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Tensions Between Bolivian Government and Indigenous Groups Deepen

Breaks between the Bolivian government and some indigenous organizations that once threw their support behind President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous President, are deepening as conflict over a proposed road through the Amazon continues.

The catalyst was a two-month, 350-mile march by more than 1,000 indigenous people from Bolivia’s lowlands protesting a government-planned road through the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS). A violent police attack failed to break up the march and protestors received a hero’s welcome when they arrived in the government seat of La Paz in October. After several days camped on Morales’ doorstep and tense standoffs with police, marchers prevailed when the Bolivian government passed a law banning the highway.

But conflict didn’t end when the government cancelled the road project. Instead it continues, revealing disagreements over how to respect the environment and indigenous rights while moving one of Latin America’s poorest countries out of poverty.

Leaders from the TIPNIS say the government ignored their constitutional right to be consulted on the road planned across their land, and presented itself as a defender of the environment while preparing to cut through a well-preserved Amazon national park. These remarks, made at the recent United Nations’ climate change conference in South Africa, challenge the reputation of a government that has often spoken out on indigenous and environmental rights.

“We denounce the double discourse of the Bolivian government, which in Bolivia doesn’t respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Mother Earth and human rights, but on the international scene claims to be a defender of Mother Earth,” reads a document published by CIDOB, the group that organized the march and represents the indigenous people of Bolivia’s Amazon.

Raul Prada was once a prominent government supporter who helped frame the country’s 2009 constitution. He has since become an outspoken critic. “The whole government discourse on the environment has collapsed. It was a discourse they created for summits,” Prada said. “But when it came to making that reality in Bolivia they couldn’t.”

For Prada, the TIPNIS conflict is a potent symbol of the break between government speech on the environment and indigenous rights, and its plans to develop the country through investment in roads, mining and gas extraction.

For its part the government argues the road is crucial to building the national economy by better linking eastern and western Bolivia. It also contends rerouting the road is not viable because costs would rise beyond what current funding from Brazil permits.

Bolivia’s indigenous population is far from monolithic. There are indigenous and multicultural groups that support the road, including the country’s largest rural union organization and coca growers, part of the president’s key support base. Days after TIPNIS marchers returned to their Amazon homes these groups threatened to march on La Paz, while others said they would begin to clear a route with machetes.

Members of Morales’ party have called for strict limits on the economic activity TIPNIS residents can engage in, and suggested an audit to determine if original communal territories (TCOs by the Spanish acronym) like the TIPNIS should have their lands reduced, according to local media. The government also revoked the operating licenses for several businesses within the park. TCO leaders accuse the government of seeking to punish them for resisting the road plan. The government has denied that claim on several occasions.

The next phase of the conflict centers on a conference Morales called for December 12-14. The meeting between unions, other social groups and the government will debate key points on the political agenda for 2012–but the country’s two most powerful indigenous organizations, CIDOB and CONAMAQ, will not attend. Instead they will hold a separate meeting.

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Jose Ortiz, a leader of CIDOB, fears indigenous groups’ presence at the government summit will only legitimize an agenda that leaves their own concerns out in the cold. He also suspects the issue of the TIPNIS road will be opened to debate again. “That worries us,” he said. “Because our march would be worth nothing, and the agreement the government signed would be worth nothing. We don’t want to bear witness to that.”

But Ortiz also believes the divide between Bolivia’s indigenous groups and the government can be resolved. “They should listen to our demands,” Ortiz said. “We’re not against the government-we’re against the policies it’s promoting when it doesn’t listen to indigenous people.”

Learn More

The TIPNIS March:

Bolivian Police Block Indigenous March as Communities Clash Over Road

Bolivia: Indigenous Groups to March Against TIPNIS Highway

Controversial Highway Plan Resisted By Bolivia's Indigenous Peoples

Land Conflict in Bolivia:

Bolivia Looks to Land Redistribution

Continuing Conflict Over TIPNIS:

Bolivia: TIPNIS 'Untouchable' But Still Controversial

Conflict Over TIPNIS Road Project Continues