Why Evo Morales did a U-turn on the TIPNIS Amazon Highway

As the global Occupiers movement gathers momentum, they would do well to look and learn from how protest is done in Bolivia. For the last two months, people from indigenous communities – be they pregnant, children, infirm or old – have endured hunger, exhaustion and police brutality on a march from their Amazon homeland to the seat of power in La Paz, 500 kilometres away and 4000 metres upwards.

Their highly-effective and determined action has successfully halted the construction of a major road straight through the middle of their protected rainforest territory, known as TIPNIS, the Spanish acronym for the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory.

This is how the story unfolded: It was August when the government first announced a plan to build an industrial highway right through TIPNIS. The highway, to be financed by Brazil, is central to Morales’ ‘process of change’, a concept within the government’s 2009-Constitution that proposed a fresh approach to capitalism. Morales’ version was to be an amalgamation of nationalisation, industrialisation and protection of specific ways of life, such as the indigenous world view of a living, Mother Earth or Pachamama.

Development vs destruction?

The government reasoned that the road would boost Bolivia’s national development by connecting agricultural and commercial areas while also improving public services for inhabitants of the park.

But TIPNIS residents thought otherwise. They feared the road would bring increased drug trafficking, deforestation and damage to their flora and fauna. In mid-August more than 1000 people from the TIPNIS area set off to defend their way of life

Brutal repression by police late September, helped secure overwhelming public support for the marchistas. In solidarity, over 45 per cent of Bolivians sabotaged their ballots during judicial elections in mid-October.

By the time they arrived in La Paz, tens of thousands of people from all sections of Bolivian society poured out onto the streets to greet the weary marchistas like heroes. At the welcome ceremony in the Plaza de San Francisco, the leaders referred back to the landmark 1990 indigenous march which secured rights for their communities for the first time. This was only their second ever march, this time demanding that the rights they had won be respected.

The marchers showed that the power of public protest in democratic Bolivia was as alive as ever. There was everything to lose and people were willing to sacrifice much to protect the rights they had fought long and hard for.

Morales’ split personality

The TIPNIS road has brought Morales’ competing agendas into a direct collision. The tenuous balance between rights, environmentalism and development has come close to collapse, rocking the entire nation and exposing Morales’ often contradictory policies.

As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales has cut an interesting figure on both the national and international stage, producing both smiles and scowls from different quarters. His promotion of coca production, nationalisation of natural resources and opposition to transnational corporations has incurred the ire of the US and business elites.

But his unique approach to climate change and development has won him the title of ‘World Hero of Mother Earth’ within the UN and a celebrated protector of indigenous rights at home.

At the heart of the TIPNIS controversy lay Morales’ divided identity – as indigenous leader on the one hand and socialist cocalero on the other.

Indigenous peoples’ opposition to the TIPNIS road was driven by fear of the anticipated ‘colonisation’ of the area by working class cocoleros (coca farmers) who make up a significant proportion of Morales’ support base, as well as speculation about possible oil reserves and manipulation by Brazil.

The two sides came close to exchanging blows in La Paz when pro-government movements came out in support of the highway and the ‘process of change’, a week before the marchistas were due to arrive.

But regardless of what conflict of interests were at play for Morales, the public came down firmly on the side of the TIPNIScommunities. The struggle had become a national symbol, forcing Morales to defend his environmental credentials in the face of overwhelming pressure.

‘Vivir bien’

In Plaza de San Francisco, one marcher, Jose Sadivav from the indigenous confederationCONAMAQ was asked what the action meant to him. ‘TIPNIS means history,’ he replied. ‘Since our ancestors, we have chosen to live in harmony with Mother Earth. It is who we are’.

He said the marchistas’ bravery will inspire environmentalists and minority cultures all over the world. ‘I think we have set an example. This will always be worth fighting for,’ he concluded.

As the world reels from the excesses of global capitalism, small yet essential pockets of resistance appear, which force a recognition of alternative ways of being. They promote the idea of Vivir Bien, ‘to live well’ – a concept that Morales himself has proposed to the UN. This notion stands in opposition to the destruction wrought by competitive and exploitative capitalism. As the marchistas return home, the people of La Paz thank them for their courage and bravery. They have shown that Bolivians have the power to tip the balance in their favour. 

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