‘We will fight every battle’ – two women, one mission against deforestation

A pair of Indigenous leaders from opposite ends of Bolivia share the intimidation they’ve faced protecting their communities from projects which exploit their natural resources for profit
<p>Ruth Alipaz, 53, a member of the San José de Uchupiamonas people, has faced bullying and intimidation for defending her territory from hydroelectric projects (Image: Flor Ruiz)</p>

Ruth Alipaz, 53, a member of the San José de Uchupiamonas people, has faced bullying and intimidation for defending her territory from hydroelectric projects (Image: Flor Ruiz)

Ruth Alipaz (53) and Paola Gareca (47) live on different sides of Bolivia, but despite the distance between them, they have felt very close in recent years. In addition to being Indigenous community leaders and mothers, they are both defenders of protected areas: the Madidi National Park in the north of the country and the Tariquía National Flora and Fauna Reserve in the south.

Both have spent years trying to stop projects which exploit their community’s natural resources for commercial gain, protecting the environment and preventing deforestation in the country, which between 2016 and 2021 lost more than 1.8 million hectares of forest. In this long struggle, they have reported intimidation, threats and repression by businesses, state authorities and even members of their communities.

Deforestation near Rurrenabaque
Deforestation near Rurrenabaque, on the outskirts of Madidi National Park (Image: James Brunker / Alamy)

The importance of Alipaz and Gareca’s work is made clear in a 2019 report from the Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies (CALAS) which details the problems created by the extraction of large amounts of natural resources in industries ranging from hydrocarbon exploitation to mining.

Protecting water

Sixty-five years ago, a plan to build a hydroelectric dam in El Bala Gorge was conceived. The proposed project has proved to be controversial: despite having been abandoned several times due to its economic infeasibility and high environmental cost, an attempt was made to relaunch the project in 2016.

This alarmed Alipaz, a member of the San José de Uchupiamonas people, who went from being a woman who enjoyed a quiet life in her territory to defending the land from those who threatened it. Alipaz was the first woman in her community to complete higher education. She is an accounting assistant and business administrator, and from the time she was in the classroom and taking care of her two children, she vowed to set an example for them.

“If we pass through this world leaving nothing behind, only taking and consuming Mother Earth, it makes no sense,” she says.

This is why she did not hesitate to confront the national power company (ENDE), which was seeking to consolidate two hydroelectric projects in the area. According to the company, El Bala reservoir would cover an area of 94 sq km in the Madidi National Park and the Chepete project would cover 46 sq km in the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve. These projects would directly affect more than 5,000 Indigenous people from six groups: the Mosetén, Tsimane, Ese Ejja, Leco, Tacana and Uchupiamona.

Map of areas threatened by hydroelectric dams and oil exploration projects

The projects straddle the departments of La Paz and Beni, in an area that is home to an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna. In fact, the Madidi National Park is considered to be one of the most important jungles in the world.

“For me, it was inconceivable that they would suddenly want to enter and destroy our territory,” Alipaz, who founded the Sadiri Lodge ecotourism project in 2008, tells Diálogo Chino. The project focuses on showcasing the best of her community and the local wildlife in the Sadiri mountain range to birdwatchers and other visitors from all over the world.

Alipaz is the current representative of Bolivia’s National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (Contiocap). In 2018 she caught the attention of other international organisations dedicated to the defence of the environment, when she presented the El Bala-Chepete case at the United Nations in New York. “The world had to know what was happening here,” she says.

Alipaz told Diálogo Chino that her people have had to enforce their rights in their territory on several occasions. She calls these “small struggles won”. 

Ruth Alipaz fala na ONU, em NY
Alipaz speaking at a UN Human Rights Council hearing in 2019, where Indigenous community representatives shared the problems they face in their territories (Image: CEDIB)

In 2016, alongside other community members, she held a vigil in El Bala Gorge, which led to the expulsion of Geodata, the company responsible for carrying out feasibility studies for both hydroelectric dams.

In November 2021, ENDE began to survey the area. However, together with the Mancomunidad de Comunidades Indígenas de los Ríos Beni, Tuhichi y Quiquibey and other organisations, Contiocap prevented them from continuing their work.

“In Chepete they were installing survey equipment. We evicted them, told them that they could not be there and that they had to leave. The next day we returned and expelled them a second time,” says Alipaz.

According to the activist, so far, the construction of both hydroelectric plants is still paralysed, but they cannot let their guard down, “as they could return at any moment”.

Diálogo Chino contacted ENDE to get its response to these allegations and an update on the progress of the project. However, despite agreeing to comment, the company had not responded at the time of going to press.

A nature reserve in danger

Gareca, who lives almost 1,300 km from Alipaz, tells Diálogo Chino that the past few years have not been easy. She has been attacked and threatened for protecting the forests of the Tariquía National Flora and Fauna Reserve. Her ex-husband even criticised her for “wasting her time and not winning anything”, referring to bribes she says she refused to take to give up the fight to defend her territory.

Paola Gareca, who has represented the Indigenous communities of Tariquía since 2015, says she has been threatened and even attacked for defending a protected area from gas activities (Image: Marta Molina)

But for Gareca, winning has a deeper meaning: it is about protecting the next generation.

Gareca is the current executive secretary of the Subcentral Sindical Única de Comunidades Campesinas de Tariquía, a community group. She became involved in the defence of her territory after the Bolivian government attempted to initiate gas exploration within Tariquía. The plan would compromise more than 136,000 hectares of forest, equivalent to 55% of the reserve, according to CEDIB.

In 2015, she decided to take on the job of representing her community at their request.  “Because our ancestors took care of the environment, we now have clean air. If we don’t continue to do so now, what will our children and the next generations breathe?” asks Gareca, who in her day-to-day life makes time for her children and grandchildren, housework, raising livestock, planting potatoes and beekeeping, besides her leadership activities.

The Tariquía reserve is part of the Tariquía-Baritú transfrontier ecological corridor between Tarija in Bolivia and Salta in Argentina. More than 800 species of flora and more than 400 of wildlife have been recorded here. Its environmental value is incalculable. 

View of Tariquía National Reserve (Image: Igor Porcel)

To protect it, the inhabitants of the territory held two marches, from Tariquía to the city of Tarija, to demand a halt to oil exploration. The first was in April 2017 and the second in August 2019. That same year they organised a vigil in the reserve, but the government ordered the police into the area to protect the interests of Petrobras and YPFB Chaco, the Brazilian and Bolivian companies that were keen to start a joint exploration for oil. This resulted in violence against the people who were settled there, even though the oil companies did not manage to enter the reserve at the time, according to the Subcentral de Tariquía. Despite their resistance, local people were unable to stop the work permanently. In May 2022, hydrocarbon exploration began in the reserve.

“They came in not long ago and are making roads. But we are still defenceless. We don’t want them to destroy our territory,” says Gareca.

Miguel Miranda, the advocacy coordinator at CEDIB, an organisation that researches social and environmental issues in Bolivia and Latin America, explains to Diálogo Chino that, in the case of Tariquía, state institutions are the aggressors, and that they  “come to an agreement with indigenous male leaders to generate a chain of abuses, of accusations”.

Diálogo Chino contacted YPFB for comment. However, the communications department refused to respond, only stating, “We will soon have news about the project.”

Threats from all sides

Miranda attributes “state repression to the totalitarianism of the ruling party [the Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS], which intensified with the economic crisis in Bolivia in 2014”, when gas and oil prices fell.

Mujeres indígenas del Lago Titicaca
Read more: Indigenous women lead defence of Lake Titicaca’s dying life

The CEDIB researcher adds that, in addition to the oppression suffered by women, they have to confront the machismo present in leadership positions. He stresses that the roles Alipaz and Gareca fulfil help to “strengthen democracy”.

“They start to defame you, [they say] that you are benefiting, that you are taking money or that you are living off [the work of defending the territory],” says Alipaz.

She emphasises that their struggles have always been financed by the communities themselves, adding that being a defender of rights is not a way to get rich.

“The powers that be want to silence you, to subjugate you. We will cease to exist as Indigenous peoples if we let this happen,” says Alipaz, who, despite being told many times that it is “a lost war”, maintains that “we will fight every battle. One day, history will tell how we Indigenous peoples have survived. It is a question of dignity, of honouring the struggles of our ancestors.”