Controversial highway plan resisted by Bolivia´s indigenous peoples

Dario Kenner, La Paz

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21 September 2011

Protests in Bolivia are hitting the international headlines again. This time the conflict is between Bolivia´s first indigenous government, led by President Evo Morales, and indigenous peoples. The controversy causing shockwaves at home and abroad is the plan by the government to build a highway through the middle of a national park that is also a recognised autonomous indigenous territory called TIPNIS (Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory).

[The first part of this article summarises the TIPNIS conflict to date. The second part goes into more detail on the Government Position (Accusations against the United States and NGOs) and the Marcher Position (Demands, Attitude of Morales government). The third part deals with the underlying issues: Consultation, Land distribution, Coca and Regional Integration – IIRSA]


The key issue

The indigenous social movements have made it clear they are not against the plan to build a highway to link the regions of Cochabamba and Beni. What they are protesting about is that the Bolivian government have not done prior consultation and that the planned highway would go right through the middle of their territory of just over a million hectares – territory that was handed over to them by President Morales in 2009.

Route of highway

Route of highway

The failure to do prior consultation violates international agreements ratified by Bolivia such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Labour Organisation Convention 169. Also, more surprisingly, it violates the new historic Bolivian Constitution approved in February 2009. This was the showpiece legislation of the current Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government that enshrines the rights of indigenous peoples. In the past week the government has announced it will begin the process of consultation. However, for the consultation to be prior the building of the road has to stop, which has not happened.

As the map shows the current planned route of the highway would go directly through the virtually untouched nucleus of the national park which is an area of exceptional biodiversity. There are over 700 species of fauna and 400 species of flora, and the forests in the park play a crucial role in regulating water cycles and the climate. A study estimates that 64% of the national park would be lostwithin 18 years if the road is built.

The curious thing is that if the government were to change the route of the highway so that it did not go through the TIPNIS, the march would stop. The question that everyone is asking is: why does the highway have to go along that specific route? So far nobody knows for sure, but the rumour goes that there is oil inside TIPNIS.

Polarisation across Bolivia

The last four weeks have seen accusation and counter accusation as the Bolivian government and the marchers play a game of cat and mouse which has led to seven failed attempts at dialogue. The government blames the indigenous marchers for refusing to dialogue or for the failure of dialogue when it has briefly begun. Meanwhile the marchers have criticised the attitude of the government and refuse to begin dialogue until work on the highway stops.

Statements like this one hardly helped to create the conditions for dialogue. Referring to their being children on the march, Minister of Public Works Walter Delgadillo said, “If they want to sacrifice their children, then they can go to Plaza Murillo [main square in La Paz] and crucify themselves

What began as a march of around 500 indigenous peoples on 15 August, on a 500+ kilometre route from the Bolivian Amazon to La Paz, has now escalated into a political crisis that is dividing opinion across society. The march now has nearly 1,500 indigenous peoples taking part.

A huge political debate is raging with both sides receiving support from different sectors of society. Local authorities in Cochabamba and populations in towns such as San Ignacio de Moxos in the Amazon want the motorway so they will be better linked up with the rest of the country to sell their products. The cocaleros (coca growers), staunch government allies, also strongly back the highway. Meanwhile the march is receiving support from miners in Oruro and Potosi, indigenous peoples blockading roads in Bolivia´s northern Amazon and the east of the country, and university students in the main cities such as La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

However, what often gets lost in the vitriol are the basic facts of the crisis that the indigenous peoples’ right to be consulted has been violated and that they do not reject the construction of a highway as long as it does not go through the TIPNIS. As the Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) said on 20 September on Radio Erbol, “This is not about intransigence. This is about rights that are clear and have been violated”. 

March in defense of the TIPNIS

March in defense of the TIPNIS

The current situation

Despite the indigenous peoples spending over a month marching, including with children and elderly people (there is a 99 year old marching!), in very difficult conditions and without proper supplies it is clear they are determined to reach an agreement that they feel will defend their rights and territory. For them this means the highway not going through the TIPNIS. It is surprising the Bolivian government has let the conflict go on this long because each day the issue generates more controversy which includes international petitions.

There are potential solutions such as changing the route of the highway, but so far the government refuses to budge. If the march gets to La Paz it is likely it would get support from people in the city, who have already held marches in solidarity with the indigenous peoples, and this is exactly why the Morales government does not want the march to get to La Paz and is doing all it can to prevent this happening. Social movements allied with the government like the coca growers (cocaleros) could also make an appearance.

Police block the march from advancing to La Paz

Police block the march from advancing to La Paz

Will the march get to La Paz?

There are still over 250 kilometresto go out of the total 500+ kilometres. There is currently a highly tense standoff due to a blockade which has been set up in Yucumo and the presence of 400 police who are stopping the marchers from advancing. An important rural social movement, the Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (CSCIB), have been blockading in support of the highway and to demand the removal of five of the marcher’s demands (see full set of demands in part 2) and that the marchers dialogue with the government. This last point does not make sense because the very aim of the march is to get to La Paz and dialogue with the government. Everyone is praying there will not be any violent clashes, but the members of CSCIB who have been maintaining this blockade in Yucumo for over two weeks have threatened to stop the march from progressing – even though the indigenous march is peaceful and is not obstructing the road.

It is also unclear what the role of the 400 police deployed by the government is. Are they there to prevent clashes between the CSCIB and the march? Or are they blocking the route for the march to pass as the indigenous peoples claim? It is strange that the police have not removed the Yucumo blockade (which supports the government position) and yet have quickly moved to end two blockades in the Santa Cruz region by the Ayorero and Guarani peoples in support of the TIPNIS march. The police used tear gas on both occasions, resulting in injuries. The Ombudsman has publicly stated that both the Yucumo blockade and the police preventing the passage of the march go against the Bolivian Constitution which guarantees freedom of movement.

If there were any deaths or injuries in clashes it would lead to a major escalation of the TIPNIS conflict and engulf the country in a deep political crisis with unpredictable consequences for both the MAS government and the process of change.

President Evo Morales, Plurinational State of Bolivia

President Evo Morales, Plurinational State of Bolivia


Government position

President Evo Morales, “Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road“, 29 June 2011

President Evo Morales, “What will Bolivia live from? In the past our struggle was for electricity and highways, we wanted more economic resources. [Now] in comparison indigenous social movements oppose these plans that generate social and economic development”, 26 July 2011

Development and reducing poverty

The Bolivian government says the highway will lead to development for the indigenous communities living in TIPNIS, the regions of Beni and Cochabamba and for the country as whole. The government maintains that agricultural producers in Beni and Cochabamba will have increased access to markets for their goods and that the highway will increase the integration of Bolivia and access to electricity and public services. However, maps contradict the government claim the road will link up the indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS because the road would actually not go through the east of the national park where most of the communities are located.

The MAS government has a very difficult balancing act to achieve as it seeks to improve living conditions in South America´s poorest country whilst also minimising damage to the environment. This was always going to be extremely difficult when in 2006 the MAS inherited an economy estimated to be 80% based on extractive industries (mining, oil and gas). Meanwhile on the world stage the Morales government has been very vocal in defence of the rights of Mother Earth.

The quandary for the government is that it needs to continue to generate income from somewhere to pay for social programmes to reduce poverty. At present the government is taking advantage of vastly improved contracts re-written in 2006 with the multinational companies who exploit the country´s oil and gas to use the increased tax to pay for targeted social programmes benefiting young children and the elderly. Statistics show that in 2005, 5.71 million of the population lived in poverty, falling to 5.17 million in 2010. Urban poverty fell from 51.5% in 2005 to 41.7% in 2010 while rural poverty fell from 77.6% to 65.1%. In terms of inequality, in 2005 the 10% of people who earned the highest incomes got 128 times the amount of income that the lowest 10% of income earners received. By 2009 this figure was 60 times.

Open to dialogue and criticism of demands

The government has tried on seven attempts to start a dialogue with the indigenous marchers to resolve the conflict. On some occasions the high level delegations sent by the government have been rejected. On others a dialogue has begun, such as in San Borja on 2-5 September where several ministers discussed options for the route of the road (all of which went through the TIPNIS).

The government has also criticised the fact that the 16 demands of the march were only presented once the march had already started (see full set of demands below). They have particularly criticised the demand to “stop all hydrocarbons activity in the Aguaragüe park” as this would reduce the income generated from taxing foreign multinationals which is used for social programmes. The marchers say they are not asking for all hydrocarbons activity to be stopped, what they demand is that unused oil wells are cleared up because they are contaminating local water supplies.

Failed dialogue between government ministers and marchers: San Borja 2-5 September

Failed dialogue between government ministers and marchers: San Borja 2-5 September

Inconsistent demand? REDD

The government has also heavily criticised the demand to “recognise the right of indigenous peoples in Bolivia to receive a compensation for the mitigation of greenhouse gases due to the environmental function of indigenous territories” – essentially receiving payment for carbon capture by forests. This is the concept behind the initiative called Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), which is a mechanism currently being designed within the United Nations Climate Change negotiations (UNFCCC). The Bolivian government has pointed out the contradiction in demanding compensation via REDD, which it says commodifies forests and is linked to carbon markets, whilst saying the march is in defence of Mother Earth. The government is correct to criticise this inconsistency. It is very likely that this demand was promoted by some leaders within CIDOB who are involved in pilot REDD projects funded by the Conservationist NGO called FAN (Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza). Having had contact with CIDOB on the climate change negotiations I know this is not a CIDOB movement-wide position on REDD.

The government has also claimed that indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS have contracts with illegal loggers and that building the road would increase state presence in the area and help to control deforestation. This claim is very suspect as it does not take an expert to figure out that where a road is built through a forest (e.g. the Brazilian Amazon) there is deforestation. It is already known that there are illegal loggers inside the TIPNIS. But this means the government through the respective agencies such as the Bolivian Agency for Protected Areas (SERNAP) should allocate more resources to investigate and stop this illegal logging.

 “Interests” taking advantage of the march

The MAS administration has repeatedly accused other “interests” such as USAID, NGOs and right wing politicians of using the march to attack the government and undermine the process of change. I deal with USAID and NGOs below. What is certain is that right wing deputies, senators and the right wing controlled media are using the indigenous march to launch an all-out attack on the MAS government and its policies. Perhaps the most frequent criticism is that the government is contradicting its own discourse of defence of indigenous peoples and the environment. The irony being that if right wing parties were in government they would never dream of respecting these rights or the environment.

Since 15 August the march has had makeshift camps as it advances on the route towards La Paz

Since 15 August the march has had makeshift camps as it advances on the route towards La Paz

Marcher position

Adolfo Chávez, Head of CIDOB: “Each Bolivian has the right to freedom. But if this government does not know how to respect collective rights then it will definitely not know how to respect individual rights. We have tried many times to contact President Morales and to meet with him to discuss TIPNIS but they never listen to us. It was when they heard the President say, “Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road”, that the brothers demanded the march. We need blankets because it is very cold. We ask for medicines because many have colds. For the children and women we need shoes because it will be very cold when we get to La Paz. This is how we will get through it. The government does not want to listen to us and demonises us.” 24 August 2011

Female marcher interviewed on TV channel UNO: “The President is where he is now because of us. Just like he is there now we can remove him from there. I am suffering, I will march, I might die”. 8 September

Interview on Radio Erbol, Lázaro Tacó CIDOB: “The government does not want to defend indigenous rights. History repeats itself, they want to eliminate indigenous peoples”, 12 September

The march was called by the TIPNIS Subcentral which represents the approximately 12,000 Mojeño, Chiman and Yuracaré indigenous peoples living inside the national park and indigenous territory. The TIPNIS Subcentral is part of the Confederation of Bolivian Indigenous Peoples (CIDOB ) representing 34 indigenous nations mainly from the Amazon. The National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), which represents Aymara and Quechua peoples from the western highlands and central valleys, also joined the march from the beginning.

Rejection of accusations

The position of the marchers is that they are not against development and the building of a highway between Cochabmaba and Beni just as long as it does not go through the TIPNIS. They say they have rejected the government’s numerous attempts to hold dialogue because of its attitude, with daily criticism of the marchers and statements saying that the route of the highway will not change. They want prior consultation to be implemented but for this to happen the road building has to stop.

The marchers’ determination to carry on has been reinforced by the tragedies they have suffered. Three of the marchers have died since 15 August. First, 13 year old Pedro Moye Noza died on 21 August after falling from the car accompanying the march and suffering a fatal head injury. Then, on 5 September, 8 year old Juan Uche Noe died from diarrhoea and intestinal diseases. Finally, almost unbelievably, a plane crashed in the Amazon on 8 September and one of those on board was an indigenous leader called Eddy Martínez.

The marchers have repeatedly rejected the government’s claims that the march is being orchestrated by “interests” and say these are all attempts to publicly undermine the march which has a legitimate cause – the lack of consultation about a project in an autonomous indigenous territory. Guaraní leader Celso Padilla said on Radio Erbol on 21 August, “Only someone with the mind of a Spanish conquistador cannot accept that indigenous peoples have their own initiative to defend their rights”.

Are the United States, USAID and NGOs behind the TIPNIS march?

President Morales caused a scandal on 21 August 2011 when on live TV he showed a log of phone calls that three of the key leaders from the march (Indigenous parliamentarian Pedro Nuni, CONAMAQ leader Rafael Quispe and the wife of Adolfo Chavez, head of CIDOB) had received from the United States Embassy in La Paz. Four weeks later and the government have still not revealed any concrete evidence showing any link between the United States and the march. Despite this the government has debated whether to expel the US official development agency USAID, with the head of the border agency and several parliamentarians calling for this to happen. However, the move to show the log of phone calls was heavily criticised for invasion of privacy and for violating the Constitution – an individual´s phone can only be monitored if there is a court case against them. The CONAMAQ leader Rafael Quispe has threatened to file a case directly against President Morales for violating his privacy and for alleging his guilt before proving he has actually committed a crime.

The government has also repeatedly claimed that NGOs are financing the march – and recently that these NGOs want to form a political party. These claims are not new and have been made by the MAS government before. At the insistence of the government a multi-party commission has now begun to investigate links between NGOs and the march, including funding sources, budgets and bank accounts. There is no secret here. NGOs do fund projects with social movements in Bolivia and supported the founding of both CIDOB (in 1982) and CONAMAQ (in 1997). I don´t think anyone can really be against this support that NGOs gave, which has strengthened the capacity of the 36 indigenous nations represented by CIDOB and CONAMAQ to fight for their rights, as enshrined in international norms such as ILO Convention 169.

However, it is one thing for an NGO to fund institutional development or rural development projects with a social movement, and another to fund this march, which would be an explicitly political act. What the multi-party commission will likely find is that all social movements (including allies of the government) do receive funding for specific projects or their day to day activities. The irony in attacking NGOs is that several ministers in the MAS administration (most prominently Carlos Romero, Minister of the Presidency, ex-director of CEJIS) worked for these same NGOs. That said, it is important to remember that there are different types of NGOs. There are those who always give technical support but never go above the protagonism of social movements. Then there are others who put their name everywhere and try to speak on behalf of social movements. I have met both types and would say the majority of NGOs that directly support social movements are very clear that they facilitate rather than speak in the name of social movements.

The point is that these types of accusations do not change the fact that the reason the march began is that the indigenous peoples who live in TIPNIS have a legitimate cause because their right to consultation had been violated.

This is also why the march is now making 16 demands in total rather than just the issue of the highway. This march has become a symbolic battle for Bolivia´s indigenous peoples (from both the highlands and lowlands) to defend their rights and their territories. This is why the indigenous social movement CONAMAQ from the highlands that has officially recognised indigenous territories in other parts of Bolivia is marching in solidarity with indigenous peoples from the Amazon. For them, if the government succeeds in violating the rights to consultation and for indigenous peoples to decide what happens on their territories in this case, then all indigenous territories in Bolivia will be under threat.

The demands include:

  • stopping of hydrocarbon exploitation in the Aguaragüe Park,
  • compensation from REDD projects (these two demands are discussed above),
  • respect for indigenous territories,
  • development of and implementation of the right to be consulted,
  • forestry Law,
  • legislation on Protected Areas,
  • rural development and de-centralisation of budgets,
  • consolidate indigenous autonomy,
  • an Indigenous University,
  • access to health care for indigenous peoples,
  • national census,
  • housing plans,
  • policies to clean up the contaminated Pilcomayo river,
  • access to communication and information for indigenous peoples,
  • compliance with the agreement made in May 2010 with the Guarani Peoples Assembly.

Outrageous accusations

In addition the marchers have been further angered by a series of farcical and shocking incidents.

The government was criticised again for invasion of privacy after it released images on 29 August of indigenous parliamentarian Pedro Nuni and publicly criticised him for temporarily leaving the march to go to his house and drink alcohol. It turned out he had been at his daughter’s birthday party.

On 6 September Roberto Coraite, head of the biggest social movement in Bolivia the CSUTCB (Committee of the Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers) and loyal ally of the government, caused outrage when he said the highway should be built to stop the indigenous peoples inside the TIPNIS living like “wild animals”. He later said his comments had been misinterpreted but the damage has already been done. It is very unlikely the indigenous social movements (CIDOB and CONAMAQ) will work with the CSUTCB in the immediate future, which would mean a division between Bolivia´s main rural social movements grouped together in the Unity Pact (Pacto de Unidad).

In summary, the marchers have refused to enter into dialogue with the government because it has repeatedly condemned the march, because the work on the highway continues and therefore any prior consultation is invalidated and finally because demands that President Morales dialogues directly with the marchers have not been met. They fear that if they were to accept the repeated invitations by the government to send a commission of representatives to dialogue in the Presidential Palace then the government would use this opportunity to divide the march. When dialogue did start in San Borja the marches ended it because the government only presented them with routes that still went through the TIPNIS.

CONAMAQ leaders ceremony for Pachamama as march sets off from Trinidad 15 August

CONAMAQ leaders ceremony for Pachamama as march sets off from Trinidad 15 August




Below I briefly touch on some of the pertinent issues linked to this very complex conflict. They are: Right of indigenous peoples to consultation, Mother Earth and the need to “develop”, Unequal land distribution, Coca, and Regional Integration (IIRSA).

Right of indigenous peoples to consultation

The MAS government has already violated the right of the indigenous communities living in TIPNIS to be consulted because any consultation on a project that will affect an indigenous territory must be done before the project begins. This is not an option for the MAS government it is an obligation. Bolivia has ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and International Labour Organisation Convention 169. Both these pieces of international legislation and the Bolivian Constitution approved in 2009 clearly state that indigenous peoples have the right to prior consultation and in good faith (Bolivian Constitution articles 30, 343, 352: UNDRIP articles 19 and 32: ILO 169 article 6).

The Bolivian government claims the project has not begun inside the indigenous territory of TIPNIS because the highway project is split into three sections (the second section supposedly goes through TIPNIS). However, this is not true because the contract with the Brazilian company OAS building the motorway (available here in Spanish) does not refer to three sections, therefore once work has begun on any part of the highway it means it has begun on all of the highway. In addition there is already evidence that work has begun on the highway inside of TIPNIS. This means the Bolivian government has not only violated the right to prior consultation but also the right of indigenous peoples to decide on development projects within their territories (UNDRIP articles 18 and 23: ILO 169 article 7).

The government is now offering to do the consultation even though it is late. For this to be prior consultation all construction of the highway has to stop. The offer by the government has brought into question who is entitled to be consulted. Legislation clearly states that the only people to be consulted are the indigenous peoples (ILO 169 article 1) and that the consultation must be via their representative institutions (Bolivian Constitution article 30: UNDRIP articles 19 and 32: ILO 169 article 6). In the case of TIPNIS the representative institutions are the TIPNIS Subcentral and Sécure Subcentral that represent the 64 communities living inside the TIPNIS of Yuracaré, Chiman and Moxeño peoples.

The suggestion by the government to also consult the 15,000 coca growing (cocaleros) families who have already occupied the southern part of the TIPNIS national park has been rejected by the marchers who have pointed out it would violate the articles above that state the consultation can only be with the representative indigenous institutions. In fact these 15,000 families are not even inside the official indigenous territory because the area they occupied was separated from the TIPNIS when the land title was handed over in 2009.

Furthermore, on 11 September the government said that any consultation would not be binding –and that there were eight proposals for the route of the highway – all go through TIPNIS.

On 14 September the marchers released a public statement condemning the government for beginning the process of consultation with some of the indigenous communities within the TIPNIS. The marchers made it clear this consultation must be with ALL the 64 communities of the TIPNIS, must be prior to the construction of the highway and must be in good faith. They therefore reject the government’s announcement that it will begin the consultation on 25 September 2011. As the marchers point out, the representative institutions (the TIPNIS Subcentral through which the consultation is meant to be carried out) are marching. So holding a consultation without these institutions being present is illegal.

Further information I wrote about consultation in relation to TIPNIS here in Spanish

TIPNIS national park. White areas have been deforested. The area in the south has been occupied by coca growers and is no longer part of the official indigenous autonomous territory: Bolivian Agency for Protected Areas (SERNAP) August 2011

TIPNIS national park. White areas have been deforested. The area in the south has been occupied by coca growers and is no longer part of the official indigenous autonomous territory: Bolivian Agency for Protected Areas (SERNAP) August 2011


For clarification on the difference between coca and cocaine see this article. Critics of the highway (from both left and right) say it would lead to increased occupation of areas of the TIPNIS national park by cocaleros (coca growers). While at the moment this is just a claim, there is already evidence to suggest this could happen. The southern area of the national park has been in a process of occupation by cocaleros since the 1970s (see map above showing area “Poligono 7) and eventually was separated from the official indigenous territory in 2009. This has even led to the forced assimilation of indigenous communities within the occupied area – of those who have remained some now work for the cocaleros. Within this area the main product grown is coca. Given that the planned route of the highway would go through the occupied area and then into the virtually untouched parts of the national park, it can be assumed the cocaleros would use this road.

report published by the United Nations last week also reveals that whilst the overall level of hectares used to produce coca in Bolivia has remained stable the percentage has gone up inside the TIPNIS national park by 9% compared with 2009.

Mother Earth and the need to “develop”

The elections of Bolivia´s first indigenous President Evo Morales in December 2005 brought great expectations of a new social and economic model. This would be difficult to implement in a country with an economy based on extractive industries (as mentioned above) and is not something that would happen in a few years. However, the Morales government, with heavy influence from the Vice President Álvaro García Linera, has pursued a policy of deepening this extractive model to then redistribute resources through social programmes.

The difficult question is: will there be a new model of “development” in Bolivia? This is obviously not going to happen instantly, but one indication of the direction of the government is taking is that it has yet to pass a proposal for a Law of Mother Earth that could be the beginning of a transition to a new model. The Guardian reported on this initiative in April 2010. This law would give rights to nature and set in place the duties of the state, private companies and individuals to reduce their impact on the environment. A basic law of the rights of Mother Earth was approved in December 2010 but this full comprehensive law is yet to be passed despite the promise of the government to do so in January 2011, July and again in September.

The feeling of many people here in Bolivia is that the result of this conflict could be defining for the development model implemented in the future. If the march is victorious and the government is forced to change the route of the highway it could mean that the Morales administration would have to respect all other indigenous territories and national parks where there are natural resources to be exploited. Or, if the government is victorious and the highway gets built through TIPNIS, the result could be that all other national parks and indigenous territories would be open to be exploited.

Unequal land distribution – dispute distracts from powerful landowners in the east

On the surface the TIPNIS highway issue is turning into a conflict between some of the important rural social movements, including the cocaleros and the Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (CSCIB) who do not identify themselves as indigenous, and self-identified indigenous peoples. However, the real issue is inequality in land distribution and the quality of land. The cocaleros and Intercultural Communities claim that indigenous peoples have been given millions of hectares in collective land titles whilst they, campesinos (broadly translated as small scale farmers and, in the case of the Intercultural communities, Aymara and Quechua migrants from the western highlands), have been given little in comparison. In an interview in May 2010 the former head of the INRA (National Institute for Agrarian Reform) said that between 1996 and 2010 his institution had given land titles of 21 million hectares to the government, 21 million hectares to indigenous territories (TCOs), 6 million hectares as communal titles to campesinos, 2 million hectares to small campesino properties, nearly 2 million to medium sized properties and 1.8 million hectares to agro-industry companies. In this sense the campesinos have cause to complain because in total they received around 8 million hectares compared to the indigenous peoples who received 21 million hectares.

However, just taking these statistics means one forgets that the people who have the most hectares per person and, crucially, the best quality farming land are the big landowners in the east of the country. In 2005 the UNDP estimated that just 100 families owned 25 million hectares of land. I don´t think anyone would deny that campesinos have less land on which to grow their crops, but the real target here should not be the indigenous peoples whose ancestral territories on which they have lived on for centuries have been recognised and given to them. The real target should be the landowners mainly concentrated in the region of Santa Cruz – many of whom were, incidentally, given their land titles illegally by dictators in the 1970s and 1980s.

Regional integration programme promoted by Brazil – IIRSA

Map of IIRSA focus areas in Latin America

Map of IIRSA focus areas in Latin America

Brazil is now the seventh largest economy in the world. Brazil´s principal trading routes with China are via the Panama Canal, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope. The route that is yet to be fully developed is west of Brazil to the Pacific crossing Bolivia and Peru or Chile. Vice President Álvaro García Linera argues the planned highway connecting Cochabamba and Beni is 300 km from the border with Brazil and is vertical so the project therefore cannot be a transoceanic corridor for Brazil to get its products to the Pacific. However, what he cannot deny is that this project is part of the hundreds of integration projects proposed in the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) since 2000, which is strongly backed by Brazil for the obvious reason that it means Brazil will be better able to exploit natural resources in Latin America and trade with China. In addition the Brazilian state development bank is providing 332 million dollars (80% of the total cost) to fund the highway project.

The other potential interest for Brazil is building the highway along the exact route proposed through the TIPNIS is that there might be oil there. The Minister of Hydrocarbons publicly stated there is oil in TIPNIS on 10 August 2011. The Brazilian state company Petrobras is already very active in Bolivia and there is speculation it might have an agreement with the Bolivian government to explore and exploit this oil. But for the moment we do not know because the Bolivian government keeps on insisting the highway is for the integration and development of Bolivia. There are already many struggles across Latin America against IIRSA and Brazil´s attempts to dominate the region, and some are linking the TIPNIS highway to this regional context.


Although the debate has become very politicised it is important to bear in mind that the indigenous peoples of the TIPNIS right to prior consent has not been complied with and this is the why they are marching. Others such as the right-wing media and right wing politicians are taking advantage of the situation and the danger is that the longer the conflict goes on the more they undermine not only the MAS government but also the process of change. The right-wing were politically defeated in the 2009 general elections when the MAS got a two thirds majority in the Plurinational Assembly and Senate. However, they are very vocal and still hold the economic power.

Possible scenarios

Nobody really knows what the outcome of all this will be so I will not try to give any definitive answers. But there are several scenarios that could play out.

  • The result of the conflict could define whether or not other national parks and indigenous territories will be opened up for exploitation.
  • The indigenous march could stop due to internal divisions or pressure from the government.
  • There could be clashes between the indigenous march and other sectors such as cocaleros. If this were to happen the outcomes would be very unpredictable but would be a serious blow to the MAS government.
  • Such is the polarisation (and fear of clashes) there could be deep divisions in the popular movement that mobilised between 2000 and 2005 (The Water War, The Gas War etc) and that created the conditions for the MAS to win the 2005 election.
  • The march could get to La Paz where people from El Alto and La Paz could join it to form a massive popular protest that would force the Morales government to cave in.
  • There was some hope when Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca briefly visited the march to listen to their demands on 13 September. Although he talked about defending Mother Earth he also said the highway had to go through TIPNIS. Broadly speaking he is associated as supporting a position focusing on Mother Earth and indigenous rights. Within the cabinet those who support Vice President Álvaro García Linera take a line based on redistributing income from extractive industries. If the TIPNIS march is victorious it could strengthen the position of Choquehuanca within the cabinet that could then potentially lead to moving away from the dominant García Linera vision.

There are several unanswered questions to reflect on:

Q: Why does the highway have to go along the specific planned route through the middle of the TIPNIS?

Q: Why is the MAS government risking everything over the TIPNIS conflict? This is a conflict that could have been avoided a long time ago by either organising the prior consultation or by changing the route of the highway. Now, after one month, the conflict has exploded and whoever loses (which could be the government) will suffer a major political blow. Why has the MAS government allowed the conflict to escalate and be so protracted?

I welcome comments on the information above. It is difficult to cover such complex issues so briefly.

It would be great to hear what other people have to say about the TIPNIS conflict, about how consultation with indigenous peoples has worked/not worked in other countries, opinions on what all this means for the future of the Bolivian process. Leave your comments at the end of this blog or email me directly: dariokenner at

Daily updates on TIPNIS conflict at Twitter: @dariokenner         

15 Responses to “Controversial highway plan resisted by Bolivia´s indigenous peoples”
  1. Pinguino says:

    This is a very full discussion of the issues. I think there must be oil in the forest, otherwise Evo Morales’ actions don’t make sense. It’s worrying to think what could happen to the marchers. I hope they reach La Paz and that the government changes its mind!

  2. Thanks for this post. If you are interested in help you can sign the AVAAZ petition at you can follow real time news at @TIPNISResiste and read news, documents and reviews at (spanish)

  3. Leon Galindo says:

    By far the most comprehensive article I have seen in english so far on the TIPNIS march and related issues. I haven’t read it in enough detail yet but a quick read seems to show that overall, the facts are correct, the interpretations and explanations quite neutral and overall seem quite apolitical (some references to the “bolivan right” aside)… in short, a solid piece. Thanks Dario, have been looking for something like this for a while.

    For original materials and other insights on the TIPNIS, see:,, and a large database of related news, editorials, columns, documents, and multimedia on (requires doble click).

  4. jose says:

    Pinguino, it doesn’t make sense because there is a lot of miss information, just to mention one line “highway would go directly through the virtually untouched nucleus of the national park”

    Is a Road not a highway, is not Virtually untouched there is roads (illegal roads) and is only 22 Km. long the road that go trough the nucleus.

    You see, this is not a government initiative this is a necessity that people demands.

  5. abercrombie says:

    Para ellos significa que la autopista no atravesará el. Es sorprendente que el gobierno boliviano haya permido que el conflicto durara tanto, porque cada día el problema genera más controversia que incluye peticiones internacionales.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] the blog Bolivia Diary, Dario Kenner explains the conflict in depth and writes about the conditions the marchers have been […]

  2. […] an overview of the issue, see “Controversial highway plan resisted by Bolivia’s indigenous peoples” by Bolivia Diary. […]

  3. […] Bolivia Diary [Diario de Bolivia; en]uka blogunxa, Dario Kenner ukax kayuk jutirinakax yanqhachapxiw sasaw qilqt'as uñt'ayi: A pesar de todo los indígenas llevan más de un mes marchando, incluyendo niños y ancianos (¡hay alguien de 99 años marchando!), en condiciones muy difíciles y sin los insumos apropiados, está claro que están determinados a llegar a un acuerdo por el que defenderán sus derechos y su territorio. Para ellos significa que la autopista no atravesará el TIPNIS. Es sorprendente que el gobierno boliviano haya permido que el conflicto durara tanto, porque cada día el problema genera más controversia que incluye peticiones internacionales. Kayuk jutapxtapax mä phaxsi jilaxiwa, wawanaka jilir chuyman tata mamanaka, (ukankiwa mayni 99n maranixa) Muspkayawa, aka sartasiwinak jilïr irpirinakax jan jank'as askichapxtapaxa, aka jan walt'awinakax internacionales uksanakarus jan wal uñjayi. […]

  4. […] between the Bolivian government led by President Evo Morales and the indigenous marchers who oppose the building of a road through the indigenous territory and national park called […]

  5. […] a press conference this morning President Evo Morales said the road project his goverment has been determined to build will not go through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory. This is a dramatic change […]

  6. […] blog Bolivia Diary [en], Dario Kenner explica o conflito em profundidade e escreve sobre as condições enfrentadas […]

  7. National Conference blog…

    this article was written in a unique manner….

  8. […] Plans to build the controversial road, with Brazilian financing, were met with stiff resistance by indigenous residents and galvanized significant numbers Bolivians throughout the country, as summarized by Bolivia Diary. […]

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