The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has signed a law suspending the construction of a controversial highway. Known as the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos road, it stretched for 306 kilometers, running north to south in the central part of Bolivia.
For construction purposes, it was divided into three segments. Segment II, running some 177 kilometers, from Isinuta to Monte Grande, was to cut through the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory, aka TIPNIS (“Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure”).
The national park was created in 1965. In 1990 it was declared native community land and as such an indigenous reserve area, as well. Tipnis covers more than 12,000 square kilometers and straddles the border between the Departments (states) of Beni (or El Beni), to the north, and Cochabamba, to the south.
No sooner had contracts for the highway been signed, in June, with the Brazilian construction firm, OAS, and financing of 80% of the cost by the Brazilian state-run Development Bank (“BNDES”), than heated debate and fierce opposition by indigenous peoples and environmental activists flared up.
The movement against the highway began a march on the capital, La Paz. Near the end of September, when some 1,500 protesters were still 300 kilometers from La Paz, they were brutally attacked by the police with batons and tear gas.
Saying it was impossible to defend or justify the police action, the minister of Defense, Cecilia Chacon, resigned, to be followed by two other cabinet members. At that moment, Morales ordered work on the highway to stop and said his government would negotiate..
The protesters arrived in La Paz last week, after a 65-day march, their ranks now swollen to many thousands. They began holding daily anti-highway demonstrations in the Plaza Murillo, where the presidential and legislative palaces are located.
And the list of grievances they were demanding to discuss with Morales had grown to 16 items. At the same time, the country’s largest labor union (“Central Obreira Boliviana”) was threatening a general strike.
According to a spokesperson for the Morales administration, the president met with 20 leaders of the movement in what the government describes as the eleventh such meeting in the last three months. The decision to suspend the highway construction was based on a law that the Legislative Assembly approved.
According to the minister of Communications, Ivan Canelas, “It is clear that dialogue is the best way resolve problems. The discussions were friendly and fruitful. We have learned much from our indigenous brothers and they have learned something about the administration of a government.”
The construction of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway is part of various efforts to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by road across the continent of South America.
At the signing of the construction contract, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Itamaraty, declared that it was “willing to cooperate with Bolivia in the construction as it was of great importance for national integration and in compliance with legislation on social impact and environmental protection.”
However, when the protests against the highway turned violent, Itamaraty declared : “The Brazilian government is concerned with the news of disturbances in Bolivia on September 25 as part of protests against the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway.”
Morales was forced for the second time this year to sit down and negotiate differences with protesters and indigenous leaders. Earlier this year he had to negotiate against a similar backdrop of mass protest demonstrations because of gasoline prices. In both cases he had to backtrack and change a decision by the government.
The International Trade Union Confederation expressed its deep concern about the evictions which put the members of the Guaraní-Kaiowá community in Laranjeira Ñanderu in Brazil, at risk.
According to Information received by the ITUC, thirty-five families of the Guarani-Kaiowá community in Laranjeira Ñanderu face imminent eviction from their ancestral lands in Mato Grosso do Sul State, Brazil.
If evicted they will be forced to live by the side of a busy highway on the outskirts of a neighboring town, with no access to water or land to plant crops.
“Indigenous communities have an absolute right to remain on their ancestral lands” said Sharan Burrow. “This long history of evictions endangers their very existence. The Brazilian government must genuinely comply with their national and international obligations”.
The ITUC, together with its affiliate the CUT, urge the competent authorities to prioritize the identification of Guaraní-Kaiwwá lands in Laranjeira Ñanderu within the overall process of land identifications, which began in 2007 and to fulfil their obligations under the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Brazilian constitution by completing all outstanding land demarcations.
The ITUC represents 175 million workers in 308 affiliated national organizations from 151 countries and territories.