Bolivian President Evo Morales has built his presidency on promises to defend people like Cecilia Moyovire from the excesses of global capitalism. Now, the Moxeno-Trinitario Indian and fellow protesters are threatening his plans to open up a region of the Amazon rain forest rich in energy, timber and other resources.
Moyovire, 42, has been camped a few blocks from the government palace in La Paz since police attacked a group of 1,000 marchers from a national park in central Bolivia on Sept. 25 as they protested against plans for a Brazilian-built road through the region. That march will likely paralyze downtown La Paz when it reaches the capital this week.
“If the government continues being obstinate, their machines will have to pass over our dead bodies,” said Moyovire, a mother of five from the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure as she sat outside her tent last week.
Morales, an Aymara Indian who has harnessed indigenous support to become Bolivia’s longest serving president since military rule ended in 1985, backs the $415 million highway being built by Sao Paulo-based Construtora OAS Ltd. with majority funding from Brazil’s state development bank. The road will connect with the Chilean port city of Arica, allowing Brazil to export food and minerals to China. The park also holds some of the gas reserves whose development nationwide is driving 5 percent economic growth this year in Bolivia.
The dispute comes almost two years after Morales, 51, endorsed a new constitution that grants indigenous groups, including Moyovire’s Moxeno Trinitario, the right to be consulted before projects begin on their land. That process is not clearly defined and no one asked the people of three indigenous groups that live in the TIPNIS, as the park is known, if they wanted a road through their territory, said Jose Ortiz, an indigenous leader from Bolivia’s lowlands.
“There will be more conflicts,” said Miguel Centellas, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “The TIPNIS issue is only the most pronounced indigenous opposition to these developmentalist projects. The success of the TIPNIS protest will embolden future groups.”
Bolivia is seeking to boost gas output by 40 percent to 66 million cubic meters a day by 2014 to meet its supply contracts with Brazil and Argentina, according to state oil and gas company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos. The La Paz-based company exports the bulk of the 39 million cubic meters of gas a day Bolivia sells to its two neighbors.
That increase will be dependent on natural gas and oil exploration contracts to be granted this year for the first time since Morales took office in 2006. In that year, the government forced companies including Rio de Janeiro-based Petroleo Brasileiro SA to renegotiate contracts, driving up taxes. Moscow-based OAO Gazprom and Vietnam Oil & Gas Group from Hanoi are among the energy companies that have expressed interest.
“The core of Morales’s economic plan, beginning with the nationalization of the oil industry, has been to rely on extractive industries,” Centellas said. “That means more mining and drilling,” which will lead to greater conflict.
The exploration contracts may include areas within the TIPNIS national park, according to a decree signed by Morales a year ago, though the government has said it doesn’t currently have plans to begin drilling there.
Future conflict may include friction with Guarani indigenous groups over gas extraction and with communities on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, where pilot lithium mining projects are under way, Centellas says.
Bolivia’s economic growth is increasingly fueled by its natural resources. Gross domestic product expanded 5 percent in the first half of 2011 from the year earlier, with the crude oil and natural gas industry growing 9.1 percent. That compares with 8.4 percent growth in neighboring Chile over the same period and 7.7 percent in Peru.
Natural gas for November delivery fell 1.5 cents to settle at $3.688 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday. Gas has declined 16 percent this year. The central bank has kept the Boliviano at about 6.92 to the U.S. dollar since July, when it adjusted its crawling currency peg for the sixth time this year.
Anger at the police crackdown on the marchers in September led Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti to resign, while the country’s Defense Minister quit in solidarity with the Indians. Since the protests began two months ago, Morales’ approval rating has fallen 9 percentage points to 35 percent in October, the second-lowest rating of his presidency, according to La Paz-based pollster Ipsos-Apoyo. Morales has said he’ll consider running for a third term in 2014.
In another rebuke to Morales, 45 percent of ballots were left blank or nullified in an election for the country’s top judges on Oct. 16, La Paz-based newspaper La Razon reported, citing a report by Ipsos Apoyo.
More than 1,000 people will march into La Paz this week after trekking 250 miles over two months from the lowland jungles. Many marchers will carry the bows and arrows they use to hunt in the largely untouched rainforest of the TIPNIS, where 15,000 indigenous people live in three groups.
“The indigenous people never said we don’t want roads,” said Ortiz, the indigenous leader. “Progress must come, but progress that complies with the laws of the country and the right to be consulted that is established in the constitution.”
Highland vs. Lowland
The TIPNIS conflict also highlights a deepening divide between indigenous people of Bolivia’s highlands, many of them coca growers and miners that support Morales, and those from the resource-rich lowlands who oppose the road. Morales belongs to one of two highland groups that make up the bulk of Bolivia’s 10 million people and dwarf the more than 30 small lowland groups.
On Oct. 13, more than 10,000 union workers, government employees and members of indigenous groups flooded the streets of La Paz in a show of support for Morales.
“Our brother Evo Morales cannot advance the process of change alone,” said highland indigenous leader Gregorio Ramos as he marched at the head of a column of supporters. “That is why we are here.”
This week, it will be the turn of the rival lowland Indians to bring central La Paz to a halt.
“I want to remind the president of when he said ‘Brothers and sisters if I make a mistake, correct me,’” Moyovire said. “Now it’s time that we as Bolivian brothers and sisters must correct a mistake.”