Ongoing protests by indigenous groups in Bolivia over a major road building project in the Amazon illustrate the tough choices facing President Evo Morales’ government as it tries to satisfy the competing demands of different indigenous sectors and to balance economic development with conservation.
A protest march of 5,000 people led by the Southern Indigenous Council (CONISUR) has just arrived in La Paz to demand that the government press ahead with long-standing plans to build a controversial road through the Isiboro-Secure reserve – known as Tipnis – in the Amazon rainforest.
The CONISUR marchers largely consist of Andean indigenous peoples who comprise President Morales’ core support base and are seeking to colonise the Tipnis reserve. They say that the road will bring economic benefits to local people and also allow them better access to food and medicine. The protestors briefly clashed with police yesterday as they tried to enter the main square in La Paz where the presidential palace is located.
The government had however cancelled the planned 190 mile road just last year after a rival indigenous organization, representing groups native to the Tipnis area, the Indigenous People Federation of Bolivia (CIDOB), had held their own protest march and demonstration. They had argued that the road would accelerate de-forestation of the Amazon and damage their way of life.
Today it seemed likely this second group would now begin a new counter-march to La Paz to re-state their opposition to the road.
The Bolivian government had originally favoured the road to open up resource-rich parts of the Amazon to development.
The project was also supported by Brazil, the region’s richest economy.
Some three-quarters of the cost of the road were to have been covered by Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) in the form of $332 million loan.
Brazil had hoped that the road, formally approved by Bolivia in 2011, would help stimulate development in the Brazilian Amazon and also help link Brazil to Bolivia’s Pacific coastal ports.
Although Bolivia’s economy is booming in relative terms, with growth expected to be around 4 percent in 2012, the country remains one of the poorest in South America.
Development is urgently needed and yet progress is often slow.
Bolivia’s style of governance is often based on gaining extensive stakeholder support, particularly from the indigenous communities.
One disadvantage of this system is that when indigeneous stakeholders differ – as in the case of the current protests – then government decision-making can rapidly grind to a halt.
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