Bolivia Battles a Highway

52 percent of the Bolivian people disagree with the construction of the Highway through the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (Tipnis), according to data from the second survey Metropolitan Regional Forum.

Indigenous groups in Bolivia are resisting a Brazilian-led highway project that would slice through a national park—risking vast environmental damage.

Bolivia has been embroiled in conflict for the past year over the planned construction of a 182-mile highway, 32 miles of which would cut through TIPNIS, a vital ecosystem — located at the geographic heart of South America — that links the Andes and the Amazon basins.

The road would be an important addition to Bolivia’s woefully undeveloped highway system. Yet environmental studies predict that the project will cause widespread damage, contaminating the park’s three main rivers, opening large areas of forest to illegal logging and settlement, and altering habitats that are home to 11 endangered species and rare primates.

All that would threaten the traditional way of life of the reserve’s three dwindling indigenous cultures — the Tsimanes, Yuracarés and Mojeño-Trinitarios.

The controversy has brought Bolivia to a crossroads, one that is emblematic of the complex choices over development now confronting much of South America.

Bolivia’s highway project is part of a Brazilian-led effort commonly known as IIRSA, or the Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America — a vast network of 531 mega-projects including hydroelectric dams, highways, bridges, and electrical power systems that seeks to propel the continent into the 21st century.

Although these projects are filling a major infrastructure void, most are being constructed within the fragile ecosystems of the Amazon basin, which environmentalists warn could do irreparable damage to the world’s largest tropical forest.

If built, the TIPNIS road would likely be a major transport route for moving Brazilian soybeans to Pacific ports for shipment to China. Brazil’s oil giant, Petrobras, also holds exploration rights inside TIPNIS near the planned highway.

This has prompted critics to charge that the TIPNIS road and other IIRSA projects are designed primarily to benefit Brazilian industry rather than to provide economic and social advancement for the people of Bolivia and the Amazon basin.

To deflect growing criticism over IIRSA, Brazil has vowed to give greater weight to the environmental and social aspects of these megaprojects and has recently renamed the effort the South American Council on Infrastructure and Planning, or COSIPLAN.

The controversy over the TIPNIS road, which has involved marches by indigenous groups to the capital and clashes with police, has proven to be a political minefield for President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state.

Morales has gained an international reputation as a modern day Captain Planet: As a staunch defender of pachamama, or Mother Earth, he has bounded from United Nations meetings to global summits lambasting the developed world for wreaking environmental havoc with its insatiable appetite for oil and consumer goods.

He has also consistently called for consultation with indigenous people affected by development projects.

Unfortunately, Morales did not heed his own advice, expressing support for the TIPNIS road without consulting the park’s indigenous people. The plan, which has been on the country’s drawing boards for more than a decade, had always been popular among most Bolivians.

But after being slighted by Morales, 1,000 people, including several hundred from the park, marched 350 miles in August 2011 to the capital of La Paz in protest. Popular sentiment started to turn against the highway, in part because the police clashed with the group halfway through their journey. Fearing for his presidency, the Bolivian leader canceled the project soon after the march reached La Paz.

By early this year, however, the plan was back on the table, with Bolivian officials arguing that the TIPNIS road is vital for South America’s poorest nation. “The majority of the population needs integration and needs transport for their goods,” says Vice-Minister of the Environment Beatriz Zapata. Indeed, in a country almost three times the size of Montana, only one east-west paved highway exists, and it’s impossible to drive from north to south in Bolivia without encountering long stretches of dirt road.

By slicing straight through TIPNIS, the proposed highway would cut current travel time around the park from 15 hours to about one hour, easing transport and connecting the country’s economic center of Santa Cruz with isolated northwest Bolivia.

The Morales government is now in the midst of a three-month consultation period with the indigenous people of TIPNIS, determining whether the road can be built in a way that would mitigate its environmental and cultural impacts. “We are moving from a purely conservationist vision onto one that integrates it with development,” says Zapata.

Residents of the 4,000-square-mile park are highly polarized, with the indigenous people of the north — whose ancestors have been living in this area since before the colonial conquest — generally against the road.

They are families like the Aguileras, who live off the river and have minimal contact with life outside the park. Given the possible impact of the road on their forests, wild game, and rivers, Delmi Morales Nosa, a Yuracaré mother of two, says, “Our entire way of life will be changed.”

Source |