I recently spent four days at an eco-spirituality retreat in a protected area at Serere, Bolivia. Located at the heart of the Amazon basin and accessible only by a boat, this piece of land has an exquisite beauty and a diversity of fauna and flora.
There were four other people who also took part in the retreat: a lay theologian/human rights layer who teaches at the Catholic University and the Maryknoll Institute in Cochabamba, a secular Franciscan woman who is very involved in an ecological cell in the city of Orozco, a conventual friar and a rector of their seminary in Bolivia – a man who’s done an extensive work in the area of eco-spirituality – and a religious sister from the Missionary Servants of the Holy Spirit congregation.
The time we spent together was a great opportunity, not only to share our interest in the integrity of creation, but also to network. I also spent a significant time with Ignacio Harding and Rosa Maria Ruiz – the founder and the Executive Director of Eco Bolivia.
Rosa Maria’s relationship with the Franciscan friars in Bolivia goes back 30 years. At that time, she and her now-deceased mother supported the Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province in Bolivia, especially Miguel (“Tex”) Dooling. They helped Tex by providing crucial early financing for the O.S.C.A.R. Project, and thereby helped it get off the ground.
In 1973, Rosa Maria started working at conservation, protection, and sustainable development within an Amazon region of Bolivia called Madidi Mosaic – a parcel of land bit smaller than New Jersey that is considered to be one of the richest areas in diversity of plant and animal life in South America. For example, the continental United States and Canada have about 700 species of birds; Madidi, with one-tenth of one percent as much area, contains an estimated 1,000 species.
Rosa Maria Ruiz worked tirelessly to organize, train and empower local indigenous communities living there. In collaboration with them, she created detailed maps, a census and did all the scientific logistic work necessary to establish a new national park.
Eco Bolivia taught the indigenous Tacana people how to protect and administer these new protected areas. Rosa Maria also helped them to secure collective titles to their land and create health and adult education centers for their indigenous communities. Furthermore, in concert with them, the organization she headed developed an infrastructure for eco-tourism and other sustainable development activities with and for the benefit of the local indigenous communities.
In 1992, she was able to get a three-year commitment from World Bank to finance the administration of the proposed Madidi Park, with a stipulation that the local indigenous communities must have an active role in it. Finally, in 1995, due to the efforts of the leadership of Eco Bolivia, the government of Bolivia granted the legal status “protected areas” to 400,000 hectares of prime wilderness area in Madidi Park and the Pilon Lajas Reserve.
A few years later, Rosa Maria Ruiz led a successful fight to prevent building of a gigantic dam that would have submerged a significant portion of this new park and displaced a number of indigenous communities. Eco Bolivia won this fight in spite of the fact that the project had already been approved by the Bolivian government and had received a loan guarantee from the World Bank.
In that truly David-against-Goliath campaign, Eco Bolivia has brought Madidi Mosaic to a national and international attention through collaboration with the National Geographic Society and a major international TV channel. (Her work was featured in March issue of National Geographic and in TV programs in the U.S. and France.)
Despite the legally protected status of Madidi National Park, and significant financing that was meant to protect these areas and benefit the indigenous communities that lived there, practically nothing was done in terms of protection. In fact, Eco Bolivia was the only entity that actually monitored these protected areas, documented and denounced abuses, and tried to advance the sustainable development of the indigenous communities living within Madidi Mosaic.
The administration of the park showed no interest whatsoever in working with the indigenous inhabitants of the park. Rather, those in charge of the administration of the park were complicit in the unrestrained exploitation of the natural resources in these protected areas by the logging interests and other extracting industries.
Because of its unwavering commitment to conservation and its work on behalf of disfranchised local communities, Eco Bolivia has suffered a great deal of repression.
In 2001, a group of government’s employees made an attempt to set fire to a large eco-lodge in Charque that belonged to Eco Bolivia. Also, a smearing campaign was launched against this grassroots organization. The indigenous people within Madidi were threatened with expulsion from their land unless they stopped collaborating with Eco Bolivia. There has also been a concerted effort to have some local indigenous leaders speak against Eco Bolivia en exchange for money, prostitution and drugs.
In the early months of 2004, Eco Bolivia, el Centro del Movimiento Franciscano Justicia y Paz, and Franciscan International-Bolivia began collaborating on further developing the ecological center at Charque. Iggy Harding said that this site had 21 spectacular eco lodges and a fully-equipped center for investigation, formation and studies – a prime example of the international level of a successful comprehensive conservation, protection, and eco-tourism efforts carried out with the participation of the indigenous communities.
For example, up to 300 of the indigenous men and women would participate in workshops offered at Charque on matters such as the importance of conservation, monitoring of the protected areas, management of the eco-tourism infrastructure, even on how to speak some foreign languages so that local guides could relate to international eco-tourists.
Then, in April 2004, the ecological center in Charque was plundered and set on fire in plain view of the park officials. The horrendous loss of all the infrastructure, equipment and educational material in Charque was compounded by the legal attacks on Eco Bolivia by the government of the then-president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada Bustamante, and his daughter, who headed the Administration of Madidi National Park. (Sánchez de Lozada fled the country in the wave of the massive protests organized by the incipient social movements in Bolivia. These movements have brought Evo Morales to power as the new president and have set into motion the process of profound social reforms now taking place in that country.)
On a legal front, Eco Bolivia has been denied the rights to its facilities in Charque and in three other locations within Madidi Mosaic. Furthermore, all the equipment and the most important documentation were stolen from Eco Bolivia’s two offices in La Paz and Rurrenabaque.
At the present, Eco Bolivia finds itself in a precarious position, not because of a lack of capacity or commitment, but because of being subjected to attacks by those whose interests are threatened by Eco Bolivia’s commitment to conservation and to empowerment of the indigenous people. These powerful agents and their narrow interests are also threatened by the holistic vision, the grassroots efforts, and effectiveness of Eco Bolivia, which has proved that “you can fight a city hall” in creating and protecting the biodiversity.
Despite the challenges listed above, there are many promising opportunities.
First of all, there is an unwavering determination of a number of the religious communities and institutions in Bolivia to strengthen their partnership with Eco Bolivia. In addition to the Franciscan office of Justice and Peace, Franciscans International-Bolivia, recently the Divine Word Missionaries (who also have NGO status at the UN) and the Maryknoll JPIC office have expressed interest and commitment to help Eco Bolivia Project to carry out its project.
While in Cochabamba, Iggy Harding and I had a meeting with Father Estefan Judd, a director of the Maryknoll Institute, to discuss this issue with him and solicit his support. Jubenal Quispe – a theologian and human rights lawyer that took part in the eco-spirituality in Serere – said that he would work with the lawyers of the Bolivian Conference of Bishops in helping Eco Bolivia overcome legal hurdles and seek justice. Moreover, Eco Bolivia is in the process of restructuring its organizational structure as to include a formal representation from the Franciscan community and possibly a bishop of the diocese of Beni.
Another opportunity has to do with the fact that, after 180 years of being misruled by a small minority elites of the European descent and the systemic political, social and economic marginalization of the indigenous majority, Bolivia has began the process of re-writing its constitution and to critically assess the sacrosanct neo-liberal dogma, in whose name previous governments sacrificed the common good, sustainable development, protection of the environment, and the collective rights of the indigenous people.
The Franciscans friars and some of their friends are said to have very good contacts with some influential people in the new government and in the Constitutional Assembly. I was told they are very sympathetic to Eco Bolivia and the vision it represents.
Iggy Harding has repeatedly emphasized that this represents a unique window of opportunity to do something that could have a very significant impact on shaping of a new vision of the conservation policies in Bolivia and even in the larger Amazon region.
Most importantly, working with Eco Bolivia could help to galvanize our efforts to retrieve our Franciscan charism of protecting the integrity of God’s creation, not only in academic settings, but it the places where we live and in the places where it matters the most.