International tribunal supports indigenous struggle for the Amazon | Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) Skip to content Skip to navigation
20 June 2019

“The most beautiful jungle in the world,” wrote Alcides D’orbigny, a French biologist, of the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (known locally as Tipnis, for its Spanish initials) in the 1830s.

Located between the departments of Beni and Cochabamba, Tipnis is a natural protected area that extends over 12,363 square kilometers of Bolivian Amazon. It’s one of the world’s most biodiverse sites and home to many indigenous cultures—among them the Mojeño Trinitarios, the Tsiman and the Turacaré. 

Despite its recognition as a National Park and Indigenous Territory, the area has for decades been threatened by a proposed highway that would effectively divide it in two. The construction would cause grave social and environmental damages, some of which have already occurred—two of three proposed stretches of road have already been built. 

As long as the highway has been proposed, the indigenous people of Tipnis have stood strong in their resistence, calling to protect the rainforest and the life it holds. Their efforts paid off last month in a precedent-setting legal victory for the protection of human rights and the environment. 

The International Rights of Nature Tribunal ruled that the Bolivian State had “violated” the rights of nature and of the indigenous people that inhabit Tipnis by encouraging the highway’s construction. 

The Tribunal was created in April 2010 at the People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, when the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth was also signed. 

Its role is to establish and investigate any violation of the rights outlined in the Declaration and found in the internal laws of each country. The Tribunal determines whether there was a violation and, if so, who was responsible. It emits recommendations, advisory opinions, and can determine provisional measures. 

Indigenous defense of the Bolivian Amazon

The proposed highway through Tipnis has spurred strong indigenous resistance, and has also caused great suffering. The most painful incident happened in 2011 when more than 100 indigenous people marching on La Paz, headquarters of the Bolivian government, were brutally repressed by police. Despite the conflict, that demonstration achieved the enactment of a law that bestowed the national park the status of “intangible zone” or absolute reserve.

Unfortunately, six years later, that law was null and void when the government enacted a new law through more expeditious process. 

Tipnis indigenous representatives denounced this and other acts before the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, which agreed to consider the case in January 2018, and then sent an international commission of observers to visit the zone and interview stakeholders. 

Indigenous representatives denounced that, despite being a single roadway, the project was actually presented separately, in three separate phases. Currently, only the final section remains unconstructed. 

Other irregularities included the awarding of the project to a Brazilian company without first completing an environmental impact assessment, and the lack of adequate consultation with affected indigenous communities. 

The Tribunal's sentence, issued May 15, finds the Bolivian government responsible for rights violations and calls for immediate compliance with measures including:

  • Definitively stopping of any progress on construction;
  • Recognizing the faculties of indigenous peoples to guarantee their control in Tipnis, including territorial autonomy and the right to prior consultation;
  • Annuling a law that removed the status of intangible zone from Tipnis;
  • Stopping the advance of colonization toward the central zone of the national park;
  • Canceling plans for oil expansion on the site;
  • Effectively applying the law to guarantee the protection of the rights of Mother Earth; and
  • Guaranteeing indigenous peoples their fundamental role as defenders of Mother Earth. 

What’s next for Tipnis? 

Although the Tribunal’s judgment is not binding, it is a precedent established by a recognized and ethical court. For this reason, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin—an international indigenous organization—announced it would use the ruling as an instrument of proof to bring the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

The situation in Tipnis is complex. 

While construction of the missing section was suspended after losing credit for its execution, some actors continue to defend the road as fundamental to connecting the center and the north of the country, facilitating access to basic services and other development opportunities for the communities of Tipnis. 

The other side of that argument is the extensive environmental degradation to an area rich in biodiversity—acknowleding that the road would be just the beginning of activities within the protected area. 

I don’t believe anyone has the absolute answer. And so my analysis isn’t about making a value judgment, but about complying with the law, which resides in reason and justice. 

Although part of the road is constructed, there is much more to go, and so the resistance continues. The Tribunal’s decision can and should be used as an added impulse toward protecting the land. 

In the end, every effort is worthwhile knowing that the destruction of such a valuable natural ecosystem represents a point of no return. 


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