The new law requiring the Bolivian government to consult with indigenous groups in the Isiboro-Sécure Indiginous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) about the proposed road that would bisect the reserve has revived a nagging question: why are alternative highway routes not being considered?
Over the past year, various proposals have been advanced by environmental, engineering, and civil society groups—and even by the now-deposed governor of Beni—for alternative routes bordering the park (see map) that offer the possibility of integrating the departments of Beni and Cochabamba without the enormous social and environmental cost of the proposed TIPNIS road. The government has dismissed these options as economically or structurally infeasible, given the problematic terrain of their locations (mountainous to the west and flood-prone to the east), or as even more environmentally destructive. Yet no technical studies have been made public.
According to the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government, advocates of alternative routes should take responsibility themselves for demonstrating the feasibility of their proposals. President Evo Morales has repeatedly stated that there are no viable options to the TIPNIS road—even though Brazil, which is financing most of the highway’s cost, seems willing to increase the amount of its loan.
The new law doesn’t require TIPNIS residents to be consulted about alternative routes (although it’s not clear that this would be precluded.) Last week, MAS deputy Lucio Marca proposed to amend the law to clarify that alternative routes should be included in the consultation.
Also last week, representatives of various TIPNIS communities polled by the radio network Erbol confirmed that they are not opposed to the road, but only to the route through their ancestral lands.
Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s respected former UN ambassador and chief international negotiator for climate justice, says that before implementing the consultation, the government should convene a commission of indigenous representatives, Beni and Cochabamba residents, environmental experts, and engineers, to analyze the costs and benefits of all possible options. “The government must exhaust every effort to find a rational, equitable solution to this conflict,” says Solón, “or the right will be the beneficiary.”
Solón offers this analogy: “The construction of a highway through the heart of the TIPNIS is like amputating an arm. Before I ask if you want to do that, I have to demonstrate that it’s the only option…that otherwise it will be impossible to integrate Cochabamba and Beni, that every other alternative is riskier, technically inviable, and fiscally unsustainable.”
Anthropologist Xavier Albó emphasizes that the government’s proposed direct route through the TIPNIS passes by only a handful of communities within the indigenous territory, and would primarily serve coca farmers and settlers outside the territory in the southern portion of the park (Polygon 7; see map). If the goal of the road is to bring health services, education, and economic opportunities to indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS, as the government argues, says Albó, the road should be routed along the Isiboro river towards the northeast, where the majority of communities are located.
Both Solón and Albó believe that Morales’ intransigence on the TIPNIS issue stems largely from campaign promises made to his cocalero bases during the 2005 election that brought him to power. For Chapare coca farmers, the road will enhance opportunities for commerce, especially for marketing of alternative crops, and for further expansion and encroachment into the indigenous territory.
Says Solón: “The President should acknowledge his error, because the price of complying with [his promise] is very high—not only for the international environmental campaign that he has promoted, but for the internal conflict between Bolivians.”
Political analyst Pablo Stefanoni notes that the physical integration of the country might be better achieved by improving the existing Trinidad-La Paz road north and west of the park. This option, though, would not benefit Morales’s cocalero bases in the Chapare.
For Stefanoni, consideration of alternative routes could be a way to “lower the decibels” and redirect the national conversation away from divisive rhetoric—including calls by indigenous groups for Morales’s resignation, and charges of seditious behavior made by government officials against indigenous leaders. Moving forward, he argues, requires deepening the discussion about industrial and environmental policy in a plurinational society, critical issues that the TIPNIS conflict has forced Bolivians to confront.
In the meantime, Stefanoni cautions, “the intransigence (of the government) conspires against Bolivia’s ‘process of change.’”
Read more on the TIPNIS conflict on Emily Achtenberg's blog, Rebel Currents. See also, the January/February 2011 NACLA Report, "Golpistas! Coups and Democracy in the 21st Century;" the September/October 2010 NACLA Report, "After Recognition: Indigenous Peoples Confront Capitalism;" or the September/October 2009 NACLA Report, "Political Environments: Development, Dissent, and the New Extraction." Or subscribe to NACLA.