Bolivia cancels controversial Amazon highway —for now

Bolivia’s Chamber of Deputies voted Oct. 11 to approve President Evo Morales’ decision to halt a controversial road project through the country’s eastern Amazon rainforest in order to consult with the local population. Chamber of Deputies president Héctor Arce said halting the project would open the way for an “informed dialogue” with the affected communities. Despite the vote—and a police attack on their camp last month—indigenous protesters who oppose the highway project said they would continue their cross-country march on La Paz. The march, numbering some 2,000, has advanced within 100 kilometers of La Paz, but has slowed in recent days, the lowland rainforest inhabitants being unaccustomed to the cold weather and thin air of the altiplano. March leaders said they would probably not arrive until next week, to allow this weekend’s judicial elections to go ahead without interference. A march of counter-protesters in expected in La Paz tomorrow. (AFP, InfoBAE, Argentina, Oct. 11)

In an embarrassment for Morales, his former UN ambassador Pablo Solón Romero—who served as coordinator of last year’s Cochabamba climate summit—wrote an open letter to the president protesting the repression of the march:

Since 2006, Bolivia has shown leadership to the world on how to tackle the most profound challenges of our time. We have achieved the approval of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation in the United Nations and promoted a vision for society based on Living Well [Vivir Bien, a Morales slogan] rather than consuming more.

However there must be coherence between what we do and what we say. One cannot speak of defending Mother Earth and at the same time promote the construction of a road that will harm Mother Earth, doesn’t respect indigenous rights and violates human rights in an “unforgiveable” way.

As the country that initiated the International Day of Mother Earth, we have a profound responsibility to be an example on the global stage. We cannot repeat the same recipes of failed “developmentalism” that has already brought the relationship between humanity and Mother Earth to breaking point

It is incomprehensible that we promote a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations in 2014 if we don’t lead the way in applying the principle of “informed, free and prior consent” for indigenous peoples in our own country…

It’s not too late to resolve this crisis if we suspend permanently the construction of the road trough the TIPNIS, bring to justice those responsible for the repression to the indigenous march, and open up a broad and participatory national and regional debate to define a new agenda of actions in the framework of the Living Well. [Upside Down World, Oct. 5]

Whither REDD?
Solón admitted that the “Eighth Indigenous March,” as the mobilization is known, “has some incoherent and incorrect demands such as those related to hydrocarbons and the sale of forest carbon credits that look to commodify Mother Earth (known as REDD). However their concern for the impacts of the construction of this road is just.” (UDW, op cit)

The Morales administration has harshly criticized the marchers’ demand that the government “recognize the right of indigenous peoples in Bolivia to receive a compensation for the mitigation of greenhouse gases due to the environmental function of indigenous territories.” This notion of receiving payment for carbon capture by forests is enshrined in the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) mechanism, currently being designed within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Critics call the REDD a commodification of forests that will ultimately undermine indigenous rights. The demand may have emerged from elements of the CIDOB, the indigenous organization leading the march, who are involved in pilot REDD projects funded by the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN, by its Spanish acronym), an NGO active in the Bolivian Amazon. (Latin America Bureau, Sept. 26)

But the Morales government itself has resisted pressure to withdraw from REDD programs. In 1997 three energy giants—American Electric Power (AEP), BP-Amoco (BP), and Pacificorp—entered into a REDD agreement with Bolivia. In return for $10 million invested in protection of an area of rainforest for 30 years, the companies were to be allocated “carbon offsets” (basically, pollution rights). The fruit of this agreement is the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project (NKCAP), brainchild of FAN and The Nature Conservancy (PDF). The project doubled the size of the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park (Santa Cruz department), but Greenpeace slammed it as a “carbon scam,” pointing to the phenomenon of “leakage”—that is, tree-felling merely being pushed beyond the borders of the park. Greenpeace has called for eliminating “sub-national” REDD projects—meaning that unless a nation as a whole cuts deforestation, then nobody gets any carbon credits. (The Guardian, March 11, 2010; REDD Monitor, Oct. 22, 2009; Greenpeace, Oct. 15, 2009)

Right opposition exploits indigenous struggle
Last week, some 100 Bolivians held a protest outside the White House in Washington against the road project, that would cut through the TIPNIS indigenous reserve. But their signs attacked Evo Morales as a dictator, assassin, and narco-trafficker, and assailed the planned road as “Evo’s cocaine highway.” Protest leaders were apparently wealthy emigres from Santa Cruz department who support the right-wing opposition. Morales has repeatedly pointed out that his conservative opponents who bitterly rejected his initiatives to protect indigenous rights, have suddenly become “TIPNIStas.” (NACLA News, Oct. 7)

See our last post on the struggle in Bolivia.

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  1. Bolivians spoil ballots in judicial elections?
    With official results still pending, polls and media reports indicate that a majority of Bolivians who took part in the country’s unprecedented vote to elect top judges spoiled their ballot papers or left them blank. Elected judgeships were proposed by President Evo Morales as a measure to expand democracy. But opposition parties called the initiative an attempt to politicize the judiciary, and urged voters to spoil their ballots.

    About 45% of ballot papers were spoiled and 15% were left blank, the poll for the private ATB TV network suggested. “Today we did not elect judges,” said Juan del Granado, leader of the opposition Without Fear Movement (MSM). “Today the majority of the country has spoken out against a government characterised by authoritarianism.”

    Voters chose 28 judges for four national courts, including the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal—half the candidates women, and a large proportion indigenous. The opposition said the vote erodes the independence of the judiciary because the 114 candidates were chosen by a Congress dominated by Morales’ ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). However, prior to Morales’ constitutional reform, judges were directly appointed by Congress. (BBC News, Oct. 17; AP, Oct. 16)