Has Bolivia really canceled Amazon highway project?
Tens of thousands converged on the center of the Bolivian capital La Paz Oct. 12 to demonstrate support for President Evo Morales in his political stand-off with indigenous protesters from the eastern lowlands over a proposed highway through the TIPNIS rainforest reserve. Highland campesinos, coca growers and union members came out for the rally, and the Associated Press reported that some public servants said they were "obliged to take part." Morales addressed the demonstration, claiming that unnamed political forces were behind the protest movement in a conspiracy to divide Bolivia’s indigenous majority. Referring to himself in the third person, he later told Venezuela's TeleSUR that "TIPNIS is a banner to attack Evo." Again implying that the protesters are manipulated by the US and Bolivia's right-wing opposition, he said that "the historic enemies of the indigenous movement and Mother Earth now appear as defenders" of indigenous rights. (TeleSUR, Oct. 13; AP, Oct. 12)
Morales also implied that the Sept. 25 police violence against the Amazon protest march was the work of CIA infiltrators in the National Police force. He asserted, "I have information that some ex-commanders of the police are still agents of the CIA," who are "loyal to the United States embassy." He also said that some agents still on the force are seeking "vengeance" against him because they do "not share in the process of change." (La Razón, La Paz, Oct. 13)
But some elements of organized labor in Bolivia are clearly sympathetic to the anti-road protesters, whose cross-country march has been advancing on La Paz for the past weeks. Miguel Pérez, executive secretary of the Syndical Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers (FSTMB), called on Morales to visit the protesters at their encampment to negotiate a solution to the crisis. (La Razón, Oct. 13; ) The marchers are currently camped at Yolosa, some 85 kilometers outside La Paz. (La Razón, Oct. 13; )
Despite widespread reports in English-language media that the new law passed this week by the Bolivian congress suspends construction of the road, in fact it only halts completion of the second stretch—the part that would cut through the TIPNIS reserve. Construction had not yet started on this segment, so for the moment the law actually changes little. It does reaffirm the TIPNIS reserve's status as the historic homeland of the Tsimane, Yuracaré and Mojeño Trinitario indigenous peoples. (Prensa Latina, Oct. 13)
The law suspends construction on Segment 2 pending "free, prior and informed consultation of the TIPNIS indigenous peoples, respecting their own norms and procedures in the framework of the Constitution," ILO Convention 169, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It also calls for a study of alternatives "with respect to the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway." This wording significantly does not imply an alternative to the highway, but presumably refers to options that will allow it to move ahead in a way that will "guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples in their territory and the ecological equilibrium of TIPNIS."
Ingrid Loreto, a deputy with the ruling MAS party who helped draft the legislation, said that the consultation would not be binding. Another MAS deputy, Emiliana Aiza, elaborated: "The consultation with the indigenous brothers of TIPNIS should not last more than two months. Neither will it be binding [vinculante], although their position should be taken into account." Critics point out that a non-binding consultation is actually contrary to the principles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
A legislative commission led by Sen. Adolfo Mendoza did meet last week with march leaders then camped at the town of Caranavi, to brief them on the measures in the new law. March leaders vowed to continue their progress towards La Paz in spite of the measures. (La Razón, Carwil Without Borders blog, Oct. 12; La Razón, Oct. 11)
The highway is to link Villa Tunari in Cochabamba department, on the edge of the rainforest, with San Ignacio de Moxos, in Beni department, deep in the Amazon basin. Work, carried out by the Brazilian construction firm OAS, is advancing east into the forest from Villa Tunari. Los Tiempos newspaper of Cochabamba reported Oct. 3, after Morales had announced a suspension of the highway plan, that construction from Villa Tunari was in fact continuing "without interruption." (Los Tiempos, Oct. 3)