by Staff Writers
La Paz (AFP) Oct 20, 2011
Bolivian President Evo Morales and natives who have marched all the way from the Amazon to protect their ancestral homeland from a government road project were at loggerheads Thursday over talks.
After a chilly night camped out in front of the presidential palace, native leaders apparently refused an invitation to meet with Morales at the vice president's office to discuss their grievances.
"I lament that they have not shown up," Morales told reporters, explaining that the palace was being remodeled and that the only place large enough to meet with such a large group was there.
Native leader Fernando Vargas had insisted on meeting with 100 of his supporters in the presidential palace, "where Morales carries out his duties."
But the president said the meeting could only be held at his office if the number of native negotiators was reduced to 20.
Nearly 2,000 indigenous people made a triumphant entry into La Paz on Wednesday after a two-month march from the Amazon against the plans for a road through the pristine Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory.
The marchers, who set out in August and trekked 600 kilometers (370 miles) from the lowlands high into the plateaus of the Andes, were met as heroes as they entered the capital and made their way to the presidential palace.
About 50,000 native people from three different native groups live in the remote territory in the humid Amazon lowlands. They fear that a road will destroy their land and bring a flood of landless farmers from the highlands into their lands.
Earlier this month, Morales agreed to postpone construction of the roadway, a delay Bolivia's legislature later approved.
But the protesters are seeking assurances that the project -- or at least the Amazon portion of it -- will be scuttled for good.
"If work begins, we will fight in the forest until death," said indigenous leader Adolfo Chavez.
The standoff poses a major challenge to Morales, a leftist elected five years ago as Bolivia's first indigenous president but who now finds himself entangled in a messy row over natives' rights and economic development.
The marchers, including women, children and elderly people, endured heavy rains, low temperatures, mountainous terrain and police brutality during their two-month long journey to La Paz.
A police crackdown that left 74 people injured in late September triggered widespread anger, a general strike and the resignations of several top government officials, including two ministers.
Work on the highway, which was supposed to be operational in 2014, began in June, although not on the segment running through the protected park.
Bolivian revolt over jungle road growing
As the protest entered the third month, campaigners calling for the road construction to stop spilled into La Paz, demanding immediate action from Morales, himself an ethnic Aymara and former trade unionist.
Officials said direct talks with the protesters' representatives wouldn't be ruled out.
The road will cut through about 185 miles of forest and will likely displace many of the clusters of indigenous communities. About 15,000 inhabitants are directly in the path of the highway, campaigners said.
The road protest has accentuated Bolivia's multiethnic politics, in which Morales enjoyed wide popularity across racial and social divides. But the road project has seen critics calling Morales elitist and disdainful of native communities from the Amazonian lowlands.
Opponents of the road project say the jungle highway, financed by Brazil, will ruin the Amazonian environment and deprive them of livelihood and a long-preserved lifestyle.
Opponents also say they fear the highway will bring organized crime, increase farming of coca, the main ingredient for cocaine, and encourage criminals engaged in illegal logging and land grabs.
As Morales foes seized on the protests to take the president to task, leaders of the campaigners said they had no quarrel with Morales and would seek an amicable settlement of the dispute.
Morales and his aides have said the highway is needed to help Bolivia's poorer regions develop and have accused the marchers of being influenced by Morales's foes.
Although the president has apologized to protesting citizens and ordered suspension of work on the highway, the campaigners want long-term assurances that the project won't be taken up again.
Only a few days ago thousands of Morales loyalists, including highland Indians, coca growers and union members, marched in La Paz in support of the government.
The pro-government rally contrasted with protest marches against the highway and other expressions of popular dissatisfaction, including blank ballots cast in a vote on the nomination of magistrates.
The road will link the Andean highlands of central Bolivia with the Amazon lowlands to the north increasing communication and trade exchanges between Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos. When the project began Bolivia and Brazil hailed it as a major step toward regional integration.
Opponents say the highway will irreversibly damage the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, a rainforest region of exceptional biodiversity, known to be home to an extraordinary wealth of plant and animal species.
Isolated communities of Chiman, Yurucare and Moxos Indians live in the area, hunting, fishing and farming in the rainforest.
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Bolivian natives reach La Paz after marathon march
La Paz (AFP) Oct 19, 2011
Nearly 2,000 indigenous people made a triumphal entry into La Paz Wednesday at the end of a two-month march from the Amazon against a government plan to build a highway through their ancestral homeland. The marchers, who set out in August and trekked 600 kilometers (370 miles) from the lowlands high into the Andes, were greeted as heroes as they entered the capital and made their way to Muri ... read more
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