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The Road to Progress or the Road to Ruin?

On August 15, over 500 indigenous people departed the lowland tropical city of Trinidad, Bolivia on a 300+ mile march to the highland capital La Paz in protest of a proposed highway construction through the “TIPNIS” indigenous territory and ecological reserve. The government of Evo Morales, with a number of union supporters, claims the highway is the road to progress. Indigenous peoples argue it is an infringement on their territorial rights and the road to ecological ruin. Since the march began, the conflict has gripped Bolivian society and sparked global debates over the meaning of development.

The Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park—known in Bolivia by its Spanish acronym TIPNIS—is a 2.9 million acre protected area that is home to 64 indigenous communities. Its boundaries are formed by the Sécure River to the North and the Isiboro River to the South, with a number of rivers within the area coming down from the Andean foothills to form the Amazon Basin. Created in 1965, the park protects these rivers, which are vital sources of food and transportation, and provide habitat for numerous endemic species. The park is a crossroads of diverse ecosystems, from Subandean montaine forest at 9000 feet above sea level, to the headwaters of the Amazon basin, to the lowland plains. This location also makes it critical to regulating the hydrology and climate for surrounding agricultural valleys.

More than a mere nature reserve, TIPNIS represents a historic victory of indigenous struggles for land, autonomy and cultural recognition. The heavy push to expand agriculture, logging, ranching and extractive industries into the Amazon in the 1960s challenged Amazonian Indians to organize in defense of their lands and resources. In 1982, the Confederation of Lowland Indigenous People of Bolivia was formed (CIDOB in Spanish), quickly becoming a force to reckon with in national politics. CIDOB organized the first “Indigenous March for Territory and Dignity” in August 1990, a historic event that is being replicated today. The 1990 march pressured the government into creating TIPNIS, giving Mojeño, Yuracaré and Chimán communities exclusive jurisdiction over natural resource management within the park.

The TIPNIS highway project now threatens to cut the park in half, from North to South, to connect the tropical cities of San Ignacio de Moxos and Villa Tunari. Critics argue that the road will open up the region to widespread deforestation, pollution, loss of biodiversity and disruption of livelihoods. TIPNIS communities argue that the project violates their territorial rights and their indigenous right to consultation, conferred by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) ratified by Bolivia in 1989. The Bolivian government, evoking notions of progress and modernity, argues that the road is critical to the country’s development strategy. But many Bolivians, even traditional Evo supporters, question who the project will actually benefit.

The TIPNIS road construction has its origins in the 1990s, when president Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada wished to transform Bolivia’s historic disadvantage—its landlocked location—into a comparative advantage. The plan was to turn Bolivia into South America’s energy and transit “hub”. Roads linking Bolivia to neighboring countries were prioritized over the crumbling domestic road system, which was left in the hands of local municipalities. In 2000, Goni’s plan became part of a larger vision for South American integration, spearheaded by former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, known as IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America).

Like the mega-development projects of the past—those that led to the 1980s debt crisis—IIRSA projects are largely financed by debt. These include highways, railways, large dams, hydroelectric plants, and oil and gas pipelines—projects with high environmental and livelihood impacts. Eighty percent of the funding for the TIPNIS highway comes from the development bank of Brazil (BNDS), which is seen as having the most to gain from the construction. The highway will give Brazil more direct access to its biggest trading partner, China. Brazilians also control increasing amounts of land in Eastern Bolivia for industrial soy production. As the world’s largest soy exporter, Brazil’s influence has brought with it a model of large-scale monoculture—with chemical inputs and GM seeds—that has expanded dramatically into the Amazon.

This foreign control over Bolivian resources may seem contradictory, considering Evo’s resource nationalism. But in fact, new economic partnerships with Brazil, Venezuela and China (now Bolivia’s three largest creditors) have helped the country break a deep dependence on U.S. aid and influence. The nationalization of resources, supported by these key allies, also led to historic wealth redistribution, using the country’s natural resources to benefit the poor instead of multinational corporations. Morales now hopes to expand this project by further developing the country’s natural resources—including possibly tapping petroleum deposits thought to be located inside TIPNIS. However, he is coming up against strong social organizations that—after decades of struggle—refuse to be left out of the loop of these development decisions.

Alliances with civil society and highland organizations have been critical to the strength of this movement. For instance, CONAMAQ, the confederation of highland Aymara and Quechua Indians, lent their support to the cause, joining the march as it began the difficult climb into the Andes. Public opinion in support of TIPNIS was galvanized by events on September 25, when the indigenous marchers were blocked by police with beatings and teargas. Two government ministers resigned as a result. And Morales, who previously insisted the project would go forward “whether they liked it or not,” suspended the highway’s construction, calling for a referendum on the project. TIPNIS leaders, initially outraged at the lack of community consultation, now insist they will accept nothing less than the cancellation of the project.

The TIPNIS conflict has called into question a development ideology that sees the industrialization of natural resources as the only road to progress. But can we envision another way? The exhaustion of our resources and the advance of climate change suggest that an alternative is urgently needed. As protests all over the world are now demanding, putting development back in the hands of local communities is the place to start.

Tanya Kerssen is a policy analyst at Food First/the Institute for Food and Development Policy. 

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