Bolivia scraps controversial highway plan


President Morales cancels plans to build highway through a nature reserve after sustained protest from Amazon Indians

Protesters camp out in front of the government palace to protest against the construction of the highway [Reuters]

Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, has announced that he is scrapping plans to build a highway through a nature reserve in Bolivia’s jungle lowlands, bowing to public pressure after a two-month protest march by Amazon Indians.
Morales did not abandon the idea of a highway through Bolivia linking Brazil with the Pacific coast, but said on Friday it would no longer cut through the pristine Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park, or TIPNIS.
“And so the matter is resolved,” Morales told reporters. “For me, this is called governing by obeying the people.
“More than 100 protesters remained camped in front of the presidential palace on Friday, two days after activists ended their trek from the Amazon reserve to La Paz, the world’s highest capital.
The march galvanised opposition to the Brazilian-funded highway and highlighted claims that Morales-an Aymara-has favoured Bolivia’s majority Aymara and Quechua highland Indians over indigenous groups from the country’s lowland jungle.
Bolivia’s leftist president said he would veto a law passed last week that green-lighted the highway as originally proposed. He said he would insist it be amended to declare the reserve off limits to the highway as well as to the settlement by colonists.
Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from La Paz , said the announcement was a major reversal for the president who has been supporting the construction project all along.

“After more than sixty days of walking across the country in protest of this road project, it looks like the indigenous
people have gotten one major victory. President Morales said he is sending a bill to the assembly that if approved will permanently block any road or development projects through the TIPNIS national park area, where these indigenous people live,” he said.

“But you notice that there aren’t a lot of celebrations going on right now. That is because they [the protesters] had over 15 different demands they wanted met by the president and it is unclear at this point, at least in their eyes, if he has met all those.”

Morales’ popularity

Protest leader Fernando Vargas responded cautiously to Morales’ announcement.

“It’s a good signal, but we need to talk with the president and analyze several pending topics,” Vargas told reporters before an afternoon meeting with Morales.

The 15,000 Indians who inhabit the reserve fear encroachment by coca growers and other settlers, while the highway’s supporters argue it is needed to promote the development of Bolivia’s poorer regions.

Morales’ popularity plunged after he insisted on the route through TIPNIS and was further battered when police used tear gas and truncheons September 25 to try to break up the march.

The police crackdown backfired. The defence minister quit in protest and the interior minister resigned.

Bolivians harangued Morales for the use of force against peaceful protesters and for allegedly betraying his credentials as an environmentalist and champion of Bolivia’s long downtrodden indigenous majority.

Critics were also suspicious of Morales’ announcement during the ensuing uproar that he would leave it to residents of the two affected states, Beni and Cochabamba, to decide the highway’s fate at the ballot box. Cochabamba is
more populous and home to coca growers who are Morales’ core constituency.

Morales, who grew up poor, championed a new constitution in 2010 that declared Bolivia a plurinational state and granted its 36 indigenous groups an as yet ill-defined autonomy.

Nearly six years and one landslide re-election later, however, Bolivia’s first indigenous president has been forced to weigh development against environmental protection.

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