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Latin America

Planned highway in Bolivia still causing problems

Indigenous communites and environmental activists in Bolivia have protested twice about a planned highway, due to pass through a nature reserve. La Paz is now offering further consultation to push the process forward.

For months, barbed wire stretched over a river in the Bolivian Amazon. Indigenous communities downstream from this makeshift blockade want to keep out government officials seeking their consent to build a road through the Isiboro-Secure reserve, commonly known as the TIPNIS. Thousands of activists already marched across the country twice in just over a year to bring their protest to President Evo Morales' doorstep. The government has since opened a consultation process with the communities affected.

Fernando Vargas is a senior leader from the TIPNIS who opposes the current consultation. "There is a law for consultation, but outside the established terms and time period. We cannot be complicit in the violation of our own constitution."

"It seems this government has just remembered the TIPNIS exists, and begun to show the communities it is concerned about the TIPNIS,” he told DW. "They never did this before."

The indigenous people who historically lived in the TIPNIS are the mojeño trinitario, yuracare and t'simane, who share a collective land title and live a sometimes migratory lifestyle based on fishing, subsistence farming, and hunting. Some of their communities reject the proposed road, saying it will open their territory to land grabs and destroy the environment they have carefully tended for centuries.

On the southern fringes of that protected territory, coca leaf farmers lead a very different life tied to private land ownership, markets and a cash economy. The road is broadly supported by the government and coca farming communities that see it as a key link to markets in a country with very limited infrastructure. That conflict makes the road a crucible for tensions over indigenous land rights and development.

Nationwide protests

In September 2011, more than a thousand indigenous protesters walked 350 miles to La Paz, the country's capital. Carrying children and supplies, the marchers climbed 12,000 feet from the Amazon to the freezing, snow-capped Andean peaks that surround the city of La Paz. At the time, construction on the road that would cut through the TIPNIS was underway, as two branches of highway closed in on the park.

A demonstrator confronts riot police in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. Bolivia's Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned Monday after police violently broke up Sunday a protest by indigenous and environmentalists groups who were marching towards La Paz, against the construction of a government planned highway that would cut through the nature preserve Territorio Indigena Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure, TIPNIS, home to 15,000 natives. (ddp images/AP Photo/Juan Karita)

A TIPNIS demonstrator confronts riot police in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia during the protests last year

The government had not consulted with the people of the TIPNIS before beginning the road, as required by the Constitution, and protesters demanded the project's cancellation. The situation didn't grab a great deal of international attention until police attacked marchers with tear gas and batons at the town of Chaparina, and tried to load them onto buses to return them to their communities.

Pressured by massive public outcry, the government cancelled the road in October 2011, but months later the tide changed following a pro-road march that included some communities from the southern part of the TIPNIS. The possibility of the project was back when President Morales signed a law mandating a consultation process. Communities angered by the government reversal then undertook an unsuccessful second march against the road between April and June of this year.

“There's nothing more democratic than a referendum, nothing more democratic than a consultation,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera told national news outlet Fides at the time.

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