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LA PAZ, Aug 12 2011 (IPS) - Indigenous people in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia are again preparing to make the long march to La Paz, 21 years after their first such protest. They have vowed to make the trek in defence of their lands, which they say are threatened by plans for a highway to be built with the backing of the Brazilian government.
The 600-km march in repudiation of the projected road for heavy vehicle traffic through Bolivia’s Amazon region will set out Monday, Aug. 15 from Trinidad, the capital of the northeastern province of Beni, to La Paz in the western highlands, the seat of the Bolivian government.
The decision to mount the protest march follows the breakdown of talks between the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB) and the authorities in charge of the road project, which will affect a vast area between Beni and the central province of Cochabamba that is rich in biodiversity and where coca leaf cultivation is expanding.
The goal of the protest is to protect 13,000 people belonging to the Yuracaré, Trinitario and Chimán ethnic groups living in the area to be traversed by the road, indigenous leader Adolfo Moye of the autonomous Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) told IPS. He is an outspoken opponent of the 306-km road that would link Villa Tunari, in Cochabamba, to San Ignacio de Moxos, in Beni.
The indigenous peoples of the Amazon region make up 10 percent of the 10 million inhabitants of Bolivia, where over 60 percent of the population are native people, mainly belonging to the Quechua and Aymara ethnic groups concentrated in the western highlands.
In September 1990, indigenous people from the Bolivian Amazon region marched for a month to the highlands of La Paz, and secured government recognition of four indigenous territories that were then being threatened by logging companies and the exploitation of other natural resources.
In 2009 Morales gave indigenous communities provisional title to TIPNIS, conferring collective property rights over an area of 1.09 million hectares.
The February 2009 Bolivian constitution enshrines respect for the autonomy, culture, land and traditional forms of government of Bolivia’s native peoples. But the new constitution has not served as a shield against the companies and landowners who are plundering the natural wealth of the country’s northeast Amazon region and destroying the way of life of its indigenous communities, according to activists.
On Tuesday Aug. 9, International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay reported that “many of the estimated 370 million indigenous peoples around the world have lost, or are under imminent threat of losing, their ancestral lands, territories and natural resources because of unfair and unjust exploitation for the sake of ‘development.'”
In August 2009 the U.N. General Assembly named Morales “World Hero of Mother Earth,” citing him as the leading exponent and a model for defence of the earth and the environment.
Morales hosted the April 2010 World People’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, which drew some 30,000 participants. At the close of the meeting a declaration was issued on “the rights of Mother Earth and human rights.”
However, the campaigns coordinator of the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE), Patricia Molina, told IPS that government policies were recently showing signs of contradiction, because of “pressure from groups of coca farmers who want to expand their production areas.”
According to U.N. studies, Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca leaf in Latin America with 30,900 hectares planted, after Colombia with 68,000 hectares and Peru with 59,000 hectares.
The planned route of the road to be built in Bolivia led former presidential candidate for the opposition José Serra to nickname it the “cocaine highway”.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised financial backing for the road project in 2009, offering a credit of 332 million dollars.
Last week the Brazilian ambassador to Bolivia, Marcel Fortuna Biato, made payment of the loan through the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) conditional on agreement being reached on the road between the Morales government and the indigenous communities.
The 2009 Constitution recognises the integrity of indigenous territories, obliges the state to consult indigenous peoples about the use of their natural resources according to their customary law and procedures, and guarantees protection of the environment.
But Minister of the Presidency Carlos Romero said consultations would not change the government’s decision to build the road.
Indigenous lawmaker Pedro Nuni, of the governing coalition, declared he would defend the demands of the native people of the Amazon region, saying he was not afraid of losing his seat in Congress which was won with the votes of his “brothers and sisters.”
Taking another view of the controversy, Molina questioned the involvement of Brazil, which he called “an imperialist power” because of its interests in extracting crude oil, raising food crops to make biofuels, exercising control over electricity generation and influencing the Bolivian economy.
“Its geopolitical interests are plain to see. The fact is, the Amazon region in this country contains a wealth of resources that Brazil does not plan to miss out on,” Molina remarked.
In an unfortunate turn of phrase, Morales told Bolivia’s young people to court young Yuracaré and Trinitario women and persuade them not to oppose the road project. The Coordinadora de la Mujer, a non-governmental women’s organisation, demanded a public apology from the president.
The president’s statements were “offensive, and (expressed) a worrying macho-type vision that promotes the conquest of our ideas and bodies,” says an open letter from the women’s organisation, published in the local press this week.
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