Amazon road plan tests Bolivian leader's priorities

by Reuters
Thursday, 28 July 2011 15:35 GMT

* Indigenous groups vow to march over forest highway plan

* Morales faces protests from within Indian support base

* Struggles to balance development with cultural identity

By Claudia Soruco

LA PAZ, July 28 (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales peppers his speeches with references to Mother Earth, blaming rich countries and big business for global warming and crimes against the environment.

But leftist Morales, the country's first president of Indian descent, is facing strong resistance from within his indigenous support base over government plans to build a 185-mile wide (300 km) highway through the Amazon forest.

The ${esc.dollar}420 million road, to be built by Brazilian company OAS and largely financed by Brasilia, will link the Amazon plains of Beni to Chapare, a sparsely populated region where Morales began his political career as leader of the coca farmers.

Morales, a close ideological ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has put the road scheme at the heart of his drive to boost infrastructure investment in the impoverished nation.

He has enjoyed solid backing from the indigenous majority since taking office five years ago, though he has previously faced protests by Andean miners over working conditions and more recently over a failed attempt to raise fuel prices.

But last month, he angered Indian activists by saying the road would be built through the Isiboro Secure indigenous territory and national park "whether they like it or not."

He accused activists of serving the interests of foreign non-governmental organizations, rather than their own people.

The controversy has put the president on the defensive three months before nationwide judicial elections, part of broader reforms to give indigenous peoples a bigger role in state affairs.

"There's evidently a contradiction in Morales' discourse of, on the one hand, protecting Mother Earth and cultural identity but also promoting development projects," said Miguel Urioste, a specialist in indigenous issues in Bolivia.

'GROWING DISTANCE'

Opponents of the road have vowed to start a 370-mile (600 km) protest march next month, saying they will not let the construction go ahead because it threatens a protected area and because their right to consultation was violated.

"The government's attitude toward the indigenous right to consultation shows a growing distance between the government and a sector that's been a key source of support," said political analyst and university professor Carlos Cordero.

"This is hurting Morales' popularity and weakening his government," Cordero said, warning that the president was at risk of being seen as "an indigenous president who makes decisions against indigenous people."

Bolivia's next presidential election is not due until 2014, but Cordero said widespread disenchantment with Morales could be reflected in the October judicial vote.

Morales' rightist opponents are urging voters to spoil their ballots in a mass anti-government protest, and part of Morales' electoral base in the Andean highlands could heed the call as a sign of support for Indians in the Isiboro.

It would be only the second time that indigenous protesters stage a large anti-government march since Morales has been in office. The first was called a year ago to demand more rapid progress on land redistribution.

To the delight of Morales' opponents, some ruling party lawmakers have expressed support for the demonstration and the demands of the 12,000 residents of the Isiboro Secure territory, known by its Spanish acronym TIPNIS.

The president, meanwhile, has defended the plan as a vital development project that will foster economic growth in a remote and long-neglected part of the country.

"Do the TIPNIS Indians really want us to be without roads, oil fields, factories, without electricity?" he said recently. "If that's the case, what's Bolivia going to live on?" (Writing by Helen Popper) (helen.popper@thomsonreuters.com; +54 11 4318 0655; Reuters Messaging: helen.popper.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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