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Indigenous Bolivians March Against Highway

On August 15 several hundred people from lowland Bolivia began a 350 mile, month long march toward the government’s seat in La Paz to protest a highway that will cut through a large indigenous territory. The people of the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS), an isolated stretch of tropical jungle, say the road will destroy their traditional livelihood and damage the biodiversity of the region. Of particular concern is the possibility the road will facilitate oil exploration by the Bolivian government in the area, a move it has not discounted.

The Bolivian government says the highway, which would greatly ease transport and increase trade between the major cities of Cochabamba and Trinidad and eventually link to Brazil, will spur economic growth in an impoverished area of one of Latin America's poorest countries. And because Bolivia relies heavily on extractive industries to keep the economy afloat, more gas discoveries facilitated by road access would be a boon to the country's economy. The government, which has not yet completed a study of the environmental impacts of this phase of the road, vows to minimize damage.

"We will find a way to neutralize, as much as possible, the negative impacts a highway could have on the environment," said Carlos Romero, Bolivia’s minister of the presidency.

The highway project, which is largely funded by loans from the Brazilian government, finds Bolivia's Aymara Indian president and vocal advocate of the environment, Evo Morales, pitted against Indigenous Peoples who reject his government's plans for development. "We are convinced there is a violation of indigenous rights in our country," said Jose Ortiz, leader of the La Paz branch of lowland indigenous organization Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB).

“We defend the TIPNIS, and not just the TIPNIS, but all the indigenous territories on a national level.” Bolivia's eastern lowlands are home to dozens of small indigenous groups, many of whom live on large pieces of land called Original Communal Lands (TCOs), which were titled to lowland indigenous groups in the 1990s. The TIPNIS is a national park, parts of which are a TCO home to the Moxeno, Yuracare, and Chiman people.

These lowland groups make up just a small portion of Bolivia's majority indigenous population, which is dominated by Aymara and Quechua speaking indigenous groups who populate the country's western highlands and valleys. Many lowland groups live by hunting and gathering, traveling seasonally throughout the TCOs, while highland groups are more oriented toward agriculture. Today the TCOs are increasingly the site of disputes as Bolivians clash over who gets to use the land, and how. Protestors against the highway such as Adolfo Moye, representative for the TIPNIS, say that the Morales government is out of line with the constitution it pushed forward in 2009.

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This new constitution requires that the government consult residents before beginning projects on indigenous lands – but the government now says that the results of those consultations are not binding. While the government is now calling on the people who live in the TIPNIS to meet, the protestors say it is too little too late – according to Moye, the protestors will not speak with the government until all preparations for work on the highway through their land is halted. The government has struck back with claims that the TIPNIS protest is driven by the hidden backing of international environmental organizations, which have a presence in the region. "We must avoid ruptures amongst ourselves caused by discourse from outside that says we are being used and directed by NGOs," said Moye, who rejects the idea that this protest is driven by anyone but the Indigenous Peoples of the TIPNIS. "This is our own concern."

Indigenous residents of the TIPNIS are collective titleholders to large pieces of land where they live by hunting and gathering. This means that areas of the TIPNIS lie virtually unpopulated at some times of the year—and those areas are attractive to campesinos originally from Bolivia's relatively crowded highlands who are looking for more land to cultivate. The TIPNIS, with its forest soils and open spaces, is an appealing place for settlers who for years have moved into lands designated as TCOs. The difference between campesino and indigenous can be hard for outsiders to understand, but in Bolivia it is implicitly understood. Both groups are culturally indigenous, but many highland peoples have identified themselves as campesinos (peasants) since the agrarian revolution, said Douglas Hertzler, an associate professor of anthropology at Eastern Mennonite University. Isolated lowland Indigenous Peoples did not participate as actively in the 1952 revolution and instead embrace the term indigena (indigenous).

The draw of eastward migration means many people simply move east from the highlands and begin to plant crops and build homes on the edges of TCOs—where legally only members of the TCO have the right to live. Esteban Sanjines, director of highland programs at La Paz-based NGO Fundacion TIERRA, said settlers on TCOs initially don’t face the strong resistance they would meet if they occupied private land held by a wealthy family, because the people who live on TCOs move with the seasons. “The colonizers settle a little bit, settle a little bit more, and after a month no one has said anything so they continue,” Sanjines said. The fact that TCOs often encompass areas of land much larger than any highland community could hope to obtain is also a source of conflict. “In the high plains the question, ‘Why do the indigenous on the TCOs have so much land and we have none?’ is gaining force,” said Sanjines. “It’s taking on the characteristics and the conditions of a powerful conflict."

Meanwhile those who live on the TCOs point out that their nomadic lifestyle, which leaves the forest intact, is not possible without large tracts of land. East to west migration has resulted in violent disputes over land between colonist farmers who want to plant crops and the TCO dwellers who live by the forest, and the Bolivian government seems unable to deter colonists. However there is some unity between the highlands and lowlands on the issue of the highway.

Highland organization CONAMAQ has aligned itself with lowland indigenous organization CIDOB and the marchers in defense of the environment, and vows to take up the march in Bolivia's western highlands. Another issue that plagues the TIPNIS is the coca leaf. President Morales first rose to power as a leader of Bolivia's most powerful coca growers' organization. His government supports Bolivians' right to chew the coca leaf, but it also battles excess coca production that is often destined to be processed into cocaine. While Bolivia struggles to decrease cultivation of the coca bush it must also find alternative livelihoods for those who depend on the leaf, legally grown or not, for income.

The new highways could bring both new job options to coca growers who live around the park and aid the government in its efforts to locate and eradicate illegally grown coca crops within the TIPNIS. Bolivia's highway authority recently opened the possibility of building the second branch of the highway around the TIPNIS instead of bisecting the park, according to Bolivia's state-run news service. It's a possibility that has not yet been embraced by the highest levels of the government, but one which despite potentially higher construction costs could offer both the benefit of keeping the TIPNIS intact and bringing economic benefits to the area. Meanwhile, the conflict between Morales, known as Bolivia's first indigenous president, and the people of the TIPNIS continues.