After a 62-day march from Bolivia’s tropical lowlands, over 1,000 indigenous protesters opposed to the construction of a road through a pristine rainforest reserve reached the seat of government Wednesday, just a few hours after the police called off a six-day national strike.
The native demonstrators say they will camp out in the capital until the left-wing government of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, promises to protect their homeland in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), the country’s largest nature and freshwater reserve.
On the last stretch of the march, from the outskirts of La Paz to the presidential palace, the protesters steered clear of a demonstration by pro-Morales native Aymara protesters, in order to avoid a clash.
Tension was running high on Wednesday due to the presence of the combative “ponchos rojos” or “red ponchos”, a radical Aymara faction who sent representatives as a sign of political support for the president, who is himself Aymara.
They were joined by members of trade unions and other organisations that back the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party.
Just before the protesters from the Amazon rainforest reserve, located in the central province of Cochabamba and the northern province of Beni, reached La Paz Wednesday, the government and the rank-and-file police protesters reached an agreement that put an end to the police mutiny over low pay.
The agreement signed by the police and the government in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, after a six-day strike, granted a 14 dollar a month raise and a 30 dollar bonus, increasing the base pay for a police officer to just under 300 dollars a month, retroactive to January. The government also agreed to reform a strict new disciplinary code.
“Our march is not only demanding the preservation of TIPNIS. It is an act of defence of the dignity of Bolivians and the respect of indigenous territories, as well as the defence of biodiversity, the environment, Mother Earth, and the constitution (of 2009),” the leader of the protest, Fernando Vargas, told IPS.
The head of the Pacha Amuyu Foundation, Aymara anthropologist Juan Ángel Yujra, told IPS that “being met by an indigenous counter-march has caused a great deal of pain.”
Yujra said the narrowly averted clash between indigenous people from the jungle and Aymara from the highlands reflected a rupture between social sectors that in the past were all part of the alliance that brought Morales to power.
“It is a test of strength” to see who has the power to decide on what kind of development model Bolivia will follow: one in which transnational corporations impose their will, or another in which the country’s natural areas are protected, with support from foreign donors and governments, he said.
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.
Since 1990, the native people of the rainforest have marched to La Paz nine times. In October 2011, at the end of the eighth march by the communities grouped in the
Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), made up of 11 regional indigenous associations, Morales enacted a law defending TIPNIS and cancelling the plans for the road.
But the government backtracked on its decision following a February 2012 march from TIPNIS to La Paz in favour of the road, by pro-MAS outsiders and coca growers who have settled in the park. They pressured Morales to enact law 222, which calls for a consultation with the local population, leaving open the possibility of building the controversial road.
The indigenous protesters holding a vigil outside the seat of government are demanding the repeal of law 222. They are also calling for the creation of a legal framework for prior consultation of indigenous people on all development projects involving native territory.
The 177-km road across TIPNIS is one small portion of a highway funded and built by Brazil across Bolivia, to form part of an international corridor for the transport of goods from Brazil to the Pacific Ocean.
The 300-km stretch joining the cities of San Ignacio de Moxos in Beni and Villa Tunari in Cochabamba would reduce a 16-hour drive between the two cities to just four hours.
But opponents of the road say it will pave the way for illegal loggers, drug labs, and agribusiness projects to grow transgenic and biofuel crops in the nature reserve.
A study by the Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development likened the impact of the road to “the passage of a tornado that would destroy everything in its path, with the expected disappearance of the 64 communities who live in TIPNIS,” comprising some 15,000 people from the Moxeño, Yuracaré and Chimane indigenous ethnic groups.
Lawmaker Pedro Nuni, who represents people in Bolivia’s Amazon jungle region, told IPS that the protesters were hoping the government would agree to talks on the issue.
Before the marchers reached La Paz, Vice President Álvaro García Linera said a dialogue would be held on the legal foundations indicated by the Constitutional Court, which requires reaching a consensus on how the consultation process on the TIPNIS road is to be carried out.
The marchers, supported by university students and people from lower and middle-income sectors, tried to march through Murillo square, the centre of political life in Bolivia. But they were beaten back by the police – the same police who a few hours earlier were demanding social justice and the right to protest.
“This is discrimination,” said the president of the ninth march, Bertha Bejarano. “President Morales does not own the square, it belongs to everyone.”
The exhausted marchers, who included pregnant women, mothers carrying children, and youngsters, were welcomed and cheered by thousands of people in La Paz. Yujra said this was a sign of recognition for people “from different cultures, whose lifestyles and rights are linked with nature.
“Only an agreement can help resolve the conflict and ease the tension in the country,” said the anthropologist, who predicts a lengthy struggle for land and in defence of the environment.
This article was originally published by IPS.