by Rhodri C. Williams
Following up on my earlier post on indigenous peoples’ protests against a road project in Bolivia, it seems there have been further developments. In brief, the minister responsible for the violent removal of the protesters has now resigned and the march to La Paz has resumed. The fate of Bolivia’s Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (‘Tipnis’ in Spanish) continues to hang in the balance.
In addition to providing updated coverage of the issue, the BBC has also recently provided a useful analysis of why President Morales, himself both indigenous and an advocate of the rights of indigenous peoples, would persist in backing the proposed road (“Bolivia Amazon protesters resume Tipnis road march”, 01 October 2011). The analysis merits quoting at length:
So what lies behind President Morales’ apparent determination to push ahead with the road despite the growing political cost?
The economic argument is certainly strong. The road would give farmers and ranchers in the Amazon much better access to markets in the highlands.
There is also an international dimension. The road is being funded by Bolivia’s giant neighbour, Brazil, which would gain better access to Pacific ports in Peru and Chile.
But critics say the highway could be re-routed around the Tipnis reserve, and therefore question whether other motives are at work.
President Morales’ core support base is among the coca-growers of the Chapare, which borders the Tipnis reserve to the north.
They are mostly indigenous Aymara and Quechua migrants from the highlands – a group known as “colonists” in Bolivia.
They see the road project as an opportunity to access new farmland in rainforest areas currently reserved for far less populous Amazonian tribes.
Parts of Tipnis have already been settled illegally by coca-growers, pushing the Amazonian tribes deeper into the forest, and the fear is this will accelerate if the road is built.
In pressing so strongly for the road, critics suggest, Mr Morales is supporting the demands of one narrow sector of Bolivia’s indigenous population over the rights of others.
To the east of Tipnis, wealthy cattle ranchers are also encroaching on the reserve, and it is thought to hold oil and gas reserves.
At the heart of the matter is the contradiction between a discourse of indigenous rights and environmental protection, and an economy that depends on the export of natural resources.
The BBC’s analysis provides a handy reminder that indigenous peoples are not homogeneous, nor do they necessarily share the same political and economic aspirations. It also gives force to the suspicion I expressed earlier that the proposed ad hoc regional referendum on the project would only give a rather superficial veneer of democracy to a project started, by all accounts, in open violation of the legal requirement that the residents of Tipnis be consulted in advance. Given the range of regional interests in exploiting the reserve’s natural resources, the “far less populous Amazonian tribes” residing therein have little to gain from an exercise in majority rule.