Top Bolivian NGO facing eviction - given just days to move archive

Part of the archive at human rights organisation CEDIB in Bolivia which was initially given two days to move out of its premises. Photograph: Yanina Dueri Part of the archive at human rights organisation CEDIB in Bolivia which was initially given two days to move out of its premises. Photograph: Yanina Dueri

Director of CEDIB in Cochabamba says they’re being punished for criticising natural resource exploitation and other government policies.

The Guardian, april 16, 2017.- One of Bolivia’s leading social and environmental organisations has been plunged into crisis after being told it must clear out of its current premises storing millions of records and tens of thousands of books and other publications.

The Centro de Documentación e Información Bolivia (CEDIB) runs one of the biggest and most important libraries in the country, but was told recently it had just two days to leave. The order came from the new rector of the state-run University Mayor de San Simon (UMSS), where CEDIB has been based since 1993. Here CEDIB’s director, Marco Gandarillas, in Cochabamba, tells the Guardian, via email, what has been going on:

- DH: What was your and your colleagues’ reaction to the rector saying you had two days to move out?

MG: Indignation and astonishment. It’s unheard of. That a university rector - that is, the highest academic authority - wants to kick us out, when we are the best library and research centre in the university and city.

- What were the reasons/justifications given?

MG: We think the [real] reasons are political - the rector answers to the MAS [Movimiento al Socialismo, the government party/movement]. The justification given [by the rector] was that our agreement ended 10 years ago - something that is, of course, false because we continue serving the university community to this day.

- When you say the real reasons are “political”, what do you mean by that? Can you explain more?

MG: We are a human rights organisation that has been denouncing human rights violations by transnational companies - including Chinese ones. The rector has said that he needs, suddenly, our premises to install a Chinese institute.

- I’m aware that, for example, CEDIB has denounced the operations of BGP Bolivia, ultimately a subsidiary of the giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), because I wrote an article about it last year. But can you give me some other examples of the kind of work that you think has led to this response?

MG: Our government is encouraging massive investments by Chinese companies through loans made according to that country’s conditions. Over the last few months we have been revealing Chinese geopolitical strategy in the Bolivian Amazon, and this has had national and international repercussions. You need to understand that over the last few years we’ve been on the receiving end of public attacks, as well as a law that attempts to make dissidence with sectoral - in this case, foreign investment - and national policy illegal. We’re known for this role defending human rights and as a centre of critical research, and so the UMSS’s rector, aligned with the government, is trying to hurt us. He hasn’t given one single academic reason for trying to evict us - only that a Chinese institute must be installed here immediately.

- Would you say that CEDIB is one of the most critical voices, in Bolivia, of government policy?

MG: Effectively, we are the most influential organisation criticising extractivist policy in the country. Not only from the academic point of view, with reports and research, but also because of our work with those who are impacted, like the [indigenous] Tacana people in the Amazon, who are affected by seismic tests by a Chinese oil company [BGP Bolivia], which also puts other indigenous people, living in voluntary isolation, in danger of extinction. Together with the Tacana and CEJIS - another organisation defending indigenous peoples’ rights - we submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This is how we have been trying to stop extractives from violating the rights of the most vulnerable.

- What is most threatened right now? That’s to say, what are we talking about - one of the most important archives in the country?

MG: What is threatened are the lives and integrity of all of us working in CEDIB and the documentary patrimony we’re responsible for. The threats have been direct - to violently clear us out. The UMSS’s rector has encouraged students aligned with him to threaten to occupy our space.

- When you say the threats have been “direct” and the rector has encouraged the students. . . Can you give me an example? His exact words or some proof?

MG: On Wednesday he said on TV that he wouldn’t be responsible if students took over CEDIB. That afternoon students connected to the rector issued a statement calling for CEDIB to be taken over, and in the evening and the following day student leaders went to the media calling for the same thing. This would be, of course, violent and illegal. It chimes with the direct threats made by Irving Avendaño, a legal advisor to the UMSS, against CEDIB personnel that he would hold us in our offices. The rector said that too.

- What other attacks have you experienced? An attempt to close you completely?

MG: In 2015 they [the vice-president] publicly attacked us, discrediting our research and claiming we were foreign agents. There was an attempt to expel us from the country. Following that, a law tried to make us and our objectives illegal, so that we would fall into line with sectoral and national policies.

- “Foreign agents.” For whom - the US?

MG: From the empire, it was said. Of course, they were never able to prove anything and the attempt to discredit our research was fruitless. Our good reputation is based on decades of an impeccable trajectory.

- When you say “empire”, do you mean the US?

MG: Yes, the United States.

- I see that over 200 individuals and institutions have written, in your defence, to the UMSS rector and others, among other shows of support. How would you describe the support you have received?

MG: Immense and very moving. Hundreds of academics, human rights organisations, allies and friends of CEDIB have requested that we’re not forcibly evicted and a place to store our library and records can be found. This solidarity is very important.

- Tell us a little about what you have. How many records and books? Why is it such a rich, unique collection?

MG: More than 11 million physical records and three million digital of everything that has been published in Bolivia’s written press over the last 50 years. In addition, we also have a library of about 77,000 books and a collection of all the laws ever published since the country’s foundation. It’s a unique resource.

- Who uses it? Students, researchers from other countries?

MG: Researchers, students and a very large number of social organisations. Also, it’s a trove of historical evidence to which members of the general public can turn to if they need to know things involving them, particularly those concerning human rights. For example, using a CEDIB dossier, victims of the dictatorships were able to back-up their demands for reparation from the state.

- Initially the rector gave you 48 hours, right? But then that was extended - until when?

MG: Formally - that’s to say, in a letter signed by a notary - he gave us, on 21 March, 48 hours. Then, after our response, he said it should be immediately, or he would proceed to evict us with the “help of the security forces.”

- So what is the next step for you? I understand you now want to leave the UMSS, after all that has happened. So are you asking for more time?

MG: The threats are very serious. We’re going to protect personnel and the archive. We’ll leave as soon as possible. The archive is huge. We’re requesting help to cover the enormous costs and starting a campaign with volunteers to help us. We have a lot of people getting organised for this. We’re urging the university authorities to drop their hostile actions and calls to violence, and requesting that other authorities ensure that this is what happens.

- It sounds like you think that, at any moment, you could be invaded. Is it like that?

MG: Yes, the threats are direct.

- My final question. Do you have any idea where you might move to?

MG: Yes, we do.


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