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Alliances Shift Over Contentious Bolivian Road Plan

Indigenous groups see a Bolivian government strategy to divide them ahead of a major march against a planned road.

Bolivian president Evo Morales.
Photo Credit: Joel Alvarez/Wikimedia Commons


In the run-up to the May-June consulta that will decide the fate of the proposed highway through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), the Bolivian government is signing agreements with lowland indigenous groups and seeking to cancel its contract with Brazilian company OAS to build the TIPNIS road, causing a shift in political alliances around the TIPNIS conflict.  


By way of explanation, the government says it’s trying to promote productive projects, resolve past differences with disaffected constituencies, and address serious problems with the construction contractor. But leaders of the TIPNIS Subcentral and the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), the lowland indigenous federation representing 34 ethnic groups in seven of Bolivia’s nine departments, see a deliberate strategy to divide the indigenous movement. Specifically, they accuse the government of attempting to undermine the national march scheduled to begin on April 25, in opposition to the road that would bisect the ancestral territory of the Yuracaré, Moxeño, and Chimán people.

In the past six weeks, President Evo Morales has signed  pacts with leaders of up to 11 (out of 13) CIDOB regionals, promising health and education benefits as well as infrastructure and development projects. All of these groups were involved in the first anti-highway march (that was brutally repressed by police last September), but their participation in the upcoming mobilization is now in doubt.


Some, like the  Chiquitanos, have announced that they will not be marching. Others have not formally decided. Still others, like the  Guaraní, have said they will join the march if the government does not fulfill its promises—a position denounced by the national CIDOB leadership as opportunistic. Having subordinated their demands for two straight years to CIDOB-led mobilizations, with few tangible results in return, it seems that the Guaraní are now betting on a more pragmatic sectoral approach, rather than solidarity, to advance their agenda.


Still, internal splits are evident, with Guaraní from several  Tarija communities deciding to march and Guaraní from  Santa Cruz agreeing to take supportive actions within their community on behalf of the marchers. TIPNIS and CIDOB leaders, while acknowledging the risks involved, are hopeful that the bases in many regions will override directors whom they regard as unaccountable, and opt to join the march.  


As far as the government’s motives, Kathryn Ledebur of the  Andean Information Network says, “It’s hard to know. On the one hand, the government is obviously campaigning for the road; at the same time, it’s their job to sign agreements to provide services. Signing agreements to swing support is a time-honored tradition in Bolivia, and the Morales government has been no different.”


Other political analysts interviewed by the daily Página Siete conclude that the government is simply shifting from a failed strategy of attacking, stigmatizing, and criminalizing the anti-highway movement to a “divide and conquer” policy, seeking consensus with some in order to isolate the “hard core” protesters.  While plenty of “sticks” are still in evidence (such as the  criminal charges being pursued against 26 protest leaders), “carrots” are the preferred method of undermining indigenous unity ahead of the march, at least for now.


The architect of the new strategy is the hard-line but pragmatic Chief of Staff Juan Ramón Quintana, a brilliant tactician (and former SOA-trained military operative). Interior Minister Carlos Romero, the former director of CEJIS—an NGO that strongly supports the TIPNIS march—is also well acquainted with the strategy of “sectorializing” social movement demands. Both strongly deny any intent to debilitate the march.

As for the OAS contract, the Minister of Public Works  announced this week that the portion of the contract pertaining to the section of the road within the TIPNIS was effectively invalidated by the law declaring the park “ untouchable.” In any case, the government says it will  cancel this portion of the contract, along with its funding provided by a loan from the Brazilian government, due to dissatisfaction with the slow pace of construction on the two other road segments leading to and from the park, and other irregularities. Once the consulta endorses the road, as the government anticipates, the contract would then be rebid.

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