Yesterday, Bolivian police forces defused a popular month-long march by Indigenous groups who had protested the construction of a highway through a national, resource-rich park. The preserve, known as Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure (TIPNIS), is protected Indigenous territory located in the center of Bolivia.
The march was sparked over Indigenous frustrations regarding their inability to stop the highway project. The constitution requires that the government consult with Indigenous groups—through the Ley de Consulta—prior to authorizing a project that may affect their interests. But still, Indigenous peoples do not have the power to veto any decision.
President Evo Morales and his government decided earlier this year, aided by $415 million in Brazilian financing, to build the transnational highway through Bolivia to link Brazil to Pacific ports in Peru and Chile. Local Indigenous groups vehemently objected when they learned that the highway would be routed through TIPNIS, effectively demolishing part of the preserve. In response, in mid-August about 1,500 protestors began a 600-kilometer (375-mile) march from Trinidad to La Paz to call attention to their cause. Prominent activists like former Bolivian Ambassador to the U.S. Gustavo Guzman joined the protest last week in the town of Yucumo near La Paz, where police had been gathering to prevent the group from reaching the Bolivian capital.
Police used tear gas and clubs yesterday to break up the march on its 41st day, and arrested the organizers. Critics in the Bolivian media have classified this police action as “violent repression” and as an excessive use of force. Still, the protestors managed to prompt Morales to agree to submit the highway proposal to a local referendum.