Protest in La Paz in support of TIPNIS indigenous march
Dario Kenner, La Paz
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24 September 2011
Yesterday there were marches in La Paz, Sucre, Trinidad and Oruro in support of the indigenous peoples who have been marching for over 40 days against the plan by President Evo Morales´government to build a road through the middle of the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory.For background see this article (https://boliviadiary.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/controversial-highway-plan-resisted-by-bolivia%C2%B4s-indigenous-peoples/).
The march in La Paz was led by leaders from the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ) and the Confederation of Bolivian Indigenous Peoples (CIDOB), who together represent all 36 indigenous nations in Bolivia, in solidarity with their comrades who are currently being stopped by police who are separtaing them from a blockade in the town of Yucumo – just where the Amazon meets the tropical valleys in north central Bolivia. The march started at 4.15pm and had around 3 thousand people on it including women’s groups, teacher’s trade unions, students and people from El Alto and La Paz.
I chatted with CONAMAQ leader Catalina Moreno (far right holding the banner). She told me she was on the protest to reinforce the march in defence of TIPNIS. She said it was urgent because the police are stopping the march, which includes children and elderly people, from continuing. Catalina was on the march at the start when it left Trinidad deep in Bolivia´s Amazon on 15 August 2011 until the town of San Ignacio (around 2 weeks). But then the difficult conditions were too much and she got tired. She shows me her shoes which you could say are not in the best condition and definitely not made for marching hundreds of kilometres.
This is Juan Carlos Antezana with his son leading the march. I was curious to find out how he ended up at the front. It turns out Juan has protested against the plan for the road through the TIPNIS national park by having himself held in a cage in the city of Cochabamba for 2 days and in Santa Cruz for 7 days. He tells me next week he will be put in a 1 metre x 1 metre cage here in La Paz.
The protest snaked its way through central La Paz and got to the front door of the Vice Presidency building. Tensions were building and the protest got very intense as people vented their anger against the Bolivian government. The main chant here was, “Evo you said that everything would change, lies lies the same old rubbish”.
After around an hour and a half the march ended up back in the square in front of the San Francisco church where it had started. There were speeches by representatives of CONAMAQ, CIDOB and the teachers trade union. The main messages were the urgent need to defend the Bolivian Constitution (specifically the right of the indigenous communities living inside TIPNIS to prior consultation which has not been met), Mother Earth and autonomous indigenous territories.
Antonio Machaca, former head of CONAMAQ, said, “Our national park is not for sale. The Bolivian people will impede the saqueo (looting) of our natural resources. We put in an indigenous government. It has an indigenous face but not an indigenous soul. We are the soul. The Bolivian people have to be more united than ever. We don´t just want discourse, we want action. The march must be allowed to continue. This is an warning against a government that lies to us”.
His shout of “Evo out” was met with loud shouts of “out, out , out”.
But not everyone supports the indigenous march in defence of TIPNIS and tensions are running very high. In the last few days there have been heated debates in the San Francisco square (see this video to give you an idea) and today there were a group shouting and whistling during all the speeches. There are many people who want the highway to be built because they say it will lead to development. The main accusation hurled at the protestors is that they are funded by right-wing politicians and NGOs, and that they want to bring down the Evo Morales government (for background see this article). Things threatened to get out of control at one point when a man aggressively approached the stage where the speeches were happening to provoke one of the CONAMAQ leaders and there were some kicks and punches thrown. Somehow I ended up in the middle trying to calm things down and eventually the man went away. He was probably surprised to see me!
Just when I thought everything was fine two groups suddenly formed shouting at each other. On one side were the pro-TIPNIS protestors who were “defending” the square from the pro-government group who were vocally criticising the speeches and the indigenous TIPNIS march. I told the one policeman present that it was about to kick off but he just walked away! The shouts got more aggressive: “The right will not pass!” “Traitors!” “MAS supporters go now!” “Evo out now!” “Don´t provoke us!”. In the end the pro-TIPNIS protestors moved forward as a group and pushed the pro-government group out of the square without their being any actual violence.
The hostility between groups I witnessed yesterday gives an idea of the polarisation affecting Bolivia at the moment. The final impacts of the TIPNIS conflict are not yet known as each day throws up surprises and revelations.
However, there are some trends that are important to watch. It looks like there are increasing divisions in the popular movement that mobilised since the Cochabamba Water War in 2000 as the TIPNIS conflict has provoked divisions between and within groups that marched together in the past such as: indigenous social movements, campesino social movements, trade unions, urban social movements, MAS supporters, Bolivian NGOs etc.
So what happens if the MAS government does not change the planned route of the highway? Yesterday there were protests in several major cities. There are more planned for next Tuesday 27 September. The actors who are uniting are becoming more and more diverse – these include right-wing opposition politicians who are taking advantage of the protests to chip away at the government´s popularity. If the Evo Morales government continues to insist on building the road inside the TIPNIS national park then the protests will only keep on growing…….