The 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26) has just ended in Glasgow, UK, and CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts on the outcomes of the summit, its potential to solve the environmental challenges they face and the actions they are taking to address them.
CIVICUS speaks with Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, an Indigenous leader from the Bolivian Amazon and general coordinator of the National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP). The organisation was founded in late 2018 out of the convergence of several movements of resistance against the destruction of Indigenous territories and protected areas by extractive projects and the co-optation of traditional organisations representing Indigenous peoples. Initially composed of 12 movements, it now includes 35 from all over Bolivia.
What environmental issues do you work on?
As a defender of Indigenous territories, Indigenous rights and the rights of nature, I work on three different levels. First, on a personal level, I work in my community of the Uchupiamona Indigenous People, the whole of which is within one of the most diverse protected areas in the world, the Madidi National Park.
In 2009 my people were on the verge of giving out a logging concession that would devastate 31,000 hectares of forest, in an area that is sensitive for water preservation and particularly rich in bird diversity. To stop that concession, I made an alternative proposal, focused on birdwatching tourism. Although currently, because of the pandemic, tourism has proven not to be the safest bet, the fact is that we still have the forests thanks to this activity – although they always remain under threat due to pressure from people in the community who need the money right away.
My community currently faces serious water supply issues, but we have organised with young women to restore our water sources by reforesting the area with native fruit plants and passing on knowledge about these fruit and medicinal plants from our elders to women and children.
Secondly, I am a member of the Commonwealth of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey rivers, a grassroots organisation of the Amazon region of Bolivia that since 2016 has led the defence of the territories of six Indigenous Nations – Ese Ejja, Leco, Moseten, Tacana, Tsiman and Uchupiamona – from the threat of the construction of two hydroelectric plants, Chepete and El Bala, that would flood our territories, displace more than five thousand Indigenous people, obstruct three rivers forever and devastate two protected areas, the Madidi National Park and the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve. On 16 August 2021, Indigenous organisations supporting the government authorised the launch of these hydroelectric power projects.
The Tuichi River, which is within the Madidi protected area and is essential to the community ecotourism activity of my Uchupiamona People, has also been granted in its entirety to third parties outside the community for the development of alluvial gold mining. The Mining and Metallurgy Law discriminates against Indigenous peoples by allowing any external actor to acquire rights over our territories.
Finally, I am the general coordinator of CONTIOCAP, an organisation that has denounced the systematic violations of our rights in the Indigenous territories of the four macro regions of Bolivia: the Chaco, the valleys, the Altiplano and the Amazon. These violations come hand in hand with oil exploration and exploitation, the burning of forests and deforestation to free up land for agribusiness, the construction of roads and hydroelectric plants and the alluvial gold mining activity that is poisoning vulnerable populations.
Have you faced negative reactions to the work you do?
We have faced negative reactions, mainly from the state, through decentralised bodies such as the National Tax and Migration agencies. I recently discovered that my bank accounts have been ordered to be withheld by the two agencies.
During a march led by the Qhara Qhara Nation in 2019, I was constantly followed and physically harassed by two people, while I was in the city to submit our proposals alongside march leaders.
And recently, when Indigenous organisations sympathetic to the government gave authorisation to the hydroelectric plants, our denunciations were met with actions to disqualify and discredit us, something the Bolivian government has been doing for years. They say, for instance, that those of us who oppose the hydroelectric megaprojects are not legitimate representatives of Indigenous peoples but activists financed by international non-governmental organisations.
How do your actions connect with the global climate movement?
Our actions converge with those of the global movement, because by defending our territories and protected areas we contribute not only to avoiding further deforestation and pollution of rivers and water sources, and to preserving soils to maintain our food sovereignty, but also to conserving ancestral knowledge that contributes to our resilience in the face of the climate crisis.
Indigenous peoples have proven to be the most efficient protectors of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as of resources fundamental for life such as water, rivers and territories, against the position of the state whose laws rather serve to violate our living spaces.
Have you made use of international organisations’ forums and spaces for participation?
Yes, we do it regularly, for example by requesting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to follow up on the criminalisation of and violence against defenders of Indigenous peoples’ rights in Bolivia and by participating in the collective production of a civil society shadow report for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Bolivia, which we presented during the Council’s pre-sessions in October 2019.
Recently, in a hearing in the city of La Paz, we presented a report on violations of our rights to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples.
What do you think of the spaces for civil society participation in the COPs, and how do you assess the results of the recently concluded COP26?
Once again, at COP26 states have exhibited their complete inefficiency in acting in compliance with their own decisions. I have stated on more than one occasion that 2030 was just around the corner and today we are only eight years away and we are still discussing what are the most efficient measures to achieve the goals set for that date.
Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it. This is the result of states’ actions and decisions in favour of a wild capitalism that is destroying the planet with its extractivism that is predatory of life.
Let’s see how much progress has been made since the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 2005 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, companies have used the supposed concept of the ‘right to development’ to continue operating to the detriment of the planet and, above all, to the detriment of the most vulnerable populations such as Indigenous peoples. We are the ones who pay the costs, not the ones who cause the disasters.
The results of COP26 do not satisfy me because we want to see tangible actions. The Bolivian state has not even signed the declaration, even though it has used the space of COP26 to give a misleading speech that the capitalist model must be changed for one that is kinder to nature. But in Bolivia we have already deforested around 10 million hectares, in the most brutal way imaginable, through fires that for more than a decade and a half have been legalised by the government.
I think that as long as these forums do not discuss sanctions on states that do not comply with agreements, or that do not even sign declarations, there will be no concrete results.