Pacha Mama Mia

The presidents of Peru and Bolivia face resistance from indigenous communities over environmental plans

When Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, became the leader of Bolivia in 2005 he also became the first indigenous president. He came to power on a mandate to govern with a sort of ‘indigenous socialism’. Morales has been a strident defender of the rights of Bolivia’s native inhabitants and their stunning natural environment. He always liked to equate their struggle against colonial invaders with his fight against foreign traders, the US and Western capitalism; politics with which Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader currently battling cancer, has identified very strongly.

But it has been six years since his arrival and the outlook is now different for Evo. In the past he has called any interference in the way-of-life or homeland of the indigenous communities ‘ecolocide’. Now he is the one being accused of destroying pacha mama. On 16 August indigenous activists took the first steps on a 233 mile-long protest march from the Amazon plains to the capital, La Paz. Normally, this would be a demonstration that Morales would be more than happy to join. But the march is in opposition to one of his policies, namely a government plan to build a 190 mile-long highway through a national park in aboriginal territory.

The road would potentially link the Beni plains to the Chapare, where Evo was a coca farmer before going on to lead a coca farmers’ union. Brazil has stumped up $420m for the project and certainly knows a thing or two about controversial environmental politics and upsetting local tribes, having given the Belo Monte dam the green light on 1 June. Foreign investors are on the horizon and the forest stands between them. Morales’ ‘indigenous socialism’ seems to be morphing into something more like ‘investment socialism’.

Ollanta Humala, who replaced Alan Garcia in the Peruvian presidency in July, has also found that he is having to alter the populist, pro-indigenous policies he has previously championed. In opposition he had been a creature in the mould of Chavez and Morales, denouncing free trade and capitalism but he has since ensured his new government is not seen as isolationist and instead said:

“We are building a government of national unity. This isn’t a Cabinet of the left or the right, but a Cabinet for all of Peru.”

He has angered native Peruvians with his plans for expanded oil and gas investment and exploration. And, just like in Bolivia, new roads through the Amazon rainforest have been proposed. The indigenous communities have criticised Humala and seem ready to rise, just as Bolivia’s Indians are now doing against one of their own.

Both countries could do with more infrastructural integration with neighbours and natural resources can be shared and developed but there is now a strengthening indigenous challenge. The once-quiet, Quechua and Aymara-speaking communities seem to have found a collective and growing voice.

All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.

Latin-Persian alliance on the way?

Is the confirmation by Bolivia of a loan of over $250 million from Iran a further sign of a growing alliance between the Islamic Republic and Latin America?

The thin air of La Paz can make first-time visitors feel faint. But the Iranian Minister of Industries and Mining, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, seemed completely at home as he signed an aid accord with President Evo Morales on 30 August. There are no specific demands placed on how Bolivia can use the money but it has been designated ‘development’ aid. It will probably go towards mining and mineral extraction; some believe that the small print of the deal includes details concerning the large uranium deposits located in the Bolivian region of Potosi. But the significance of the agreement really lies in the simple fact that such a deal has been done.

Morales used the press conference as an opportunity to denounce the UN sanctions placed on Iran, measures which are aimed at dissuading the country from developing a nuclear missile. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful. In reply to the messages of Bolivian support, Mr Mehrabian replied “the two countries have good and common objectives in the world community”.

Pronouncements of shared ambitions and goals, usually doubling up as a chance to criticise the West are common when Iranians and Latin American leaders meet, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been obsequious in his comments towards Tehran. The BBC reported in 2009 that Venezuela and Iran had been trading and meeting for over five years, and the agreements they had come had been beneficial for the Venezuelan economy. The language has been truly brotherly with Chavez remarking that: “I assured him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] of our total solidarity as he’s under attack from global capitalism. He thanked me, and sent a fraternal hug to the Venezuelan people.”

Morales underlined the importance of the Caracas-Tehran link in last week’s meeting, announcing his ambition that Iran and Venezuela will join together to end the “unilateralism” of the world powers. And he also highlighted the growing friendliness between La Paz and Tehran by confirming that his Development and Planning Minister, Elba Viviana Caro, will visit Iran at the end of September to thank the Ahmadinejad administration for their backing and monetary aid.

But the movements by Bolivia and Venezuela are eclipsed by the actions of Brazil in fostering goodwill, teamwork and support between Latin America and Iran. Earlier this year the president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, led calls not to approve a new round of economic sanctions on Iran. Although the Security Council voted convincingly in favour of the measures, Brazil, along with the Turkish delegation, faced up to global pressure in offering a hand to Tehran.

And although last month government sources confirmed that Brazil will now accept the Security Council’s decision to impose further sanctions, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim made it clear that this decision did not mean that there had been a change of heart by Brazil, saying again that the government did not agree with the coercive measures.

Brazil has taken up an indisputable place at the global table as the most influential Latin American nation. It is fast becoming a very important country to the rest of the world, particularly in food production. Two weeks ago, The Economist investigated the meteoric rise in farming output in the country, stating that Brazil has no superiors in the export of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol, and only the US is ahead when it comes to exporting soyabeans.

In addition, the newspaper noted that Brazil has as much renewable water by itself (more than 8,000 billion cubic kilometres per year) as the whole continent of Asia. All this means that the Brazilian star is rising and the outgoing president has made sure that the foreign policy side of his star does not necessarily shine on the Western giants. It is now a political giant itself, and the administration believes that Iran is not simply a Western irritant to be dismissed and denounced.

Yet that does not mean that the relationship is problem-free. On 31 July, President Lula offered refuge to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, although that sentence is now under review after international condemnation. Interestingly, officials in Tehran gave the impression that they believed that Lula had simply been mistaken in his offer of asylum and did not have sufficient information on the case rather than rushing to reject Brazil’s actions. Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that: “as far as we know, [President Lula] is a very humane and emotional person…we will let him know about the details of the case.”

But Brazil cannot have its cake and eat it. In playing down the incident, Tehran has underlined the value it places on Brazilian support. If Lula wants to portray Brazil as a nation freely offering refuge to victims of capital sentences and maintain the country’s unique position in the world, he needs to balance his actions carefully. Close interest will be paid to the direction that his successor wants to take the country. Opinion over Iran will be high on the agenda, and, with Venezuela and Bolivia embedding themselves ever deeper with Tehran, the chance to build a strong Latin-Persian alliance may become increasingly alluring.