Evading indigenous consultation in Bolivia

Source: Al Jazeera

Indigenous groups from the lowlands of Bolivia have been marching since August 15, 2011 to protest the construction of a highway through protected territories. Over 1,500 protesters have joined the 375-mile trek from the Amazon lowlands to La Paz, pregnant women and children included. President Evo Morales response was to label them “enemies of the nation.” He discredited protesters, portraying them as being confused by NGOs, and even denounced the march as another strategy of US imperialism. Although negotiations are in sight, what seems like a mere controversy over a local issue may in fact be representative of Latin America’s broader tensions with its indigenous population.

Building a highway through the TIPNIS

This is the latest in series of indigenous protests against megaprojects developed on indigenous lands without consultation. The TIPNIS – the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park – is both a national park and an autonomous territory held in common by the Yuracare, Moxeno and Chiman peoples. The Bolivian government contends that a highway through the TIPNIS is critical to the economic development of the nation. Indigenous groups oppose its passing through the heart of a conservation area on ancestral lands, and want the highway to be redirected around it.

The 190-mile highway would link the agricultural region of Beni with the commercial crossroads of Cochabamba. In addition to cutting travel time in half, the route strategically short-circuits Santa Cruz, a region that has staunchly opposed Morales’ presidency.

Political allegiances play a crucial role, with settlers coming from the highland areas defending the project (through coca grower federations – key political allies of Morales). As settlers outnumber natives three to one, their quest for land has led to a tense cohabitation.

Ironically, Evo Morales helped create indigenous autonomy in the TIPNIS. In 1990, he was a union leader in the March for Territory and Dignity that placed indigenous autonomy on the political agenda. And it was under his presidency that Bolivia’s 2009 constitution recognised collective indigenous rights.

A recent study estimates that 64 per cent of the TIPNIS will be deforested within 18 years. In addition to environmental stress, the road will facilitate land invasion by loggers and cocaleros, accelerating the disappearance of indigenous livelihoods in the area.

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