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Bolivian Police Block Indigenous March as Communities Clash Over Road

Over a month into a 350-mile march protesting a government-planned road that will bisect their territory, indigenous Bolivians from the tropical lowlands find the route toward the country’s administrative capital of La Paz blocked by hundreds of police. The police stand between the marchers and the people of the town of Yucumo who support the road and vow to halt the march’s progress. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s Aymara Indian president and advocate of indigenous rights, now finds himself criticized by protesters who say his government has violated its own constitution by not consulting Indigenous Peoples before construction began on the road.

As the standoff with police continues the march has become a polarizing theme across Bolivia, sparking distant indigenous communities to protest in solidarity with the TIPNIS. On a national scale, the TIPNIS march raises questions about how Bolivia, which relies heavily on extractive industries such as mining and gas, will develop and export products without stepping on the rights of indigenous people whose territories sit on oil and mineral rich earth, and on how the government will resolve conflicting ideas about land use.

As some 1,500 marchers arrived at the roadblock Tuesday chants of “We want water” went up from the group. Ninety-degree heat in the lowlands and a water shortage have taken their toll, and several children have died from accidents or illness since the march began on August 15. A violent confrontation between marchers and the counter-protestors is feared, as the sound of detonating dynamite from the Yucumo camp has been widely reported. Mallku Rafael Quispe, leader of highland indigenous organization CONAMAQ, which has joined the march, said the group is determined to go forward but will not engage with counter protestors. "The philosophy of our people is peace," he said, speaking from the roadblock, adding that the marchers are communicating with a wide range of organizations to obtain peaceful passage through Yucumo. The police continue to block the road and will not let marchers access a stream in the area for water, Quispe said.

The marchers are from the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS), a stretch of tropical national park that encompasses Original Communal Lands (known by the Spanish acronym TCOs) belonging to three small indigenous groups. Marchers say the road, large parts of which are already under construction outside the park using loans from Brazil, will harm their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and open the area to an influx of colonizers hungry for land to cultivate. There are also fears that the road will open the area to oil exploration, a possibility the government does not deny. But the real sticking point of the march concerns the right of Bolivia's indigenous people to be consulted about projects that may take place in their territory.

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"The Bolivian constitution gives indigenous people specifically the right to prior consent when there will be development projects in their territories," said Dario Kenner, international relations officer for the Bolivian Climate Change Platform, a network of rural social movements with technical support from non-governmental organizations. "The fact that this is a TCO means that there has to be prior consultation on any project that would affect their territory, like a motorway. It has to be prior, not once the motorway is being built."

The government holds that consultation will be held on the section of the road crossing the park during the coming weeks, but marchers say they will not negotiate until the government halts construction on all parts of the road. Meanwhile, the government has sent David Choquehuanca, Bolivia's foreign minister, to meet with protest leaders.

Many people in Yucumo are migrants from Bolivia's western highlands who moved east in search of land to cultivate. The coca leaf, the base material for cocaine but also an important part of Andean culture, is a key crop in the region. Morales leads Bolivia's largest organization of coca leaf growers, but is striving to reduce the amount of the leaf grown to combat drug production that plagues Bolivia. For Yucumo and the surrounding region profit from coca must be replaced with other economic options that the government and settlers hope the road will bring.

In Bolivia over 65 percent of the population identifies as indigenous, but the confrontation between the marchers and settlers in Yucumo highlights divisions between ethnically indigenous groups with different lifestyles, identities and agendas. The marchers identify as indigenous and are people closely tied to their historical lands, while the settlers identify as campesinos, mobile farmers often of Aymara Indian background who identify with wider Bolivian social organizations.

Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network, an NGO that follows Bolivian politics, says the government stance on the road may be inflexible not only because changing the route will increase costs but also because the government is under pressure from many parts of Bolivian society to meet a dizzying array of demands. "With social demands increasing from dozens of sectors, backing down on the march would intensify pressure on all sides," Ledebur said. "It could be perceived as a sign of weakness."