Latin America

Bolivia's Morales Goes Down an Ugly Road

A superhighway linking the Andes with the Amazon may hurt indigenous groups and help coca growers.

Don't tread on us, Evo.

Photographer: Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images

President Evo Morales is a Bolivarian success story. While Latin America's marquee populist brand has lost its charm in much of the region, Bolivia's caudillo soldiers on. He's governed for 11 years, longer than any other leader in the small, landlocked Andean country's troubled political history, surviving electoral challenges, constitutional assemblies, mass protests and the commodities slump.

Yet the region's senior strongman is still angling for a grander prize. This week, Morales lifted the hands-off law for the Isiboro Secure National Park. The waiver, endorsed earlier by the government-friendly senate, means the huge preserve, known by its acronym TIPNIS, is now fair game for loggers, ranchers and farmers. And since much of the region's farming is dedicated to coca, the waxy leaf from which cocaine is made, the world has taken notice.

Lifting the development ban officially revives the Morales government's longstanding plan to bisect the park with a transnational highway, linking the Andean foothills to the Amazon and on, eventually, to Brazil and the Atlantic. That would be a mistake. Though billed as a corridor of prosperity, to unlock natural wealth like timber and minerals, the road has an ominous downside. Not long after Morales first announced the project in 2009, the Bolivian Institute for Strategic Research predicted that it could unleash a rush of commercial predators and destroy 610,000 hectares, nearly 65 percent of the Jamaica-sized park, by 2029.

Indigenous communities and environmentalists staged a wave of demonstrations. The government's plan finally blew up in 2011, when media broadcast armed security agents violently putting down the eighth in a series of indigenous marches. Morales backpedaled, sponsoring a law to preserve the park and scrap the highway pending "democratic" consultation.

So why would Morales, who's always amped up his indigenous pedigree and credited Pachamama -- the Aymara word for Mother Earth -- for his rise to office, try to revive such a controversial endeavor? The short answer: Ambition. Last year, Morales lost a bid to rewrite the Bolivian constitution and run for an unprecedented fourth term. Just over 51 percent of Bolivians said "no" in a national referendum to ending term limits, a bracing defeat for a leader who had grown accustomed to hearing only yes from the polls.

An economic slowdown aggravated by policy mismanagement and Morales's creeping authoritarianism contributed to that political setback. But he sees the park highway as a possible road to redemption, built by currying favor with bootleg loggers and one of his most faithful constituencies: Bolivia’s coca farmers. "No wonder critics call the road the Trans-cocalera," [the Transcoca Way], said attorney Jaime Aparicio Otero, Bolivia's former ambassador to the U.S., who petitioned the human rights commission of the Organization of American States' against the highway.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Morales ruled in February to nearly double the amount of coca that farmers could legally plant. (Bolivia allows coca growing for tea and toothpaste, but those items account for less than half the total annual harvest, the vast majority of which goes to the drug trade, which has devastated Bolivia’s forests.)

There are honorable reasons to connect Bolivia's rural communities to the wider world; reliable transportation could lower costs and expedite timber, cattle and produce to distant markets. Yet highways invite invasion and, without wise stewardship, can bring environmental havoc -- not least in the tropics. The Isiboro Secure park is home to a trove of animals and plants, and a vital source of fresh water, that experts claim could be easily trampled in the rush to development. Bolivian officials, who bristle at pressure by "environmental colonialists," have vowed to proceed with caution, but park residents and critics aren't convinced.

"The Morales government is paving the way to rewrite the constitution and abolish term limits," Ronald MacLean-Abaroa, the former mayor of La Paz, and a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, told me. "And this time, it might work."

Still, as Morales's Bolivarian peers have discovered, hubris also makes for risky politics. "The signal could be that Morales is willing to do whatever he can to remain in power," economist Roberto Laserna of Fundacion Milenio, a Bolivian think tank, told me. "That would not be good news for democracy, nor for development."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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