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Indigenous Rights

Native Protest March Approaches La Paz

LA PAZ, Jun 25 2012 (IPS) - Snow-capped mountains shrouded in clouds tower over the ninth gruelling march of indigenous people from Bolivia’s eastern lowlands to the seat of government, to challenge the government’s environment policy and protest the construction of a road through a protected area of rainforest and water reserves.

Caricature of President Evo Morales saying “More development, more roads!” Credit: Subcentral Tipnis

Close to 1,000 people are walking to La Paz from the city of Trinidad, 600 km away, where the march started on Apr. 27 with the aim of persuading the government to cancel a planned stretch of highway through the centre of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (Tipnis).

The march, which involves climbing peaks 5,000 metres above sea level, is the second to be carried out in defence of the Tipnis natural park, located between the central departments (provinces) of Cochabamba and Beni.

Tipnis covers over 12,000 square km of staggering biodiversity in the Bolivian Amazon region in the centre of the country. The road through it, planned by the Bolivian government, is part of an international highway for the transport of goods from Brazil to the Pacific Ocean for which Brazil is paying 80 percent of the cost.

The second goal of the protest is to create a legal framework for prior consultation of indigenous people on all development projects involving land lived on by one of the 36 native groups recognised by the country’s constitution, in force since 2009, Nazareth Flores, organising secretary for the protest, told IPS.

Trinidad is at an altitude of only 160 metres, while La Paz is at 3,600 metres above sea level, and the ascending route between them includes extremely difficult stretches.

The marchers are expected to reach La Paz this week and organisers are planning a demonstration at the president’s residence, the Palacio Quemado.

In October 2011, a similar protest lasting 66 days drew massive popular support in La Paz, with thousands of people coming out into the streets to welcome the marchers. The demonstration succeeded in obtaining passage of a law cancelling the road project through the Tipnis natural park.

But the government backtracked on its decision following another march, this time in favour of the highway, carried out by outsiders who have settled in the park, coca growers and some local people supporting the governing Movement to Socialism party.

They pressured left-wing President Evo Morales to enact Law 222 on Consultation, which leaves open the possibility of building the controversial road.

As the column of protesters marches onward, negotiating precipices and enduring low temperatures and food shortages, in an attempt to get the law repealed, women and children are suffering from cold and flu viruses, and do not have enough warm clothing or food, Flores said.

As the marchers overcame one difficulty after another, President Morales gave a speech in defence of nature at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, which concluded Friday Jun. 22 in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro.

Morales, an ethnic Aymara Indian, spoke in defence of indigenous peoples. But the marchers in Bolivia received his message with surprise and incredulity.

“Here he pays no heed to our demands, but surprisingly, abroad he talks about defending indigenous people,” said Flores.

Journalist Gustavo Guzmán, a former Bolivian ambassador to the United States, pointed to seven occasions when Morales addressed the United Nations in New York and defended the rights of Mother Earth and indigenous people.

Pro-government Afro-Bolivian lawmaker Jorge Medina told IPS that the march and the demands of the tropical lowlands indigenous people have the recognition and backing of the constitution.

But he criticised the opposition Movement without Fear (MSM) party for “interfering” in the finances of the demonstration. He also complained about the presence of non-governmental organisations.

Participation by NGOs and political parties “ruins the spirit of the march,” he said, adding that “Efforts must be made to reach an agreement that benefits everyone.”

“Our position as indigenous people is firm. We seek dialogue,” Carlos Salvatierra, a representative of the Central Organisation of the Indigenous Peoples of Beni (CPIB), told IPS.

On Wednesday Jun. 20, the constitutional court suspended the consultation planned by the government about the building of the highway through Tipnis, and ruled that procedures for the consultation must first be agreed between the parties, bringing a ray of hope to the marchers.

So far the march has cost the lives of two activists, a man and a woman who died in an accident Tuesday Jun. 19 while they were fetching provisions for the marchers. And in another traffic accident, a paramedic from the municipality of La Paz on his way to the marchers’ campsite was killed.

Patricia Molina, coordinator of the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE), told IPS “the government’s environmental policies, past and present, have been mere rhetoric, a sham.”

Molina pointed to pollution from mining, the burning of large areas of grassland and shrubs, the expansion of coca cultivation and the mountains of waste materials accumulating in Bolivia, and asked why no solutions to these problems were forthcoming.

“It’s time to ask ourselves what kind of country we want, what kind of environment we want, and what we are going to do to stop the destruction of nature. It is clear that the government has nothing to contribute. The march continues to show up the government’s doublespeak,” she said.

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