Bolivia is a landlocked country, extremely rich in natural resources but with a historically downtrodden indigenous majority (approximately 60 per cent of the population). Bolivia's first indigenous president Evo Morales, has internationally championed the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment. Nonetheless, the country relies heavily on resource extraction as the main source of the revenue and foreign exchange used for national development.

In Bolivia, resource extraction is also a cottage industry. There are about 650 mining cooperatives consisting of some 75,000 mostly indigenous members, which operate in the mineral-rich but impoverished western highlands. The artisan miners extract tin, tungsten, silver, zinc and gold. Hundreds of women cooperative members work up to 14 hours a day in the freezing tunnels dug into the side of high-altitude mountains and deep underground. Previously, women miners were given the most menial tasks and were only recently recognized as cooperative partners and shareholders; now there are some women-only cooperatives. Still, women miners with little schooling and limited financial experience remain at a particular disadvantage when selling minerals to intermediary buyers.

Indigenous sceptics

In April 2010, Bolivia hosted the 'The First World Conference of the People on Climate Change'. It included the drafting of a Universal Declaration of Rights for 'Mother Earth', which assigns the earth value that is independent of human interests – including the right to be respected and cared for. However, during 2011 a number of proposed development mega-projects have caused some indigenous organizations to question the government's international stance, while their home-grown environmental and social concerns apparently go unaddressed.

In 2011, organizations such as the 1 million-member Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) continued to complain about slow progress in titling of indigenous ancestral lands and plans to establish settlements in forest reserves, including attempts by new settlers to undermine indigenous territorial rights. Indigenous groups are also concerned about plans for hydroelectric dams and the ongoing seismic testing, drilling and mining operations throughout the Amazon basin and south-eastern Bolivia. CIDOB has accused the government of using 'dishonest and corrupt prior consultation methods' to obtain approval from indigenous communities for some projects. This includes the construction of the US$ 415 million trans-Bolivian trade/export highway linking Brazil's Atlantic coast with Chile's Pacific coast.

Highway blues

One 300 km stretch of this 1,400 km route is slated to run between the departments (provinces) of Beni and Cochabamba, crossing the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). The park land is collectively owned by some 15,000 people of the Moxeño, Yuracaré and Chimane indigenous groups, who were granted collective property rights in 2009. Some organizations are opposed to any major road construction through TIPNIS, however the government argues that the road is needed to promote national integration and provide services, such as health and education to remote indigenous communities. Protests turned violent during 2011.

Critics charge that the highway project runs counter to the 2009 Bolivian Constitution, which grants broad rights to indigenous communities, and to national laws that declare TIPNIS and other collectively owned land the 'inalienable and indivisible' property of indigenous communities. Arguably the strongest accusations relate to Bolivia's apparent non-compliance with ILO 169 regarding free, prior and informed participation with respect to projects affecting indigenous territories. Bolivia ratified the convention in 1989.

A coalition of dissenting groups – indigenous and environmental activists, spearheaded by CIDOB – began a 500 km march from Beni to La Paz in August, to protest against the road. In September 2011, about 1,000 of the anti-highway protest marchers were stopped by police. According to media reports, security forces used tear gas and truncheons to break up the gathering. Hundreds of activists were also detained but later released. Several high-profile government officials resigned over the violent crackdown.

At the end of September 2011, President Evo Morales suspended highway construction plans. The government announced that local regions and indigenous peoples would be given a chance to vote in a referendum, although it could take up to six months or more to organize one. And in October, Bolivia's lower house approved a bill formally suspending construction of the Beni-Cochabamba portion of the highway pending a consultation with the affected indigenous peoples. It also officially declared TIPNIS an ecological reserve that is of 'fundamental interest to the nation'. However, the delay did not meet with universal approval within indigenous circles. Towards the end of 2011, another organization, the Indigenous Council of the South (CONISUR) which represents 20 member-communities in the affected reserve, organized a march of their own – this time in support of the road project.

As Bolivia's rights advocates pointed out, the 2011 highway controversy highlighted the need for standard procedures that can be followed in prior consultations with indigenous communities. A draft bill on prior consultations had already been introduced in the Bolivian Congress. It outlines binding procedures and standard legislative and administrative guidelines for mining, logging, oil drilling or infrastructure projects. However, at the end of 2011, as observers noted, given the current dispute over the TIPNIS highway project, there could be a notable delay in the passage of this particular measure.

Lithium expansion

In early 2011 Bolivia moved a step closer to the goal of becoming a world leader in the production of lithium and its by-products – the country has the largest reserves in the world. Lithium is a key ingredient in the manufacture of the rechargeable batteries used in millions of mobile phones and laptop computers. Lithium reserves are located in the country's Salar de Uyuni, a vast expanse of scenic lakes, marshes and salt flats in Bolivia's mineral-rich south-west Potosí province. Traditionally indigenous communities in the area have relied on the Salar de Uyuni for salt harvesting, llama herding, the production of highly nutritious quinoa grains and, recently, for tourism.

With lithium sales expected to jump from US$ 100 million to US$ 103 billion annually over the next 20 years, a number of international corporations and governments have been seeking deals with the Bolivian government. Among these is the giant Sumitomo Corporation, which already has a stake in the controversial San Cristóbal silver, zinc and lead mine also located in the Potosí region. San Cristóbal is a large water-intensive (it uses 50,000 litres a day) open-pit mine that threatens local soil and water quality. In April 2010, angry community protesters set fire to offices and overturned loaded railroad cars used to export minerals.

Artisanal mining has a long history in the area, and it was the Uyuni Regional Peasant Federation that initially proposed the industrial lithium mining project. Therefore, south-west Potosí's indigenous communities in general welcome the new industry. Nonetheless, there are unresolved issues related to land-ownership and resource royalties. Potosí civic and union leaders believe the department is entitled to a greater part of the lithium benefits for local development; in 2011, the government allocated just 5 per cent of lithium royalties to the area.

Additionally, some indigenous communities are especially concerned about the potential for a serious water crisis as a result of mining in an area already short of this resource for traditional agriculture and herding. Large quantities of toxic chemicals will also be needed to process the lithium. Experience in neighbouring Chile points to the possibility of chemical leaching, mountains of discarded salt, soil contamination and huge canals filled with chemically polluted water. At the end of 2011, indigenous communities in Potosí could only hope that the government's US$ 30 million allocation for lithium waste-management and other measures to reduce environmental impact will be enough to avoid potential problems.

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