Bolivian President Evo Morales has renewed his efforts to build a controversial highway through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), a forested park that is home to over 12,000 indigenous people. The central segment of the highway would bisect the territory and accelerate already high rates of deforestation. Protests spearheaded by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in 2011 and 2012 postponed its construction, while funding by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) was withdrawn. The Bolivian government had previously said it would tackle extreme poverty in the territory before mounting any new effort to build the highway.
On June 4, however, President Morales told an audience in his home base of Villa Tunari, Cochabamba, that the project “will be realized.” His remarks followed on earlier statements leading up to the April regional elections and a May runoff that put the highway back on the official agenda. Now, with an overwhelming victory for Morales’ MAS party in Cochabamba and a very narrow win in the Beni runoff, the national government seems committed to restarting the project. In the president’s words,
On the subject of integration, good voices come from the new governors of Beni [Alex Ferrier] and Cochabamba [Iván Canelas]. The Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos, comrades, will be realized.
En el tema de integración, buenas voces de los nuevos gobernadores de Beni (Alex Ferrier) y Cochabamba (Iván Canelas). El camino Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos, compañeros y compañeras, se realiza.
The announcement comes on the heels of a presidential decree (Guardian coverage) opening Bolivia’s twenty-two protected areas, principally national parks, to oil and gas drilling. TIPNIS is one of a number of national parks which are also titled indigenous territories. Previous legislation, and in some cases international standards for conservation, prohibited oil and gas operations. Bolivia’s Documentation and Information Centre (CEDIB) reports that eleven of the conservation areas are already overlapped by petroleum and gas concessions, including 428 thousand hectares of TIPNIS and 1.41 million hectares of Madidi National Park. It classifies Madidi and four other parks as “in danger of disappearing” due to the size of oil and gas concessions. Both highways and oil and gas facilities can have catalyzing effects on deforestation, since the routes they build through the forest serve as access pathways for other forest-destroying uses and transport corridors for timber and other forest products to be taken out of the area.
A variety of legal hurdles and practical difficulties still stand in the way a new highway through TIPNIS. The road will require national legislation which was put off in early 2013. This would also require accepting the 2012 consultation process, which independent observers, indigenous advocates, and road opponents have dismissed as failing to adhere to national and international standards. The financing for the road is also uncertain without any known foreign sponsor. Government promises to make an “ecological highway” have not been fleshed out, but any features to separate the road from the territory or mitigate its impact would only add to prior estimates of its cost.
Meanwhile, talk of restarting the road is brewing a political battle. Julia Molina, who assumed leadership of the Subcentral TIPNIS when Fernando Vargas began his candidacy for national office in 2014, pledged to mobilize women in the territory to campaign against the road. She brought up the previously envisioned international march in defense of the territory, which was suspended once the road project stalled.
We [in the feminine plural] are firm in our position of defending our territory and it has been said that if President Evo Morales “yes or yes” [a phrase used by Morales in 2011 meaning “definitely”] wants to run the highway through our territory, we are going to begin the international march which was left pending before.
Nosotras estamos firmes en nuestra posición de defender nuestro territorio y se ha dicho que si el presidente Evo Morales ‘sí o sí’ quiere trazar la carretera por medio de nuestro territorio, nosotras vamos a empezar la marcha internacional que quedó pendiente.
The TIPNIS conflict, and its gut-wrenching implications about the place of indigenous rights and environmental protection in Evo Morales’ government, is about to begin again.
Past coverage of TIPNIS on this blog.
Photo above: Bolivia’s indigenous movements march in defense of TIPNIS, 2011 (credit: Communications Commission of the march)