After a week of polarizing rhetoric and escalating conflict, the government and indigenous groups protesting the construction of a highway through the TIPNIS reserve and indigenous territory have taken the first steps towards negotiation. While the outcome of the process is uncertain, it’s even less clear whether the fractured political alliance between President Evo Morales and the indigenous groups that helped bring him to power can be repaired.
The initial meetings between MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) government officials and up to 1,500 marchers who have completed the first 70 miles of a 375-mile cross-country trek from Trinidad to La Paz are a preliminary step towards promised negotiations with President Evo Morales. The march, which began on August 15, is sponsored by indigenous peoples of the TIPNIS reserve and the lowlands indigenous federation CIDOB, with the participation of CONAMAQ, the highland indigenous federation, and numerous other indigenous and environmental organizations.
The meetings capped a tumultuous week of events that threatened to permanently undermine the possibility of negotiations.
Upon their arrival in San Ignacio de Moxos, the marchers were welcomed by local residents but also confronted  by a mob of campesinos, cocaleros, and other MAS loyalists who broke windshields of their support vehicles and initially blocked their exit route. Stores and public facilities were closed, depriving the marchers of access to food and water.
While the MAS government denied responsibility for these provocations, the government’s consistently disparaging remarks about the indigenous protestors created a climate of hostility that invited confrontation. The rhetoric ranged from repeated accusations of manipulation by NGOs and partisan political interests, to Morales’s infamous suggestion  that campesino youth should “go out and seduce the Yuracaré women” to enlist their support for the TIPNIS highway.
The protesters also accused the government of creating a false polarization with local interests by portraying their position as outright opposition to the road. “We support the road coming to San Ignacio,” said TIPNIS leader Adolfo Moye . “What we’re opposed to is the route that cuts through the TIPNIS.”
Initial efforts by MAS cabinet ministers to open a process of dialogue along the march route broke down when the protesters refused to meet with anyone but Morales. While the government stated that Morales was “too busy” to travel, and that a direct meeting without preliminaries would violate official protocol, protest leaders noted that Morales had just met  in Villa Tunari with indigenous leaders of CONISUR, a rival governing body representing 18 communities in the southern TIPNIS, which they view as illegitimate. After the meeting, CONISUR issued a resolution conditionally supporting the TIPNIS road.
While continuing to invite the marchers to dialogue, the MAS government then launched a ferocious rhetorical offensive in an effort to further discredit the protest leaders and the march itself. On Sunday, August 21, Morales accused three indigenous leaders of working with the U.S. government to incite the mobilization, based on telephone logs evidencing their calls to and from Embassy personnel.
The purpose of the march, he stated, was not to defend the environment, but to destabilize the Bolivian government. “It’s a strategy of U.S. imperialism  to prevent the national integration (of Bolivia), and to provoke a confrontation between peoples of the east and west,” Morales told reporters.
As further evidence, Morales cited the expansion of the protesters’ demands to a 16-point agenda including the cessation of petroleum extraction activities in other regions. These demands, he said, would cut off revenues for social programs and paralyze the national economy.
On Monday, Minister of Government Sacha Llorenti revealed that the telephone logs had been obtained for “national security ” reasons, based on allegations that explosives were present during the march and that the telephone calls could involve instructions for their use. A legislative commission was proposed to investigate alleged links between the protest leaders and the Embassy, to determine whether any laws or international conventions have been violated.
On Tuesday, Minister of the Presidency Carlos Romero charged that certain TIPNIS leaders were engaged in illegal trafficking  of land and wood within the protected reserve to benefit transnational timber and agribusiness interests. Opposition to the road, he alleged, was a pretext to protect these illicit activities, and to avoid increasing the government’s enforcement presence in the reserve.
On Wednesday, ex-Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramón Quintana accused CIDOB of receiving $100 million from USAID to promote a strategy of “transnationalizing” the Bolivian Amazon, under the guise of environmental protection. The goal, he stated, is to “convert these regions into reserves like U.S. reservations for native Americans, in order to privatize the exploitation of natural resources” and promote conflicts between social organizations. The TIPNIS mobilization, he alleged, is a key part of this destabilization strategy.
The accusations have been treated with a healthy dose of skepticism by most Bolivians and do not appear to have undermined public support for the march. A few telephone calls hardly prove a conspiracy, and many familiar with WikiLeaks cables accept that Embassy personnel routinely maintain contact with diverse social sectors. Serious concerns have been raised about the government’s potential violation of privacy laws in obtaining telephone records without a court order.
According to the NGO Fundación Tierra,  the alleged association of some TIPNIS directors with illegal trafficking activities is common knowledge, but can hardly be considered a motive for the mobilization. And while it’s certainly plausible that CIDOB or some of its member groups have benefitted from USAID funding (as have many other organizations and programs in Bolivia, including the official Coordinating Unit  for the Constituent Assembly), this doesn’t invalidate the legitimacy of CIDOB’s protest activities. “These attacks by the government are only excuses to break up the movement, whose purposes are legitimate,” says Rafael Quispe  of CONAMAQ.
It’s possible that the government’s brutal rhetorical assaults helped bring the protesters to the negotiating table by raising internal doubts about their leaders, although the punishing conditions of the march—including heat waves, cold fronts, inadequate provisions, and the death of a child—were probably a more significant factor. But the climate is now so polarized, and the protesters so alienated from the government, that trust will be difficult to reestablish.
Even if the TIPNIS negotiations move forward, whether the fractured political alliance between Evo Morales and the indigenous groups that helped bring him to power can be repaired remains to be seen.