Bolivia: Amazon road war escalates again

Leaders of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) announced April 25 that will postpone the start of the Ninth Indigenous March by one day, and change the starting point from the village of Chaparina to the city of Trinidad, departmental capital of Beni, some 275 kilometers to the east—in order to avoid conflict with counter-protesters, who have blocked the highway in order to impede the march. Chaparina was chosen because it was the site of the police repression of last year's similar march, called to halt construction of a highway through Bolivia's northern Amazon region. Supporters of the new highway launched roadblocks at San Ignacio de Moxos, the town closest to Chaparina. CIDOB leader Adolfo Chávez said the decision was taken to avert a confrontation with "our brothers from San Ignacio." Government Minister Carlos Romero meanwhile flew into San Ignacio de Moxos to meet with the counter-protest leaders, and said he had secured an agreement for them to dismantle their blockades. (Erbol, EFE, ANF, April 25)

The road project has divided residents of the Isiboro Sécure National Park Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), which would be bisected by the new highway. As opponents prepared for the Ninth Indigenous March, Public Works Minister Vladimir Sánchez announced that the government had secured the support of 52 of the 68 indigenous communities in the TIPNIS for a "consultation" process to permit construction of the highway, which would link San Ignacio de Moxos in Beni department with Villa Tunari in Cochabamba. (ABI, April 24)

President Evo Morales, while on one hand supporting dialogue to defuse further violent conflicts over the project, continues to bait road opponents as manipulated by unnamed outside forces. In late March, as the Ninth March was announced, he told a meeting of the Assembly of the Guaraní People in Monteagudo, Chuquisaca: "It is not possible to undertsand how the historic enemies of the indigenous movement are now its friends, how the historic enemies of the environment now appear as its saviors. The new colonialism is environmentalism at the lead of the capitalist countries. It is one thing to defend, in truth, the rights of Mother Earth, and another to use the pretext of the environment to create institutions that convert our peoples into colonies." In his comments, he invoked the 1892 Kuruyuki massacre in Chuquisaca region, in which a Guaraní rebellion was brutally put down by the Bolivian army. (FM Bolivia, March 30)

The situation is complicated by the apparent persistence of real imperialist intrigues in Bolivia's lowlands, a region of the country traditionally outside the firm control of the central government. On March 27, two days before Morales' comments at Monteagudo, Bolivian police in Beni department intercepted a van with diplomatic license plates—apparently connected to the US embassy—carrying three shotguns, a revolver and more than 2,300 rounds of ammunition. The van’s driver and a police officer escorting him, both Bolivian citizens, were taken into custody for questioning. Government Minister Romero said the incident amounted to a "security threat to Bolivia, an act that calls into question the [US government's] respect for the institution and laws of the Bolivian state." He called for a full investigation into the matter.

The US embassy in La Paz denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the weapons were being relocated from a closed office in the city of Trinidad to Santa Cruz under an agreement with local police commanders. The statement added that it is customary for Washington to contract local police in order to protect its diplomats overseas, and stressed that embassy officials are happy to cooperate with an investigation.

The statement failed to appease Bolivian officials. Although Romero conceded that the US had negotiated an agreement with the police in Beni, he called the arrangement "illegal," noting that foreign embassies are only authorized to negotiate agreements with the central government. Romero also questioned why the van was traveling at night, and implied that a diplomatic vehicle was used to reduce the chance of it being searched. (InsightCrime, March 28)

See our last post on the struggle in