Five months after their 350-mile march ended in apparent victory, hundreds of people from Bolivia’s eastern lowlands have decided to protest again. The second march will begin April 25 in the tiny Amazonian town of Chaparina, and once again travel more than 200 miles to Bolivian President Evo Morales’ front door.
The indigenous people of the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS) originally made the trek to Bolivia’s administrative capital of La Paz to demand the government reroute a road that would bisect their Amazonian homeland. After more than two months on the road and an attack by police that left many marchers bruised and bloodied, they reached La Paz. Days later, President Morales signed a law declaring that the road could not pass through the TIPNIS.
However, the tide of Bolivian politics soon changed. In January a pro-road march led by CONISUR, a group that includes a few communities from within the TIPNIS indigenous territory as well as farmers who live around it, reached La Paz. President Morales then signed a law stating the road could be built across the TIPNIS if it is approved through a referendum held with TIPNIS residents.
“Perhaps it is difficult for us here to understand who is right. The best thing is that those who live there (TIPNIS) decide what to do through the Law of Consultation,” said Morales according to La Paz-based daily Pagina Siete.“Those who reject the consultation reject the constitution.”
According to Bolivia’s constitution, Indigenous Peoples whose lands will be affected by a project should be consulted before it is underway. In the case of the TIPNIS road, a contract has already been signed with a Brazilian construction company, and parts of the road outside the park have been built. That issue, plus the fact that the Morales government, which backs the road, would administer the consultation lead some Bolivians to question whether a fair process is possible.
The majority of the 60-some communities within the indigenous territory currently take an anti-road stance and will participate in the second march. But TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas says the Bolivian government of trying to sway communities in the park to a pro-road stance. “The government is coming in with lots of food, medicines and satellite dishes,” Vargas said according to La Paz newspaper La Razon. He added that the government wants to “blackmail the communities so they say ‘Yes, we agree with the road.’”
At the heart of this complex standoff is a storm of issues long present in Bolivia. The first is conflict over land use between Indigenous Peoples such as those from the TIPNIS, who have large communal tracts where they live by hunting, fishing and subsistence agriculture, and farmers, many of whom are also indigenous, who grow products for sale and hold private, instead of communal, property. Add to that the Bolivian government’s desire to connect different parts of the country, a new constitution designed to strengthen the rights of indigenous people, and the growing regional influence of Brazil, which funds the road, and a picture of the multi-faceted conflict that is the TIPNIS emerges.
For an in-depth look at the CONISUR march and the consultation issue, read these articles:
Other Resources on the TIPNIS