A once close relationship between Bolivia’s Aymara Indian President Evo Morales and some indigenous groups that backed his rise to the presidency is now damaged.
Hundreds of indigenous Bolivians are marching toward the city of La Paz for the second time in a year to protest a government-backed road that would cut through the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS). They plan to arrive in La Paz in June to demand that the government definitively cancels a road project marchers believe will deal a deadly blow to large tracts of forest and open the TIPNIS to illegal settlements by outsiders on land inhabited by the Yuracare, Moxeno and Chiman indigenous groups.
The first march covered more than 350 miles between August and October 2011, gaining international attention when Bolivian police tear-gassed and beat protestors. When it arrived in La Paz in October President Morales signed a law banning the road through the TIPNIS under tremendous public pressure. However, the tide quickly turned when a pro-road march led by CONISUR, a group that includes a few communities from within the Isiboro Secure indigenous territory as well as farmers who live around it, reached La Paz in January. The possibility of the road was once again on the table, but this time the government vowed to comply with the Andean nation’s constitution and organize a consultation with residents of the TIPNIS to find out whether or not they support the road.
“There’s nothing more democratic than a referendum, nothing more democratic than a consultation,” said Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera according to news outlet Fides.
Yet the consultation now scheduled for June fails to satisfy people who say it cannot be fair and prior as required in the constitution, given that parts of the road outside the park are already built. Accusations leveled against march leaders by government officials also raise concerns amongst anti-road factions, as do recent trips by government teams to distribute goods within the TIPNIS.
“The government has been in the TIPNIS and with other organizations giving them motors, solar panels and generators,” said march leader Fernando Vargas of the TIPNIS, according to daily newspaper Los Tiempos. “I thought that 500 years of colonization had ended, but it turns out that colonization in Bolivia is being carried forward by President Evo Morales, as he’s personally gone to indigenous communities and takes them gifts.”
Meanwhile, the government questions the apparent role of some political opposition groups in supporting the march.
But why so much tension and conflict over a road? The Bolivian government says the route is key to linking eastern and western Bolivia, while some protestors think it is placating coca growers who want to cultivate land in the park. Whatever the case, the government has not embraced the idea of rerouting the road, saying that cost and environmental factors make other routes unfeasible.
The second march for the TIPNIS is currently smaller and less unified than the first, partly because some local affiliates of indigenous social movement and march organizer, CIDOB, signed agreements with the government and decided not to participate. In addition, an outbreak of violent protests by doctors and labor unions recently dominated headlines and drew eyes away from the march, which so far has attracted less national and international attention than the first. Another factor is the state of the road itself. Ten months ago Brazilian construction company OAS had a multi-million dollar contract to complete the entire road, and work on two sections that would converge in the park was underway. Then, in April, the Bolivian government terminated the contract with OAS claiming the company was not on schedule. Today there is no contract, though the government says it has options for other agreements.
As the march draws closer to the heart of Bolivia’s government in La Paz, thoughts are once again turning toward the TIPNIS and the question of whether or not there will be a peaceful resolution to this divisive issue.
Bolivia Diary on problems the second march faces
NACLA on the contract to build the road