Bolivia: anti-road protesters in dialogue with Evo Morales
The cross-country Eighth Indigenous March arrived in La Paz Oct. 19, to a tumultuous welcome. Cheering supporters lined the city's historic San Francisco plaza, including a large group of uniformed schoolchildren holding hand-made signs in support of the protesters. The marchers later established an encampment at Plaza Murillo, where the presidential palace is located. Two days later, President Evo Morales announced that he would alter plans for the road linking Bolivia with Brazil so that it will not pass through the TIPNIS indigenous reserve. "And so the matter is resolved," Morales told reporters. "For me, this is called governing by obeying the people." (AP, Oct. 21; La Opinión, Cochabamba, Oct. 20)
In announcing the cancellation, Morales offered to dialogue with the protest leaders, inviting a group of 20 to meet with him in the Palacio Quemado, the seat of the executive branch. Protest leader Fernando Vargas accepted the offer, but insisted there must be a "solution en bloc" to the marchers' 16 demands. While cancellation of the highway was their primary demand, these also include a halt to gas exploitation in Aguarabe Park, measures against deforestation in the Pilcomayo river valley, and administrative decentralization to augment indigenous control of resources and territory in Bolivia's east. (ABI, Oct. 22; BoliviaPrensa, Oct. 22; La Opinión, La Opinión, Oct. 20; Hoy Bolivia, Aug. 20)
Still, the meetings, which continue as we write, represent real progress in the polarized situation. When Vargas first led marchers into the capital on Oct. 19, he told reporters: "We have no confidence in the Bolivian government. All they do is lie."
The marchers—including women, children and elders—left the jungle city of Trinidad in mid-August and have endured heavy rains, cold, and difficult mountainous terrain in their 600-kilometer trek. Work on the highway, which had been due to be completed by 2014, began in June, although not on the segment running through the indigenous reserve. (AFP, Oct. 19)
Morales, in his turn-around on the road, sent back to congress the recently passed law mandating indigenous consultation on the project. Morales nullified the law, which had been rejected by protest leaders as insufficient, and called upon lawmakers to pass a new one barring any road through the TIPNIS reserve. In an open letter to congressional leaders, he said the reserve should be declared an "intangible zone." (ABI, ANF, Oct. 22; ABI, AINI, Oct. 21)
But in a move evidencing how Bolivians are divided on the issue, popular organizations that support Morales reacted immediately to his cancellation of the road through the reserve by pledging to mobilize in support of the project. The Cochabamba Departmental Coordinator for Change (CODECAM) issued a resolution announcing their determination to support the road's original route through the reserve. Said CODECAM president Leonilda Zurita at a Cochabamba press conference: "We declare to the citizenry and the entire people that we will not renounce the project of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway, that we are going to defend, we are going to mobilize, we will struggle to the ultimate consequences until a decision is culminated for all the citizenry and the integrated development of all the peoples." (ANF, Oct. 22)
Rimer Ágreda, leader of a federation of indigenous municipalities in Cochabamba and Chaparé, warned of a "state of emergency" posed by opponents of Morales, and said his supporters are prepared to launch their own protest actions to defend him if the dialogue process breaks down due to the "intransigence of some indigenous directors." (TeleSUR, Oct. 22)