In Bolivia, Guarani and allies overcome 'a model of social humiliation'

The Itika Guasu Investment Fund broke new ground in Bolivia and Latin America, as well as internationally.

Amid the celebration of such precedents, however, a pause for thought intervenes: the whole effort almost came to nothing when several NGOs, non-community organizations also known as intermediaries, abandoned the Guarani people of Itika Guasu at the most strategic point of their long confrontation with oil giant Repsol Bolivia S.A. The stakes were existential when First Peoples Worldwide contacted the Assembly of Guarani Peoples of Itika Guasu. The Guarani communities then were at "a very, very critical time," said Antonia Macias, vice president of Equipo Nizkor, the human rights NGO that advised APG IG on the legal and financial details of the negotiated agreement that eventually created Itika Guasu Investment Fund.

First Peoples has been on a low-key campaign for direct funding of Indigenous communities -not of intermediaries to work on behalf of Indigenous Peoples, but of Indigenous community groups that often, as in the case of APG IG, have never received direct grant funding before. But also as in the case of APG IG, their capacities prove equal to the occasion once they have resources to work with.

A couple of clear lessons emerge from the negotiation process of the Itika Guasu Investment Fund, one of them for philanthropy, as spelled out by Rebecca Adamson, founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide.

"The Itika Guasu Investment Fund is a great achievement for everyone," Adamson said. "Often we hear funders say that they can't fund Indigenous Peoples directly because of their lack of capacity. Overlooked capacities and abilities like those demonstrated by the Itika Guasu Guarani should inspire philanthropy to rethink its own capacities and relationships with Indigenous communities, because a lot more successes like this are out there."

The other lesson is for philanthropy and the NGO (non-governmental organization) community alike.

"The thing to retain here is that no NGO may replace the Indigenous authorities," said Gregorio Dionis, president of Equipo Nizkor, speaking through an interpreter. "Never replace Indigenous authorities and always socialize everything within the Indigenous community."

Energy corporations too have reason to remember that advice. Repsol hadn't encountered it yet in full back in 1997, when its oil production operations trespassed on territory of the Guarani in Itika Guasu, Bolivia.

In 2006, after years of confrontation that forced several work stoppages, the Assembly of Guarani People of Itika Guasu approved a legal strategy developed by Equipo Nizkor. Repsol Bolivia S.A. operations had transgressed Original Community Territories law in Bolivia, and international law would support further proceedings against Repsol headquarters in Spain. But the TCO law (its acronym in Spanish) had been ignored since the 1950s, and the international case would need lengthy discussion on the corporate level just for starters. So Equipo Nizkor, founded in Madrid, advised a 10-year planning horizon.

But in less than half that time, APG IG reached an agreement with Repsol on the Itika Guasu Investment Fund. The $14.8 million fund began financial activities March 11; returns on investment will provide the Guarani communities of Itika Guasu with health, housing and education services, as well as funding development projects. "This is the first time that an oil company has signed such an agreement in Bolivia and in Latin America," said President Never Barrientos of APG IG.

He added that it will have an impact on practices in the oil industry, and on the Bolivian government's understanding of Indigenous customary rights under the rejuvenating TCO law.

The importance of the agreement can hardly be underestimated, then. But again, it almost didn't happen. Documents uncovered by Equipo Nizkor spelled it out: other NGOs the Guarani had worked with for years betrayed them. The funding source of the intermediary NGOs was advising Repsol on its legal response to the Guarani. And yet the intermediaries were advising the Guarani to abandon any legal strategy against Repsol.

Worse lay in store. Early support from the outside was important when Repsol first trespassed on Guarani territory in Itika Guasu. But as dialogue grew with Repsol, it became critical that outside NGOs defer to community decision-making. Now, as the Guarani of Itika Guasu went their way, engaging in negotiation with Repsol as well as a legal strategy against the company, the intermediaries resisted community authority, sowing local discord even as a viable Guarani agreement with Repsol evolved. They proved "quite harmful on occasion and in some instances ... even represented a risk for the community's collective property rights," according to APG IG.

And finally, with a negotiated agreement in place for consideration by all the Guarani of Itika Guasu, the intermediary NGOs withdrew their assistance from APG IG. The Guarani membership organization now lacked the resources to fund decision-making processes in 36 widely separated communities. Its apparent lack of capacity in this regard, well-known to the intermediary NGOs and their funding source, would make raising funds on short order almost impossible. As denizens of a non-cash economy, the Guarani had no income themselves, and this too the intermediary NGOs knew full well. Equipo Nizkor was already shouldering the full expense of legal research and preparation, as well as some health care costs within the APG IG membership.

"In economic terms, it was impossible," Macias said. "We had this really humiliating and unethical situation, a model of social humiliation to sustain the Itika Guasu in a state of humiliation. Used in brief, this allowed the NGOs to do what they wanted to do with them."

Funding from First Peoples Worldwide enabled the APG IG to support meetings for the 36 Guarani communities of Itika Guasu. They would not have to submit to outside pressure or abandon the negotiated agreement with Repsol before hearing it out. Instead, they would get the benefit of a full explanation from APG IG, and from the fully qualified legal and financial experts at Equipo Nizkor. Each community leader would have time afterward to take council within the community as well, getting the mind of the people as it were. Many meetings later they would all reach a decision - not a hurried decision, not a decision based on partial knowledge, and not a half-hearted decision primarily serving the environmental and economic development agendas of outside NGOs and their funding source.

Rather, explained Dionis, the Equipo Nizkor president, a long-term process must produce a responsible decision, by and for the community.

A year later, Adamson remarked on how little it took to keep the process moving, so that all the Guarani of Itika Guasu could hear out the agreement, have their say and make up their minds. The First Peoples grant was for all of $11,124, yet the process has produced several firsts for Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia, for Bolivia at large, and for Repsol and the energy industry. Among them:

Without giving up any Guarani rights, APG IG signed the agreement with Repsol Bolivia S.A., creating a $14.8 million investment fund for the benefit of Guarani communities of Itika Guasu.

The Itika Guasu Investment Fund is the first such fund for an Indigenous organization in Bolivia. It may well be a first in Latin America. Already the process is showing up as a case study at Socially Responsible Investment conferences, leading to the prospect of wide applicability within the energy industry.

Also for the first time, a Bolivian authority has issued an official statement legally recognizing Indigenous collective property rights, including ownership of some ancestral lands. The legal clarification led to the agreement's recognition of Itika Guasu as Original Community Territory. But Itika Guasu is only one of 19 TCOs in Bolivia, and hopes are high that the rights of 18 others, conferred in agrarian reform laws of the 1950s but ignored ever since, will become substantive based on the Itika Guasu precedent. APG IG also hopes that all of the TCO land the Guarani claim will be recognized by the government in time.

The right of the Guarani of Itika Guasu to consultation with Repsol and other enterprises has been recognized - "not as an administrative measure," according to Barrientos of APG IG, "but rather in the form of a continuous supervision of the company's activities on our land and the companies' duty to respect our uses and customs . in the case of conflict, these uses and customs will be recognized and considered a legal priority for the purpose of reaching a resolution." State-owned enterprises planning to locate on the Itika Guasu TCO must consult with the Guarani, and the Guarani can veto their plans.

Finally, an independent environmental audit of an Original Community Territory, as called for under the agreement, will be another first in Bolivia.

"The Itika Guasu Investment Fund is a great achievement for everyone," Adamson said. "Often we hear funders say that they can't fund Indigenous Peoples directly because of their lack of capacity. Overlooked capacities and abilities like those demonstrated by the Itika Guasu Guarani should inspire philanthropy to rethink its own capacities and relationships with Indigenous communities, because a lot more successes like this are out there."

[Source: First Peoples Worldwide, USA, 22Jun11]

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