Indigenous members of the Bolivian Congress recently made waves when they formed a caucus to resist government plans to build a road through the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS). The caucus, made up of three voting and five alternate members, could tip power away from President Evo Morales on the issue in Congress.
In October, more than a thousand indigenous people ended a 350-mile protest march against the road through the TIPNIS by camping in front of Morales’ office in the city of La Paz. Under intense public pressure the Bolivian government passed a law banning the road in October, but a pro-road march expected to arrive in the country’s capital today, plus government desire to continue with the project make it possible Congress will reopen debate on the issue.
A month ago Morales’ political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), enjoyed the two-thirds majority required to approve and modify laws in Congress, meaning there was a strong possibility the law banning the road would be overturned if debate reopened. But the new caucus shifts the power structure, and the president’s party can no longer count on a two-thirds majority, according to La Paz-based daily La Razon.
Morales, an Aymara Indian, rose to the presidency in 2005 on promises to empower Bolivia’s historically excluded Indigenous Peoples. His popularity has made him the longest-serving Bolivian leader in more than 30 years, and in many ways he’s made good on his promises. But while the government says the TIPNIS road is crucial to encouraging commerce and linking the country together, critics say the government ignored Bolivia’s constitution by not consulting with the Indigenous Peoples of the TIPNIS before beginning construction.
Tensions remained high in Bolivia after the law banning the road was signed in October, as some of Morales’ indigenous supporters lost faith in the government. But Bolivia’s indigenous population is far from monolithic, and some indigenous and multicultural groups, including the country’s largest rural union organization and coca growers, continued to support the president.
The current pro-road march is led by the Indigenous Council of the South (CONISUR), a group representing 12 of the 69 indigenous communities from the TIPNIS and several more from the edge of the park. Unlike the isolated groups from the interior of the TIPNIS, which protested the road, those from CONISUR are part of a larger rural economy that largely relies on growing and selling fruits and the coca leaf, and may materially benefit from closer connections to cities and their markets. But the ambitions of CONISUR provoke fear in the park’s isolated communities, who have seen their territory steadily eaten away at by farmers searching for more land, and who contend the road will only make them vulnerable to more of the same.
If the government heeds CONISUR and reopens debate on the road tensions are likely to rise even more, as the new caucus resists the road in Congress and indigenous groups hit the streets both for and against this divisive proposal.
For more Information on the caucus and CONISUR march read: