From the November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:
Bolivia’s two roads
Indigenous protestors from the Bolivian Amazon won a victory when they forced President Evo Morales’ government to cancel a road-building project through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), a supposedly protected region in eastern Bolivia. The victory was won after a 300-mile, two-month march from TIPNIS to La Paz by the Guaraní people and people of the Chaco and Beni regions.
They were attacked by police on Sept. 25, with many arrested and injured. Government officials spread rumors of a right-wing plot to take advantage of the marchers. But outrage over the bloody confrontation spread across the country, with Bolivia’s main trade union, Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), declaring a 24- hour general strike in protest. Roadblocks were set up in La Paz. Several officials resigned over the incident.
The government promised a consultative referendum on the road-building project, but insisted it would continue. The Indigenous marchers occupied the central square in La Paz. Only after the occupation continued did Morales announce the project’s cancellation, saying he would “lead by obeying,” though it took two months of protest, injuries and arrests for him to do so.
The struggle posed the dilemma facing Bolivia since the downfall of the old oligarchy and Morales’ election: Neo-development or an alternative to capitalism? How can a small impoverished country, the second poorest in Latin America, construct an independent path? A mass rebellion of workers, peasants and the urban population led to a more representative elected congress, an Aymara-speaking Indigenous president and a new constitution, but has not changed the social system nor stopped its continued integration into the capitalist world market.
Indigenous groups in the Amazon know development is necessary. They oppose the kind of development—done without consulting those who live where it will occur—that continues centuries-old extractive practices for foreign enrichment, while leaving impoverished peoples and despoiled land. For the moment they have stayed the hand of capitalist neo-development that Morales and his government have been seeking to impose in TIPNIS.