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Indigenous Delay March as Police Strike Grips Bolivia

Update June 27, 2012: More than 1,000 indigenous marchers entered the Bolivian city of La Paz today, after a police strike that delayed the march ended early in the morning. Marchers are currently making their way toward the offices of President Evo Morales, and leaders say they are prepared to camp in La Paz until they reach an agreement with the government regarding a road that would pass through the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS).

Indigenous marchers from Bolivia's National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS) delayed their arrival in the government center of La Paz as sectors of the country's police force enter the sixth day of a strike for pay raises. The second march against a government-backed road through the TIPNIS has covered more than 300 miles from the Amazon rainforest to the Andean nation's high western plateau.

On June 24, Bolivian President Evo Morales accused conservative forces of infiltrating the police strike and attempting to prepare a coup. The Morales administration has also said anti-government groups back the TIPNIS march and plan to destabilize the government, claims both police protestors and TIPNIS march leaders vigorously deny.

The first march, which ended eight months ago, had a straightforward mission: Obtain a commitment from the government that the road will not be built through the center of the TIPNIS, and protest the government's failure to carry out a prior consultation with residents of the indigenous territory before beginning the project, as required under the country's constitution. The Morales administration was not quick to yield, saying the road is a crucial link between eastern and western Bolivia. The government eventually signed a law banning the road, but the political winds quickly changed when a pro-road march arrived in La Paz, and a new law again opened the possibility of constructing the highway by requiring a consultation within the TIPNIS.

“Perhaps it is difficult for us here to understand who is right. The best thing is that those who live there (TIPNIS) decide what to do through the Law of Consultation,” Morales said in February, according to La Paz-based daily Pagina Siete. “Those who reject the consultation reject the constitution.”

The second march occurs in a significantly different context from the first. The Morales administration has since terminated the construction contract for the road with Brazilian company OAS, claiming the company was not on schedule, and signed agreements with some indigenous sectors that participated in the first march, affecting the unity of lowland indigenous organization and march organizer CIDOB. The government also planned for the consultation to take place in the coming weeks. The result is a more complex conflict that has not captured popular attention on the level of the first march.

Despite those challenges Fernando Vargas, leader from the TIPNIS, says the marchers' goal is clear: Overturn law 222, which requires a consultation process, and reach a lasting agreement with the government banning the road's progress through the heart of the park. He points out that according to the constitution, consultations must be prior and in good faith. Marchers say those requirements cannot be met today, as portions of the highway are already being built and the Bolivian government recently entered the TIPNIS to give supplies such as motors and solar panels to different communities.

Vargas, who has played a key role in both marches, says the last year has been exhausting, but he remains committed to preventing the road from crossing the park.

"One thing is getting tired of denigration by politicians, and what that does to a person's dignity and his family, but it's another thing to fight for the good of the group. And believe me I am not tired of that," Vargas said. "My people are there, my brothers are there, and because of that I don't feel tired when it comes to defending my rights and the rights of my people."

The march claimed two lives last week and left a third person paralyzed in critical condition after a car carrying protestors from the TIPNIS overturned in a mountainous region. The procession, which has grown steadily over the weeks from just a few hundred people to more than 1,000, is currently camped outside La Paz waiting for the police strike to resolve. The marchers are struggling to keep warm in temperatures that dip below freezing at night.

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