The End of the Road for the TIPNIS Marchers

For the past two months a 1,000 indigenous Bolivian men, women and children have been marching on La Paz to prevent the government building a major highway that would pass through the middle of a national park and their ancestral home.

Today, the column of marchers – now swollen to over 2,000 – will finally arrive at the seat of government in the heart of Bolivia’s capital.

There they’ll present their demands directly to Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales.

The day before their arrival Plaza Murillo was still calm: elderly gentlemen took siestas in the shade; pigeons pecked at proffered pieces of bread; and the national flag fluttered from the government buildings against a blue sky.

This won’t be the scene come midday.

Then, the square will be filled with the indignance of the marchers’ emblazoned flags and banners, the pigeons will be forced into the tree tops, and every eye is sure to be wide open.

“We’re getting ready to receive the marchers. We’re all going, my wife and my children. We’ll be here alongside them,” said Jose Castillo a self-employed business man who has hired a car to take his family as well as clothes and food to the square.

“Their children have got sick, the pregnant women have lost their babies. And they were beaten. We all have to go and welcome the marchers,” he added.

Such support for the indigenous marchers is not uncommon.

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They are trying to reverse the government’s plan to build a 298km (185 mile) road which would pass through the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), a reserve known for its exceptional biodiversity and home to several indigenous communities.

In 2009, the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party introduced a new constitution, guaranteeing all indigenous peoples autonomy over their native land and prior consultation on developments that would affect its natural resources.

In this case, that prior consultation was not granted.

On 15 August, a 1,000 marchers set out from Trinidad in Bolivia’s lowlands to La Paz set high in the mountains.

However, on 25 September, roughly halfway through the 500km (311m) journey, their peaceful march was violently repressed by state police.

Around 400 officers beat, gagged and fired tear gas on the group.

The images played across the country and great swathes of the country were galvanised overnight.

Several resignations followed but it was not enough to quieten the calls for deep reflection within the government and, within some sectors, even the resignation of President Morales himself.

On Sunday, the opposition capitalised on this mood to turn Bolivia’s inaugural judicial elections into a virtual referendum on the MAS administration.

Unofficial exit polls show that across the country 43% of voters spoilt their ballots on average.

Although not the only reason, anger at the government’s handling of the march was a common motive. Many spoilt ballot had the word TIPNIS scrawled across their length.

Despite these recent setbacks, tens of thousands of Bolivians still turned up for a planned pro-government rally in La Paz last Wednesday, showing that MAS still enjoys a strong and powerful popular base.

Sunday’s vote while undoubtedly politicised, wasn’t a vote on policies.

Leydi Sanchez, a 24 year old law graduate who described herself as a young revolutionary, expressed her anger at the way the debate over the TIPNIS park has damaged the government:

“The media doesn’t inform; it distorts the truth. But the people here are smart and they support the government. I’d give my right arm for the government’s ‘Process of Change’ and my heart for the president. He’s the only leader in the last 500 years who’s dignified this country,” she told the BBC.

When Mr Morales was first elected in 2005 with a 57% majority he was hailed as Latin America’s first indigenous leader.

His policies were socialist, based on reestablishing the rights of Bolivia’s many indigenous people, and he even rechristened the country ‘The Plurinational State’.

However, the fact that he is pushing ahead with a road that would potentially open up indigenous lands to bloggers and a group of nomadic farmers known as “colonisers”, is viewed by many as deeply hypocritical.

Yet the president argues that the road, which would connect Bolivia’s Amazonian lowlands with the highlands, is a vital link between isolated communities and would provide access to education and health service.

The arrival of the indigenous marchers on Wednesday will bring all these conflicting factors to the fore. And Plaza Murillo will be the focal point where they converge.

Blanca Moscos who offers city tours from the square says that she is glad the marchers are coming but worries there could be a clash between the two groups:

“They’ve walked so far, I think La Paz will welcome them. But I definitely think there could be violence between certain groups if they aren’t kept apart. There’s a lot of strong feeling here,” she warned.

The Mayor has offered the marchers a police escort into the city, but the leaders of the march declined. They say that they are still recovering from the “scars” of the police intervention on the 25 September.

In many people’s minds this moment has been 64 days in coming but in reality the conflict over the TIPNIS road has raged on for months.

There is a lot at stake and the marcher’s arrival in the capital will inevitably be fraught.

Nevertheless, the sense on the streets of La Paz is that the vast majority of residents support their protest and will welcome them with open arms.

On Monday, Mayor Luis Revilla offered them the keys to the city and called on every homeowner to bedeck their houses with flags.

And late on Tuesday, President Morales agreed to an audience with the march’s leaders to consider their demands.

The end of this particular road for the marchers though long and arduous may still be a party yet.

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