Bolivia: Conflict deepens over disputed highway

Issue 
Anti-highway rally. La Paz, September 28. Photo: Dario Kenner.

September 25 will go down as one of the darkest days in Bolivia since Evo Morales was elected as the country’s first indigenous president almost six years ago.

After more than 40 days of indigenous protesters marching, police officers moved in to repress those opposed to the government’s proposed highway that would run through the Isiboro-Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).

The controversial highway has met with both opposition and support from the many indigenous and social organisations that form the Morales government’s support base.

Differences over the project have caused escalating tensions between both sides during September, particularly in the days before the violence.

Marchers were set to reach a town where locals were organising a blockade in protest against march demands that they felt would negatively affect them.

Morales has rejected accusations he was behind the repression, which he described as “an abuse committed against our indigenous brothers”. He called for an international commission to investigate the incident.

During the police action, which lasted about half an hour, tear gas and rubber bullets sent indigenous marchers, including pregnant women and children, fleeing for safety.

Unconfirmed reports by the media committee of the marchers said one child was killed and that initially several protesters were missing.

Some march leaders were briefly detained by police and other marchers were forced onto buses and sent home.

The backdrop to this terrible event is the conflict over the proposed 306-kilometre highway that would link the departments of Beni and Cochabamba. At present, the only alternative is a trip of more than 800 kilometres that requires first traveling eastwards to the department of Santa Cruz.

Anger at the failure of the Bolivian government to carry out its obligation to consult local communities within TIPNIS over the tract of the proposed highway that would cut through their territory led locals to organise a march to the capital, La Paz.

By August 15, the march had gained the support of the Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), which unites the 34 indigenous peoples of Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, and important sections of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu, which groups together 16 rural indigenous organisations mainly based in the highlands to the west.

These groups presented a list of 15 further demands on the government. The issues ranged from improving indigenous health and education, to calls for halting gas exploitation in the Aguaragua National Park and the right of indigenous communities to directly receive funds from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program.

REDD is a grossly anti-environmental United Nations program that aims to privatise forests by converting them into “carbon offsets” that allow rich, developed countries to continue polluting.

REDD is also a policy that has been actively pushed by Non-Government Organisations that receive funding from governments in Europe and the United States and have been supporting the march.



The march also garnered support from a range of right-wing groups that have campaigned for years to bring down the Morales government. This includes the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, which spearheaded the September 2008 coup attempt against Morales.

As protesters marched towards La Paz, at least nine attempts at dialogue were made by the government to try to resolve the demands of the marchers.

Among the demands that were agreed to by the government was implementing “the process of consultation with the indigenous communities of TIPNIS involved with section II of the San Ignacio de Moxos — Villa Tunari Highway, as always in compliance with the [constitution], international norms and the participation of observers”.

But the government rejected negotiations over REDD, a policy rejected by the government and participants at the People’s Summit on Climate Change it hosted in Cochabamba in April last year.

It also ruled out shutting down gas exploitation in Aguaragua National Park, as it represents 90% of Bolivia’s gas exports and is fundamental to its ability to fund social programs and industrialise the country’s underdeveloped economy.

Opposition to some of the protesters’ demands also came from other indigenous and campesino groups, such as Bolivia’s largest campesino organisation, the Sole Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB).

All up, about 350 organisations have come out in support of the highway.

In Yucumo, a town near the La Paz-Beni border, and through which the march was set to pass, the local affiliate of the “colonisers” union — a term used to refer to indigenous Aymara and Quechua campesinos who migrated to the lowlands in search of land to work — threatened to stop the march unless protesters withdrew five demands they believed would affect them directly.

These included the issue of gas exploitation, disputes over how land reform should proceed, and the protesters’ call to stop the building of two further highways, neither of which were to run through TIPNIS and which local colonisers had been demanding be built.

With the march advancing on Yucumo, police stopped anti-highway protesters on September 20 in San Miguel de Chaparina, about eight kilometres away, impeding their advance for days to avoid confrontations.

Indigenous foreign minister David Choquehuanca returned for the second time to talk with marchers and Yucumo locals on September 24.

La Razon reported that day on Choquehuanca’s meeting with community leaders in Yucumo.

One leader, Rene Huasco, restated his community’s opposition to some of the marchers’ demands, and said: “It is necessary to bring both sides together in order to explain the points in their list of demands that affect us and find solutions.”

A September 25 article in Pagina Siete said of Choquehanca’s meeting with the marchers that “indigenous leaders rejected dialogue with the colonisers” and reiterated their intention to march on La Paz.

A group of marchers then took Choquehuanca, vice-minister Cesar Navarro and police general Edwin Foronda hostage. The marchers used them as human shields to break through a police blockade.

Three kilometres before Yucumo, the government representatives were released and the march was stopped once again by police barricades.



Choquehuanca told Pagina Siete: “I have been obliged to walk together with the brothers and I have said, we should have resolved this in a different, more peaceful manner based on dialogue.”

Instead, tensions rose further, with organisations such as the CSUTCB, which opposes the marchers’ demands, threatening to march on Yucumo themselves.

State news service ABI quoted CSUTCB leader Rodolfo Machaca as saying his organisation “declares itself in a state of alert and emergency in the face of the imminent politically-motivated mobilisation and convulsion that is being generated in the country ... we ask our indigenous brothers to sit down and dialogue”.

Tensions boiled over on the afternoon of September 25, when police moved in to break up the protest.

Erbol quoted Rodrigo Rodriguez, from the National Service of Environmental News (SENA), as saying: “All the marchers are being repressed, among them women and children who continue to cry. The police say that they are being transported to San Borja.

“They are also taking away cameras and are not allowing journalists to pass in order to capture images [of the events].”

There were also reports of clashes between police and anti-march blockaders in Yucumo. La Prensa said on September 26 that tear gas was also used there to clear the road.

Confusion and anger reigned the next day. La Prensa reported a government minister said the public ministry had issued the order for police to move in. However, the prosecutor in the ministry overseeing the investigation into the repression denied the claim.

Another La Prensa article reported communications minister Ivan Canelas said the government had ordered an investigation into whether excessive force was used.

Pagina Siete reported that the general commander of the police, Jorge Santiesteban, said any police officer found to have used excessive force would be punished.

Defence minister Cecila Chacon resigned in protest against the violence.

On the night of September 26, Morales requested a commission be established involving international organisations, the ombudsman and human rights groups to investigate the violent acts.

“We lament, we repudiate the excesses carried out against the indigenous march,” Morales said. “I do not agree with [this police action], nor with violence. It was excessive, an abuse committed against our indigenous brothers who were marching.”

He asked people to consider “what would have happened if this march passed through and encountered the blockade in Yucumo”.



Morales also announced the suspension of the plans for the highway to go through TIPNIS and called for a national debate on the issue.

Earlier that day, in a visit to some of the communities within TIPNIS that support the highway, Morales raised the possibility of a referendum on the question.

Angered by the events of the previous day, at least 5000 people protested in La Paz in solidarity with the anti-highway marchers.

On September 26, the vice-president of the mobilisation committee of the march was quoted in La Razon as saying that once they had recuperated their strength and decided their next steps, the march would restart.

Meanwhile, leaders from a group of dissidents from the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, who recently left the government, called for the struggle for TIPNIS to be converted into a struggle “for our democracy”.

A former vice-minister, Raul Prada, said the Morales government proved itself to be an “anti-indigenous tyranny” that has “lost all legitimacy”.

Juan del Granado from the Movement of the Fearless, which was previously in an alliance with Morales, called the repression “clearly dictatorial”.

A spokespeople for the Federation of Campesino Workers of La Paz (FSUTCTKLP), however, insisted on the need for dialogue between indigenous peoples to avoid violence.

Calling on all involved to negotiate, the government has continued its talks with the Assembly of the Guarani People (APG). The APG had initially taken part in the march, but on September 2 abandoned the march and asked the government for direct talks.

It is too early to tell what will happen next. But it is clear the tensions over the highway, and the repression, are a big threat the process of change led by the Morales government.

[Federico Fuentes edits