Bolivia: Evo Morales cancels contract for controversial Amazon highway

In a surprise move, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced April 10 he is rescinding the contract of the Brazilian firm OAS to build a controversial highway through the Amazon rainforest. Morales had already suspended the most contentious section, which was to pass through the Isiboro SĂ©cure National Park Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS)—which was the subject of rival indigenous marches on La Paz for and against its construction. Now he is said he will annul the contract to build the remaining sections of the road that would link Villa Tunari in Cochabamba department with San Ignacio de Moxos in the rainforest department of Beni. Morales told a press conference in La Paz that the company had violated terms of the contract, charging, “OAS suspended construction in these sections without justification or authorization.” Morales did not say if the road project would ultimately resume, or if OAS would be compensated. (MercoPress, April 11)

Yet the announcement came just days after Morales had met with leaders of the Indigenous Council of the South (CONISUR), the organization which had organized the march in favor of the highway. At the meeting, called to work out standards for consultation with indigenous communities on the project, Morales pledged that the road would be “the first ecological highway,” and promised CONISUR leaders: “Your march will not have been in vain.” (OpiniĂłn, Cochabamba, April 11)

Indigenous opponents of the road project expressed skepticism at Morales’ announcement—suspecting a strategy to undercut a new protest march on La Paz announced for later this month. TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas charged: “The president lies, and is seeking to put the breaks on the mobilization [and] distract the people.” Adolfo Chávez, president of the Indigenous Confederation of the Oriente of Bolivia (CIDOB), said the announcement “is not a guarantee” that the road will not be built, because the government could contract another company to complete the project. (EFE, April 11 via La Jornada, Bolivia)

Leaders of CIDOB and the TIPNIS Subcentral—the sector of the territory most opposed to the project—has in recent weeks been accusing the Morales government of an intentional strategy to divide the indigenous movement. CIDOB, a lowland indigenous federation representing 34 ethnic groups in seven of Bolivia’s nine departments, is already split on the upcoming march, scheduled for April 25. In the past six weeks, Morales has signed pacts with leaders of up to 11 of the 13 CIDOB regional affiliate organizations, promising health, education, infrastructure and development projects. All of these groups were involved in the first anti-highway march (repressed by police in September), but their participation in the upcoming mobilization is now in doubt. The CIDOB regional affiliates made up of groups that inhabit the TIPNIS—the YuracarĂ©, Moxeño and Chimán peoples—remain behind the march. GuaranĂ­ affiliate organizations in Tarija and Santa Cruz departments, which supported last year’s anti-highway march, are now divided on whether to participate. (NACLA News, April 11 via UDW)

See our last posts on Bolivia and the struggle for the Amazon.

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