Bolivia: Indigenous Groups to March Against TIPNIS Highway

Next Monday, representatives of three indigenous groups and their supporters will begin a 375-mile trek from the Bolivian lowlands to the capital of La Paz, to protest the government’s plan to build a highway through their ancestral homeland. The march opens a new chapter in the increasingly conflictive relationship between leftist president Evo Morales and the social movements that brought him to power, and could be another defining moment for the MAS government.
Emily Achtenberg 8/12/2011

On August 15, representatives of three indigenous groups and their supporters will begin a 375-mile trek from Trinidad in the Bolivian lowlands to the highland capital of La Paz, to protest the government’s plan to build a highway through their ancestral homeland known as the TIPNIS (Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park). The march opens a new chapter in the increasingly conflictive relationship between leftist president Evo Morales and the social movements that brought him to power.

279 Current road in the TIPNIS. Credit: Stephane Pauquet, SERNAP.The TIPNIS is both a national park and a self-governing territory, that combines indigenous autonomy (granted under Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution) with environmental protection.  Legal title to the land and resources in this 3,860 square mile preserve is held in common by the Yuracaré, Moxeño, and Chimán people.

This unique model had its origins in an earlier cross-country march organized in 1990 by lowlands indigenous organizations, which Morales accompanied as leader of the Chapare coca growers union federation. The historic March For Territory and Dignity is credited with putting the demand for indigenous autonomy, and for a Constituent Assembly to make it possible, on the national agenda.

Twenty years later, Morales has officially inaugurated a 190-mile highway that threatens 276 Proposed highway route. Credit: Pagina Sieteto bifurcate the TIPNIS territory (see map). The road will be built by a Brazilian construction conglomerate, with 80% of its $415 million price tag financed by a loan from the Brazilian government.

The two sections of the road leading to and from the TIPNIS are already under construction. The controversial central section running through the protected zone, which has not yet undergone the required environmental review and community consultation process, is the subject of the current controversy.  


In the government’s view, the road is critical to Bolivia’s economic development. It will provide a direct commercial link between the central department of Cochabamba, gateway to the Andean highlands, and the Amazonian Beni region, an important source of agricultural and meat products. Short-circuiting the traditional route through Santa Cruz, the road will cut transportation time between the two departments in half--while conveniently challenging the economic dominance of Santa Cruz, a region that has posed the greatest political threat to the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) government.

The road will also connect indigenous residents of the TIPNIS with the modern world, providing opportunities for expanded or new community enterprises such as sustainable forestry and ecotourism. But for community leaders of the TIPNIS and their supporters, the road threatens to destroy one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, with unique flora and fauna including 11 endangered animals and 3,000 species of plants. According to Adrián Nogales, the director of the national park service who opposes the government’s plan, the road will cause “the greatest ecological destruction in Bolivia’s history,” along with major social and cultural damage.  

As community leaders explain, the problem is not the road itself but the access it will facilitate by interests hostile to conservation. These include illegal loggers, cocaleros using slash-and-burn agriculture to maximize production for the illegal market, and narcotraffickers. The community has clashed repeatedly with such groups in the past, and last May burned down 40 shacks associated with a land invasion that had destroyed the surrounding forest.

A recent study predicts that within 18 years of the road’s construction, 64% of the TIPNIS will be deforested. YFPB, the state hydrocarbons company, has just announced its interest in exploring important petroleum reserves inside the park, posing an additional environmental threat which the road will greatly facilitate.  

For native peoples of the TIPNIS, who rely on hunting, fishing, and food-gathering, environmental destruction is a threat to their livelihood and their very existence. Indigenous leaders say that eight communities inside the park have disappeared in recent years as a result of these pressures, which they characterize as “ethnocide in the twenty-first century.” For this reason, the community voted in May 2010 to “strongly and irrevocably reject the construction of the (proposed) highway, and any segment that would affect our territory.”

Still another point of view is represented by the Quechua and Aymará “colonists,” originally dislocated miners from the Bolivian highlands,277 Colonists supporting the road. Credit: Fernando Cartagena, La Razón. who have lived in the park since the 1970s. Unlike the native peoples of the TIPNIS, who are primarily nomadic and operate outside the market system, the settlers are farmers who need access to markets for their products (including rice, citrus fruits, and coca leaves produced for the legal market). While the natives have extended families and clans, the settlers are organized through their sindicatos, mostly affiliated with the coca growers’ federations of the Chapare, whose president is Evo Morales. The settler colonies need and strongly support the road.  

The two groups have managed an uneasy coexistence since 1990, when Morales (as head of the coca growers’ federations) and the TIPNIS leaders agreed on a “red line” to contain future colonist settlements. The relationship has since been characterized by cooperative efforts—such as joint opposition to Repsol’s mining explorations in 1998—as well as conflicts, primarily over the recent expansion of settlement areas, which has led to occasional violence.

Today, some 15,000 settlers in the TIPNIS outnumber the native indigenous almost 3 to 1. The shortage of arable land for small farmers outside the park, compared to the vast tracts occupied by the native indigenous, has generated resentment and increasing pressures from organized colonist groups. The proposed highway is exacerbating these conflicts.

The Government's Response 

To date, the government has responded to this complex situation by alternately seeking to discredit and defy the road’s critics. In addition to accusing environmental NGOs and community leaders of manipulating their constituents, Morales has stated that anyone who is against the road is an enemy of Bolivia.”

“I want to say to the so-called defenders of the environment,” he warned last June, “that whether they like it or not, we’re going to build this highway and we’re going to deliver it under my administration.” 

Under international treaties and its own Constitution, the Bolivian government is obligated to consult with affected communities and seek their “free, prior, and informed consent” before building the road. The government has been slow to implement this process, and has stated repeatedly that the consultation will not be binding.

But after the Brazilian ambassador announced a funding freeze for the controversial portion of the route and urged Bolivia to resolve its conflicts with indigenous groups, the government decided to initiate the consultation process in Trinidad, with five days’ notice. TIPNIS community leaders, busy with preparations for the August 15 march, elected to boycott the consultation, which was held on August 9.

The government’s position that the consultation is not binding, they note, violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the legal framework. They object to being consulted three years after the construction contract has been awarded, with work on adjoining sections of the road already underway. “We’ll dialogue when we reach La Paz,” says Fernando Vargas, president of the TIPNIS governing body.

Indigenous groups and their technical advisers, as well the civic committees of Beni and Cochabamba, have proposed alternative routes for the road outside or alongside the park. The government has generally characterized these options as infeasible or too expensive. But this stance may be softening, since Brazil has raised the possibility of reconsidering the route.278

Indigenous leaders are seeking a meeting with Brazilian government officials in the hopes of putting additional pressure on Morales. Given Brazil’s economic interest in the road as part of its plan for a bioceanic corridor, and its direct financial stake in the road's contruction, it’s a reasonable bet that Brazil may prefer a revised route to the prospect of an endlessly stalled and conflicted project.  

In the meantime, the much-anticipated march by the TIPNIS community and the lowlands indigenous organization CIDOB, representing 34 indigenous groups, will test the strength of the growing protest movement. The highlands indigenous organization CONAMAQ, the Chiquitano Indigenous Organization, the Assembly of the Guarani People, and many other indigenous, environmental, and human rights organizations have pledged to participate.

The struggle over the TIPNIS highway raises issues that are critical to Bolivia’s future-- the balance between development and ecological sustainability, the nature of limitations on indigenous territorial rights, the meaning of the government’s obligation to seek free, prior, and informed community consent, and the continuing problem of inequitable land distribution for campesinos, to name just a few. For the Morales administration, this could be another defining moment. 

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