is quite a long introduction to the translation below of CONTIOCAP´s detailed account of another leadership takeover attempt of Carmen Florida, a Tacana community, just one of 17 indigenous communities at risk from El Chepete-Balas hydroelectric dams. It is a painful account that is worth lifting up as a historical record of Bolivia’s political complexity.


January 7, 2022

We denounce an attempt to create an organization parallel to the Corregimiento of the Tacana Carmen Florida community, which is part of the Regional Council of Tsimané Moseten (CRTM), by a person who usurped the representation and signature of the agreement with ENDE (National Electricity Company) for the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric dams

The National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas of Bolivia (CONTIOCAP) and the Carmen Florida indigenous community, Rurrenabaque Municipality, Beni, in light of recent incidents, denounce the following:

1.  On January 3, 2022, during the monthly Carmen Florida indigenous community meeting, people who were not affiliated to the community, led by Ramón Cubo Cartagena, burst into the gathering, disrespecting the authorities, threatening the attendees, and demanded to be elected as authorities, thus violating the community bylaws which state that those affiliated [to Carmen Florida] are entitled to be representatives of the community. Nonetheless, due to community action, such claim was denied.

2 . On January 6, in a desperate attempt to create a parallel leadership, members of Ramón Cubo Cartagena’s family invited the administrator of Rurrenabaque to participate in an illegal swearing in of a new alleged board of directors, on an invitation (wrongly dated 2021) to be set for January 8. This action not only violates the indigenous communities’ right to choose their representative authorities based on their own norms (bylaws and statutes), but is also an imposition of other forms of organization since the Carmen Florida indigenous community does not use a “board of directors” as a way of organization. The Carmen Florida community is organized through a CORREGIMIENTO (township).

3 . Such desperate and illegal governing takeover is an attempt to create a parallel organization to Carmen Florida community, to try to participate in a meeting of the Regional Council of Tsimané Moseten (CRTM) administrators (corregidores) to be held on January 10, to perform another dire act against the rights of indigenous peoples, in this case by beheading the CRTM, when it is fighting to take precautionary measures to protect indigenous communities’ lives in the face of the Bala-Chepete Project.

4. Since Ramón Cubo Cartagena does not hold office nor represent any organization, he has resorted to a power takeover and identity theft, by signing an agreement between ENDE and CPILAP [Central de Pueblos Indígenas de La Paz] in the previous months in order to give continuity to the exploration, launch, and construction of the Chepete and El Bala hydroelectric plants.

5 . Since the signing of the agreement on August 16, 2021, both communities who live by the Beni and Quiquibey river banks, such as Carmen Florida and CRTM, have emphatically rejected the signing of this agreement since the affected communities have not been consulted. Meanwhile, the CPILAP has been trying during several meetings validation of the agreement by these communities and the CRTM.

6. We denounce that both the meeting held on January 3, for the establishment of a parallel organization that has been trying to impose itself on the Carmen Florida community, as well as the corregidores meeting to be held on January 10 that attempts to oust CRTM’s leadership, violate national norms of the COVID-19 Health Emergency since both in the Rurrenabaque community and the national territory, the fourth wave is at the highest peaks of infection. Despite this, people are convened to these events, putting the indigenous families’ life and health at risk.

7. Furthermore, the corregidor of the Carmen Florida community tested positive for COVID, and his health is currently delicate; the CRTM president’s children and the CRTM vice-president are also ill with COVID symptoms. Thus such an attack upon both organizations is wholly perverse and illegal by those behind these actions, who shall be the only ones responsible for threatening the health of the Carmen Florida community and the 23 CRTM families of the corregidores.

8. We demand respect for the free determination of indigenous communities and peoples, expressed through the election of their authorities based on their own norms and statutes. We demand an immediate end to superseding parallel leaderships and cushy jobs used to coerce projects that infringe on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Decisive vote of the Carmen Florida Community against NON-AFFILIATED people trying to create a parallel organization.


Sofía Jarrín

Sofía Jarrín

Co-founder and co-editor, Awasqa.

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