Contested Development: The Geopolitics of Bolivia’s TIPNIS Conflict

August 1, 2013


The protracted conflict over construction of a highway through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) in the Bolivian Amazon has been a defining moment for the government of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. It has altered the country’s political landscape, rupturing the Unity Pact, an alliance among five national social movements that brought Morales to power and refounded Bolivia as a plurinational state. It has shocked the world with the spectacle of police brutally repressing lowland indigenous marchers under a leftist indigenous government, and it has called into question Morales’s status as a worldwide champion of environmental and indigenous rights.

How can this intractable conflict be understood? Why is Morales willing to risk his international reputation, and perhaps his political future, to build the TIPNIS highway? What are the conflict’s probable consequences for the Morales government, for his political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), for Bolivia’s extractivist model of development, and for the country’s social movements?


The conflict began in June 2011, when Morales inaugurated construction on a proposed 182-mile highway in the heart of Bolivia, whose central segment would bisect the 3,860-square-mile TIPNIS ecological reserve. The TIPNIS, doubly protected as an indigenous territory and as a national park since 1990, is the ancestral homeland of the Moxeño-Trinitario, Yuracaré, and Chimáne peoples who collectively hold its title. It is among the most biodiverse regions in the world.

The highway, Morales argued, would integrate the country’s Amazonian and Andean regions, a dream since Bolivian independence. At one end of the highway, coca growers and farmers in the Cochabamba tropics—an important MAS constituency—would enjoy improved market access, as would small cattle ranchers in the lowland department of Beni, on the other end. The highway would also bring services and economic benefits to isolated, river-dependent TIPNIS communities.

But lowland indigenous groups worried that the highway could open up the TIPNIS to deforestation and colonization by migrant settlers from the western highlands, principally coca farmers pushing up from the park’s southern border. Coca-growing areas inside the reserve increased by 9% from 2009 to 2010, and studies predict that 64% of the park will be deforested within 18 years if the highway is built.1 The highway could also encourage exploitation by transnational oil companies of the park’s three existing petroleum concessions. Indigenous communities that depend on the reserve’s natural resources perceive these risks as a substantial threat to their survival.

TIPNIS leaders accused the Morales government of failing to seek the “free, prior, and informed consent” of affected communities before taking action to build the road, as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Bolivian constitution. The consultation process, they argued, should have occurred before 2008, when Morales signed a construction contract with the Brazilian conglomerate OAS and an agreement with Brazil’s development bank to finance the highway.

In August 2011, after Morales insisted that the road would be built “like it or not,” some 1,000 TIPNIS residents and supporters began a 360-mile protest march from the Amazon basin to the highland capital of La Paz. Over the course of their 65-day pilgrimage, the marchers endured punishing weather and altitude changes, food and water shortages, road blockades, and brutal repression by the national police, resulting in at least 70 wounded. The police action was widely condemned, leading to a civic strike that paralyzed activities in the country’s nine departmental capitals. Two government ministers resigned.

Morales publicly repudiated the repression and asked for forgiveness, but denied responsibility for the attack, blaming disgruntled police for breaking the “chain of command.” In a stunning reversal, after the marchers arrived in La Paz to a tumultuous popular reception, Morales agreed to cancel the road. In October 2011, he signed a law banning construction of the TIPNIS highway and protecting the reserve as an “untouchable” zone.

But almost immediately, the new policy consensus began to unravel. Under the banner of “untouchability,” the Morales government banned sustainable development activities (such as ecotourism and caiman harvesting) sponsored by TIPNIS communities within the park, depriving them of significant revenues. A groundswell of pro-highway sentiment emerged from a new coalition of campesino, cocalero (coca grower), civic, business, and some indigenous organizations in Beni and Cochabamba, with the government’s not-so-tacit encouragement. A “counter-march” by lowland indigenous communities in the southern part of the TIPNIS—whose economies are increasingly linked with those of their cocalero neighbors—descended on La Paz to demand that the road be built.

In February 2012, just four months after the highway ban, the Morales government adopted a new law mandating an official consultation process with lowland indigenous groups in the TIPNIS. The consulta, according to Morales, would right two wrongs: the government’s failure to consult TIPNIS groups before initiating the road and also before canceling it. In April 2012, Morales revoked the OAS construction contract, and Brazil withdrew its financing, arguably returning the project to “ground zero” ahead of the consulta.

Mistrusting the government’s intentions, lowland indigenous groups launched a second national march and a local campaign to resist the consulta, including blockades of the park’s main river access points. Still, at the end of the four-month process, the government reported that 55 of 69 TIPNIS communities (80%) voted to support the road, with three opposed and 11 declining to participate.2 The government has pledged to design an “ecological highway,” with key sections elevated or underground to minimize adverse environmental impacts, accompanied by an integral socioeconomic development plan for the TIPNIS communities.

While the Morales government upholds the consulta as a “triumph of representative democracy,” TIPNIS leaders view the outcome as a foregone conclusion, achieved through a biased process by an interested party. The official results have been challenged by the Catholic Church and human rights organizations, based on an independent observation mission3 charge that communities were manipulated by the government’s practice of delivering benefits (such as outboard motors) ahead of the process and deceived by its failure to analyze the potential environmental and social impacts of the road or the costs and benefits of alternative routes. As Bolivian ombudsman Rolando Villena has observed, the consulta may be legal, but it is without legitimacy.4

In short, rather than resolving the TIPNIS conflict, the consulta has served only to reinforce entrenched positions held by pro- and anti-highway sectors, while deepening mistrust on both sides.


The polarization has been intensified by rhetorical accusations and “essentialist” stereotyping on both sides—widely disseminated by the media—in an effort to portray the conflict as an ideological battle. Thus, TIPNIS leaders have been both disparaged as “environmental fundamentalists,” condemning their followers to a life of poverty, and romanticized as the revolutionary vanguard of an alternative communitarian economy. Highway proponents have been both demonized as narco-traffickers and extolled as the exclusive champions of Bolivian nationalism. TIPNIS protesters have been accused of paving the way for foreign domination of the Amazon by keeping the sovereign state (and its road) out of the park, while Morales has been branded a lackey of Brazilian imperialism.

Behind the rhetoric are deeper, more complex issues involving the economic interests of social sectors that will be differentially affected by the road.

To some extent, the TIPNIS controversy reflects underlying tensions within Bolivia’s social movements, between lowland indigenous groups, who make up only about 10% of the population, and highland peasants (who are associated with the dominant Aymara and Quechua majorities but identify as campesinos), especially around the issue of land.

Historically, these groups’ political outlooks have been shaped by their different cosmovisions, forms of social and economic organization, and land tenure traditions. For Amazonian peoples, land is a collective territory with spiritual attributes, a “great house” supporting clan-based subsistence activities such as fishing, hunting, and foraging. For highland campesinos, land belongs to those who use it productively, as individual or family proprietors. Migrant settlers driven from the highlands in search of more arable land—along with militant ex-miners—brought this contrasting worldview to southeastern Bolivia, including the TIPNIS, starting in the 1970s. There, they formed agrarian unions affiliated with the Cochabamba cocalero federations (organized and headed to this day by Evo Morales).

Within the TIPNIS, the two groups have managed an uneasy coexistence since 1990, when a negotiated “red line” established a legal zone for settlers in the southern portion of the park. The relationship has since been characterized by cooperative efforts—such as joint opposition to foreign petroleum exploration in 1998—as well as episodes of violent confrontation over illegal settlement expansion.

Today, with at least 20,000 settlers outnumbering the declining population of 8,000 to 12,500 people native to the TIPNIS, the highway controversy has reignited the conflict between these groups—and sparked a new one between lowland indigenous communities in different areas of the park, whose perceived economic interests would be differentially affected by the highway. On the national level, popular organizations which, since 2005, had submerged their differences in common support of the Morales government are now divided between campesino-identified movements (farmers, peasant women, and colonists) that support the highway and highland and lowland indigenous federations that oppose it.

The TIPNIS conflict is also fueled by a broader controversy over unequal land distribution and redistribution in Bolivia. Both indigenous and peasant groups have significantly benefited from land titling under Morales, gaining legal control over ancestral, communal, or familial lands they have occupied for generations. But for highland campesinos, whose “minifundios” (small parcels) secured in the 1952 National Revolution have been compromised by subdivision over successive generations—and more recently by climate change—this process has merely ratified the status quo of land impoverishment. Many highlanders view lowland indigenous groups as the “new latifundistas,” controlling large expanses of seemingly idle land while they themselves have little.


Meanwhile, vast tracts of desirable agricultural land continue to be held by agribusiness and ranching elites (including many foreigners) based in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, heart of the conservative opposition to Morales. While the political clout of this bloc has significantly diminished in the last few years, as the MAS has consolidated power, elite sectors still dominate the eastern lowlands’ regional economy.

In several high-profile cases, the Morales government has seized and redistributed large estates from owners who have failed to demonstrate a productive use of their land, as required by law. But in an effort to promote food security through agro-industrial productivity, the government has recently sought to forge alliances with the eastern growers. A new law could exempt more than 12 million acres of illegally deforested land (outside the national parks) from reverting to the state, if owners pay a small fine and commit to agricultural reuse.5 The government has also agreed to suspend for five years the verification process required to determine whether land holdings are serving a socioeconomic purpose or should be subject to repossession and redistribution.6

Critics—including Juan Carlos Rojas Calizaya, Morales’s former director of land reform—fear that these measures will further reduce the rate of land redistribution, which has slowed significantly since 2010.7 The effect has been to intensify pressures on highland campesino settlers to expand into the national parks, with or without the MAS government’s tacit consent. A law recently proposed by the national peasant organizations would legitimize illegal settlements and allow the reversion of indigenous lands in the TIPNIS and other protected areas—confirming the worst fears of lowland indigenous groups.


For the government of Evo Morales and many Bolivians, the TIPNIS road is a strategic development project, critical to the national economy’s advancement. The road will reduce the trip between the departmental capitals of Beni and Cochabamba from the current two to three days to four hours. The drive for Andean-Amazonian integration, which the highway represents, is a powerful force in Bolivia, tapping into popular nationalistic outrage at the country’s long history of territorial division and loss of borders (including its seacoast) to foreign powers.

But the highway also has broader geopolitical implications. As Vice President Álvaro García Linera has emphasized, a direct route to Cochabamba (bypassing Santa Cruz) will substantially benefit Beni’s meat producers while reducing the control exercised by powerful, hereditary Santa Cruz elites who dominate the meatpacking and slaughterhouse industry.8 This could help shift the political dynamic in the traditionally conservative Beni department, where the MAS has already made substantial inroads (increasing voter support from 7% in 2005 to 44% in the recent gubernatorial election).9 It could also further the MAS’s goal of fragmenting the conservative opposition by isolating the most reactionary, oligarchic elements and allying with interests such as the agribusiness sector.

At the other end of the highway, improved market access for Cochabamba farmers, including coca growers, will help fulfill Morales’s long-standing commitment to one of his core constituencies. The road will also support the growth of an already burgeoning commercial, transportation, and small-business sector in Villa Tunari, gateway to the TIPNIS in the Cochabamba tropical zone—including enterprises like the cocalero-owned construction company that is now completing the first segment of the highway (from Villa Tunari to the southern TIPNIS border). Economists predict that the TIPNIS road will radically expand the economic and political influence of Villa Tunari and satellite population centers that can be expected to develop near the highway.

Within the TIPNIS, the road’s potential to integrate isolated indigenous communities into the regional economy appears limited to the southern section. Most TIPNIS communities, located in the park’s eastern zone where the road does not cross, will remain dependent on rivers for transportation.

Although domestic considerations appear to be paramount in the push for the TIPNIS road, Brazil’s interest in promoting continental integration to facilitate its access to Pacific ports is an additional factor. While the TIPNIS highway, which runs north-south, is not technically part of any inter-oceanic corridor contemplated under the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA), a Brazil-led continental project, it does link up with a major east-west IIRSA route through Villa Tunari and Cochabamba. Although Brazil is no longer building or financing the TIPNIS road, it remains a key economic partner for Bolivia, importing 53% of its natural gas and investing heavily in its infrastructure, hydrocarbons, and agribusiness sectors. Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, holds one of the three petroleum concessions inside the park—all in zones that are currently protected but subject to continuing exploration and exploitation pressures. As the biggest economic player in South America, Brazil has a continuing interest in improving market access for its goods and for the resources needed to produce them.


The TIPNIS conflict has made visible an impoverished population and region long absent from public view in Bolivia. It has challenged Bolivians to grapple with important and complex issues such as land redistribution, environmental protection, and the rights of indigenous minorities affected by development projects in a plurinational state.

The conflict illustrates the deep contradictions and challenges Bolivia faces in seeking to overcome centuries of exploitation and underdevelopment in an extraction-based economy, while respecting environmental and indigenous rights as required by the new constitution. Key infrastructure projects like the TIPNIS highway are perceived as engines for development consistent with the extractivist model that the Morales government has promoted with reasonable success to date, redistributing resources from hydrocarbons and mining through social programs. But the TIPNIS conflict has also highlighted the potential environmental and social costs of such projects, suggesting the need for an alternative development model more consistent with the constitutional mandate of vivir bien (living well, in harmony with nature).

As an alternative to the traditional developmentalist agenda, the vivir bien economy is ill-defined. As Morales has lamented, “[Now that] indigenous social movements oppose these plans that generate social and economic development, what will Bolivia live from?” In fact, for the road’s supporters, the Morales government’s proposed “eco-highway” and integral development plan for the TIPNIS illustrate the very principles of vivir bien. While opponents have not succeeded in defining a new approach to development, the TIPNIS conflict reflects an attempt to impose limits on the traditional model when the costs are perceived as unacceptable.

Politically, the TIPNIS conflict has led to a major restructuring of the Morales government’s social base, from the original indigenous-peasant alliance to an emerging urban-rural “popular business” bloc, including small and medium-size agricultural producers, coca farmers, trade unionists, informal proprietors, transportation workers, and small and medium-size businesses, in alliance with a faction of the national entrepreneurial sector. According to Bolivian political scientist Helena Argirakis Jordán, consolidation of this new pro-development constituency through the TIPNIS highway is a “strategic interest of maximum priority” for Morales ahead of the 2014 presidential election.10

While Morales may have lost some credibility in the court of international public opinion, his political calculus on the TIPNIS highway appears to be paying off at home. Recent polls show his approval ratings at 58%—down from his 64% vote in the 2009 election but up substantially from a near low of 37% just before the police repression of the first TIPNIS march.

Morales has declared his candidacy for a third presidential term, which Bolivia’s highest court (in a controversial ruling) has deemed constitutionally permissible. Thus far, he faces no significant challenge. His recent decision to put the TIPNIS road “on hold” until 2015, while the government concentrates on eliminating extreme poverty in the TIPNIS, should help to defuse the conflict until after the election.

But for Bolivia’s combative social movements, the TIPNIS conflict has created a destructive logic of confrontation between indigenous- and campesino-identified sectors that were formerly allies (albeit often uneasy ones). It has kept them focused on their differences instead of uniting to confront the broader problems of structural poverty, inequality, and the need for a more sustainable, productive economy beyond the limits of the extractivist model. The highland and lowland indigenous federations will unite to field candidates against Morales and the MAS in the upcoming election.

Just how the reconfigured economic and political alliances resulting from the TIPNIS conflict will play out in the future is important not only to Bolivia but to forces struggling for social justice throughout the Americas (and beyond) that continue to look to Bolivia for inspiration.



1 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia: Monitoreo de cultivos de coca 2010 (September 2011), 48, available at; Periodico Digital de Investigación sobre Bolivia, “En 18 años podrían deforestar 64% del TIPNIS,” March 29, 2011, available at

2 Ángel Guarachi, “En el TIPNIS 55 comunidades apoyan vía por el parque; el Gobierno anuncia construir una carretera ecológica,” La Razón (La Paz, Bolivia), December 7, 2012, available at

3 Comisión Interinstitucional, “Resumen de informe visita a las comunidades del TIPNIS,” La Paz, December 17, 2012.

4 “Villena cuestiona legitimidad de la consulta en el TIPNIS,” Página Siete (La Paz), December 8, 2012, available at

5 “El gobierno legitima desmontes ilegales y suspende la reversión de más de 5 millones de hectáreas,” Bolpress, January 12, 2013, available at

6 Gregory Beltrán, “No se revertirán las tierras ociosas,” La Prensa (La Paz), December 7, 2012.

7 “Agrarian Transformation in Bolivia at Risk,” Bolivia Information Forum Bulletin no. 22, September 2012.

8 Álvaro García Linera, trans. Richard Fidler, Geopolitics of the Amazon, available for download at

9 “Gubernatorial elections in the Beni,” Bolivia Information Forum Bulletin no. 23, February 2013.

10 Helena Argirakis Jordán, “El TIPNIS a partir de los factores de poder y las correlaciones de fuerzas,” La Época, April 30, 2012, available at



Emily Achtenberg, an urban planner and independent researcher on Latin American social movements and leftist governments, is the author of NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog (, where she has covered the TIPNIS conflict in depth.



Read the rest of NACLA's Summer 2013 issue: "Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?"


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