Bolivia: New Road Threatens Indigenous Territory of Isiboro Sécure

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights and Forest Focus: Amazon.

Like it or not, we are going to build this road,” [es] announced Bolivian President Evo Morales during a speech in the town of Sacaba on June 30, 2011, in reference to a controversial project to build a new road that would go through the Indigenous Territory National Park Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS for its initials in Spanish).

The plans and subsequent preparation for the construction of section two of the country's ‘national road’ has attracted strong criticism from indigenous groups whose lands would be affected. The project is calling into question Morales’ commitment to autonomous indigenous rights and environmental protection, two issues that Bolivia's first indigenous president proudly has claimed as pillars of his administration.

Controversial construction plans

Map of the TIPNIS area

Map of the TIPNIS area

With a 332 million dollar loan from neighboring Brazil, Morales signed a law that would begin the construction of a road from the town of Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos in the Department of Beni. The territory is not only protected as a nature reserve with rich biodiversity, but also protected as the home of members of the indigenous communities Moxeños, Yuracarés, and Chimanes. Isiboro Sécure was declared a national park in 1965 and named an indigenous territory in 1990.

At the XXIX Gathering of Corregidores (council members) of TIPNIS [es], the participants developed a statement regarding their stance on the proposed project. Their resolution was republished in the blog Defendamos el TIPNIS (Let's Defend the TIPNIS), in which the residents “conclusively and non-negotiably reject the construction of the road from Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos or any stretch of road that affects our territory, our large home”, and states:

3. La decisión de la construcción de la carretera se ha tomado sin seguir los procedimientos técnicos y legales, sin un estudio de impacto ambiental previo, sin aplicar el derecho a consulta de los pueblos indígenas dentro del TIPNIS, transgrediendo la misma Constitución Política del Estado Plurinacional (CPEP) recientemente aprobada en sus artículos 30 y 343, además de transgredir las leyes que preservan el medio ambiente.

3. The decision to construct the road was made without following technical and legal procedures, without a prior environmental impact study, without applying the right of consultation of the indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS, transgressing the same Political Constitution of the Plurinational State (CPEP) that recently approved in articles 30 and 343, in addition to transgressing the laws that preserve the environment.

Puzzling response

The lack of consultation with indigenous groups whose lands and livelihood would be directly affected is puzzling for those accustomed to seeing President Morales as someone who has put the rights and interests of indigenous communities at the forefront of his government. Blogger Pablo Andrés Rivero has been writing about this subject in a number of posts, and mentions the concept of indigenous autonomy that has been given increased importance in the new Constitution approved in 2009. Rivero writes:

Within this context, one of the major changes constitutionally introduced is the Indigenous Autonomy, a particular figure of self ruling and decision making criteria for indigenous peoples to decide, directly and in full capacity, over the natural resources and ways of development according to their traditions, history and own decisions in the regions where they live for centuries.

[…] The government, is worth remember, is not ruled by white-mestizo elites any more. Instead is Evo Morales, a indigenous himself, who came to power claiming to bestow indigenous dignity back once and for all, claiming to make sure we all live in balance with nature and respecting peoples decisions or, as he discursively put it “governs by obeying the people”.

The decision and determination shown by Morales to go ahead and build the highway regardless of the opposition also contradicts his place on the international stage as a defender of the environment. At the United Nations, Morales promoted resolutions that would promote “a holistic approach to harmony with nature, and an exchange of national experiences regarding criteria and indicators to measure sustainable development in harmony with nature.”

His full backing of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth that took place in early 2010 is also confusing; his actions regarding the road construction are incompatible with these international stances on the protection of the environment. Rivero adds:

Morales has travelled the world arguing -and glorying- Bolivia's decision of living in balance with the Pachamama, publicising his ‘Mother Earth’ Bill and demanding effective actions -and economic compensation for poor countries- against climate change from industrialised countries.

"The jungle is life, the highway is death." Stencil art found on the streets of Cochabamba. Taken by Patricia Vargas and used with permission.

"The jungle is life, the highway is death." Stencil art found on the streets of Cochabamba. Taken by Patricia Vargas and used with permission.

The government defends the project by stating that these communities are too isolated, and that the road would help bring about increased development and a “greater State presence,” which would help provide better access to health, education, and commerce. However, the road may also mean increased access by those committing illegal activities that would further harm the environment and threaten the indigenous communities’ way of life.

There are some studies that show that the road may cause 65% deforestation over the next two decades [es], due to illegal logging and land clearing, which is already a problem in many of these areas.

Other critics predict that the growth of illegal coca plantations by settlers into the area may also increase drug trafficking activities. The former Vice-Minister of Land in the Morales administration, Alejando Almaráz said that the road provides greater opportunities [es] for “massive land-grabs and an uncontrolled business of illegal coca, this is serious, devastating for the indigenous communities and for nature because those coca crops are planted where there were once woods.”

And it is here where Morales’ attention to residents in the southern part of TIPNIS that appear to be a conflict of interest. Many of those settlers are “already involved in land dealings with cocaleros,” [es] as pointed out by respected anthropologist, Xavier Albo. Morales’ start in politics came about from his syndicate work with the coca growers, where he still retains the position of president of the Six Federations of Coca Growers.

The Bolivian government claims that the indigenous communities are being influenced by European NGOs [es] that are pushing the groups to ask for money. However, (@hormigoazul) believes that the opposition is not a political maneuver [es]:

El problema del #TIPNIS no es esencialismo ecologista, ni protección de ni intervencionismo tipo ONG, ni jugada política de la oposición.

The problem of #TIPNIS is not ecological essentialism, or neither protection from or intervention from NGOS, nor a political play from the opposition.

The resistance from indigenous groups is a cause being supported by many from the cities, as Majo Ferrel (@lamajoferrel) states [es]:

El proyecto carreterro V.Tunari a S.I.Moxos no solamente es cuestionado por los del TIPNIS tb por gran parte de la sociedad civil !!!

The highway project Villa Tuanari to San Ignacio de Moxos is not only questioned by those in the TIPNIS, but also by a large part of civil society!!!

As a result of this opposition, the Bolivian Confederation of Indigenous Peoples (CIDOB) is organizing a national march to begin on August 2 that will depart from Villa Tunari towards the seat of government in capital La Paz. They have received support from the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ) [es].

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights and Forest Focus: Amazon.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.