Two of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ top cabinet officials have tendered their resignation after an aggressive national backlash resulted from Sunday’s police intervention of a protest by Indigenous groups. The crackdown by Bolivian riot police over the weekend, using tear gas and clubs, was classified as “violent repression” by witnesses and observers in the press.
On Monday, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon stepped down from Morales’ cabinet because of her disagreement with the government’s decision to break up the protest—a 600-kilometer (375-mile) march from Trinidad to La Paz. Participants in the march protested a highway scheduled to be built through TIPNIS, the acronym for an Indigenous territory and protected nature reserve.
After the protest fallout on Sunday, a local referendum was called by the government where Amazonian groups could vote on the proposed highway. Still, dissatisfaction over the events was underscored when Sacha Llorenti, Bolivia’s interior minister and a fierce loyalist to the president, resigned yesterday. Llorenti denied that neither he nor Morales ordered the police action, despite originally defending it. Prior to leading the interior ministry, Llorenti had been the vice minister of coordination with social movements—Morales’ key liaison with Indigenous groups.
Wilfredo Chavez and Ruben Saavedra were sworn in yesterday at the government palace in La Paz to replace Llorenti and Chacon, respectively. Chavez was promoted from vice minister of government coordination, while Saavedra was the head of the Strategic Office of Maritime Access and a former defense minister.
Representatives of three native groups in Bolivia started a 603-kilometer (375 mile) march yesterday from Trinidad to La Paz protesting against the construction of a highway through their Amazonian land. The road between the highland city of Cochabamba and San Ignacio de Moxos in the Amazon lowlands would cross the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), a 9,997 square kilometer (2,470,400 acre) national park and self-governing territory since 2009. It is held in common by the Yuracaré, Moxeño and Chimán people.
The march—led by TIPNIS inhabitants, the Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (Cidob) and the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu (Conamaq)—challenges President Evo Morales’ plans to build the 305-kilometer (190 mile) road that would cut the TIPNIS territory in half. The two sections of the highway leading to and from the indigenous reserve are already under construction as a part of a $415 million-project mostly financed by the Brazilian government. The controversy surrounds the final stretch which has yet to undergo an environmental review and community consultation process.
The president of the Central de Pueblos Indígenas (CPIB), Pedro Vare, said the project was proposed ignoring the social and environmental costs it implies. “Evo Morales never visited the zone. He just got to the colonized area and he didn’t visit the forest where the indigenous people live,” Vare added. Native communities are worried the road will open access to the reserve to illegal loggers, cocaleros and narcotraffickers. The threat to biodiversity also undermines their survival as the inhabitants rely on hunting and fishing for food.
The government has insisted on the economic benefits of the project, highlighting it will provide a commercial link between central Cochabamba and the Amazonian Beni region. President Morales said “we [the government] will do the consultations, but I want you to know they won’t be binding. We won’t stop the projects just because the indigenous say so.”
Nearly 50 wounded protestors may be sent to jail as soon as they are released by doctors, according to AIDESEP, Peru’s main Amazon Indian confederation. Santiago Manuin, the prominent Awajun Indian leader, is among them and will be jailed and tried on charges of inciting murder once he recovers from injuries suffered from police bullets during a June 5 demonstration over the government’s plan to allow development on traditional indigenous lands in the Amazon.
According to the UN special envoy on indigenous rights, James Anaya, it will be difficult to resolve the dispute, which involves some 350,000 members of the Amazon indigenous community, if the government treats the protest leaders as criminals.
Many other Peruvian indigenous wounded in the protests have not sought out medical attention because of fears that they too will be arrested. Three officials of AIDESEP, including its top leader Alberto Pizango, have taken asylum in Nicaragua to avoid sedition and rebellion charges.