Bolivia: rumble over the jungle

The arrival of more than 1,000 Amazonian protestors in Bolivia’s chilly Andean capital has put Evo Morales between a jungle and a hard place.

The charismatic president rose to power as a champion of Bolivia’s repressed indigenous majority and the environment.

But lately indigenous protesters – and environmentalists – are causing him no end of grief. Morales wants to build a 185-mile highway through an Amazonian reserve as part of modernisation drive.

The road would give Brazil another new trade route to Asia via Pacific ports. It would also, critics say, make it easier for Bolivia’s coca growers – Morales’ key political base – to encroach even further on the Amazon with their plantations. Observers need look no further than Peru to see how a new road through the Amazon has helped spur environmental devastation by illegal gold miners.

Bolivia’s Moxeño and Trinitario peoples, distinct from the dominant Aymara people of Bolivia’s highlands, are furious about the proposed road through their home in the Tipnis reserve.

They point to the 2009 constitution championed by Morales, which granted significant new rights to Bolivia’s 36 indigenous groups, and to Pachamama, or mother nature.

Constitutionally, indigenous groups in Bolivia have the right to be consulted over projects such as the $420m highway. They argue that Mother Nature also has the right “not to be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

La Paz gave the protestors a rapturous welcome after their 250-mile trek, which took them from the jungle to one of the world’s highest cities, at 3,500m.

Even before the highway debacle, Morales has had a tough year, beginning with a major backlash after he tried to withdraw costly fuel subsidies.

The president has suspended work on the highway to allow for a national debate on the issue, but that may be too little too late for the protesters, who have been galvinised by national and international support during their long trek.

Morales has long had the advantage of being one of Latin America’s most popular leaders, with a mission to right hundreds of years of social inequity.

But this rumble over the jungle has fractured his political base and cost him two ministers – interior minister Sacha Llorenti, who fell on her sword after police intervention in the protest drew criticism, and defence minister Cecilia Chacon, who resigned in support of the protesters.

With his approval ratings sagging at 35 per cent, Morales is going to have to get used to a different style of governing.

As long as commodities prices hold up, Bolivia’s resource-heavy economy is set to grow 4.1 per cent this year – better than Spain, which is hoping for 1.3 per cent; but worse than Peru (6.7 per cent) or Colombia (4.7 per cent).

Politically, attempts to rein in public spending will only get harder for the president. And some $1bn in planned investments in the hydrocarbons sector from companies such as Petrobras of Brazil, Repsol of Spain, Total SA of France, Pluspetrol of Argentina and Occidental Petroleum has the potential to exacerbate frayed relations with indigenous communities.

The heady days of Morales’ 2006 electoral success, when he dressed as a sun priest and made a private offering to Mother Nature in front of thousands of elated indigenous supporters, seem like a long time ago.

Related reading:
Bolivia file, beyondbrics