Bolivia Amazon road dispute dents Evo Morales' support

Bolivia's President Evo Morales, top, attends a ritual ceremony honouring Pachamama, Mother Earth, at the government palace in La Paz, Bolivia, 28 September, 2011 Evo Morales argues the road will benefit people throughout Bolivia

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The election of Evo Morales in 2005 as Bolivia's first indigenous president represented a triumph for the country's indigenous majority.

Mr Morales, an Aymara Indian, promised radical change to end centuries of discrimination and marginalisation.

On the international stage, he also established himself as an uncompromising defender of what he calls Pachamama - "Mother Earth".

Six years on, that reputation has been tarnished.

Mr Morales stands accused of authorising excessive police force against indigenous protesters - charges he denies - and of putting economic development ahead of the conservation of the Amazon rainforest.

Many of the social movements that helped bring him to power have turned against him.

Contradictions

The cause of their discontent is a government plan to build a road linking the Andean highlands of central Bolivia with the Amazon lowlands to the north.

Mr Morales says the 300km (185 mile) stretch of road from Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos is vital for regional integration, and will benefit communities throughout Bolivia.

But the planned highway would cut through the heart of the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (Tipnis), a rainforest region of exceptional biodiversity.

Aerial view of Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park in Bolivia Tipnis is home to an extraordinary wealth of plant and animal species

The 12,000 sq km reserve is home to isolated communities of Chiman, Yurucare and Moxos Indians, who live by hunting, fishing and farming in the rainforest.

They fear the road will open their territory to illegal logging and land grabs by migrants from the Andes who grow coca - the raw material for illegal cocaine.

They also say the government ignored their right as indigenous nations to be consulted about any development that affects them - a right enshrined in the constitution Mr Morales himself introduced.

The government promised dialogue and environmental safeguards, while simultaneously insisting the project would go ahead.

In the face of this, in August about 1,000 Amazonian Indians from the reserve began a long-distance protest march to the seat of government in La Paz.

Such demonstrations are a common feature of Bolivian politics, and the right to protest is guaranteed by the constitution.

Mr Morales himself led many similar demonstrations when, as a radical leader of a coca-growers union, he helped force Bolivia's two previous presidents from office.

Riot police surround a kneeling protester in Rurrenabaque, 26 September 2011 Police action against the marchers caused uproar across Bolivia

But when those tactics were turned against him, he responded by accusing the marchers of working for exiled opposition leaders and even the US.

In September, about halfway along their route to La Paz, the marchers were stopped by hundreds of police outside the town of Yucumo, ostensibly to prevent clashes with Aymara communities that support the road project.

After a week long stand-off, riot police suddenly attacked the protesters' camp, using tear gas and batons and detaining hundreds of people.

Although initial reports of fatalities proved false, television footage of the crackdown provoked outrage across Bolivia.

Defence Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest and Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti - accused of ordering the crackdown - also stepped down.

Mass demonstrations in support of the marchers were held in La Paz and other cities, backed by the main indigenous and trade union federations that helped bring Mr Morales to power.

In response, Mr Morales said he would suspend the road project and put it to a referendum in Cochabamba and Beni - the two regions it would link.

That promise falls short of the consultation demanded by the Tipnis communities, and they have resumed their march.

Hidden agendas?

So what lies behind President Morales' apparent determination to push ahead with the road despite the growing political cost?

The economic argument is certainly strong. The road would give farmers and ranchers in the Amazon much better access to markets in the highlands.

There is also an international dimension. The road is being funded by Bolivia's giant neighbour, Brazil, which would gain better access to Pacific ports in Peru and Chile.

But critics say the highway could be re-routed around the Tipnis reserve, and therefore question whether other motives are at work.

Indigenous supporters of President Morales protest in La Paz, 30 September There have also been protests in support of the road project

President Morales' core support base is among the coca-growers of the Chapare, which borders the Tipnis reserve to the south.

They are mostly indigenous Aymara and Quechua migrants from the highlands - a group known as "colonists" in Bolivia.

They see the road project as an opportunity to access new farmland in rainforest areas currently reserved for far less populous Amazonian tribes.

Parts of Tipnis have already been settled illegally by coca-growers, pushing the Amazonian tribes deeper into the forest, and the fear is this will accelerate if the road is built.

In pressing so strongly for the road, critics suggest, Mr Morales is supporting the demands of one narrow sector of Bolivia's indigenous population over the rights of others.

To the east of Tipnis, wealthy cattle ranchers are also encroaching on the reserve, and it is thought to hold oil and gas reserves.

At the heart of the matter is the contradiction between a discourse of indigenous rights and environmental protection, and an economy that depends on the export of natural resources.

As a socialist committed to reducing Bolivia's severe poverty, Mr Morales needs to maintain economic growth.

But this will mean more roads, mines and gas development- which may in turn provoke more protests.

With opinion polls suggesting Mr Morales' popularity is falling, some commentators are wondering if he will see out his second term in office, due to end in early 2015.

Or will he leave power like the two previous presidents, fleeing to escape mass protests by social movements who have learned that, in Bolivia, politics is made on the streets.

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