Bolivia: Against “Green Imperialism”


by Federico Fuentes

Bolivia Rising


Statements, articles, letters, and petitions have been circulating on the Internet for the past month calling for an end to the “destruction of the Amazon.”  The target of these initiatives has not been transnational corporations or the powerful governments that back them, but the government of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales.

At the centre of the debate is the Bolivian government’s controversial proposal to build a highway through the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).  TIPNIS, which covers more than 1 million hectares of forest, was granted indigenous territory status by the Morales government in 2009.  About 12,000 people from three different indigenous groups live in 64 communities within TIPNIS.

On August 15, representatives from the TIPNIS Subcentral that unites these communities, as well as other indigenous groups, began a march to the capital city, La Paz, to protest against the highway plan.  International petitions have been initiated, declaring support for this march and condemning the Morales government for undermining indigenous rights.

The people of TIPNIS have legitimate concerns about the highway’s impact.  There is also no doubt the government has made errors in its handling of the issue.

Unfortunately, petitions such as the one initiated by international lobby group Avaaz and a September 21 letter to Morales signed by over 60 environmental groups mostly outside Bolivia misrepresent the facts and misdirect their fire.  They could inadvertently aid the opponents of the global struggle for climate justice.

Avaaz warns that the highway “could enable foreign companies to pillage the world’s most important forest.”  But it fails to mention the destruction that is already happening in the area, in some cases with the complicity of local indigenous communities.  In contrast, the Morales government has promised to introduce a new law, in consultation with communities within TIPNIS, to add new protections for the national park.  The proposed law would set jail terms of between 10 to 20 years for illegal settlements, growing coca, or logging in the national park.

Also, Avaaz claims that “huge economic interests” are motivating Morales’ support for the highway.  But Avaaz omits the benefits that such a highway (whether it ultimately goes through TIPNIS or not) will bring Bolivia and its peoples.  For example, this 306-kilometer highway linking the departments of Beni and Cochabamba (with only a part of it going through TIPNIS) would expand access to health care and other basic services to isolated local communities who now travel for days to receive medical care.  The highway would also give local agricultural producers greater access to markets to sell their goods.  At the moment, these must go via Santa Cruz to the east before they can be transported westward.  Given Beni’s status as the largest meat-producing department, this would break the hold that Santa Cruz-based slaughterhouses have on imposing meat prices.  The highway would also allow the state to assert sovereignty over remote areas, including the areas where illegal logging takes place.

It is facts such as these that have convinced more than 350 Bolivian organizations, including many of the social organizations that have led the country’s inspiring struggles against neoliberalism, to support the proposed highway.

Many indigenous organizations and communities (including within TIPNIS), moreover, support the highway.  It is therefore false to describe this as a dispute between the government and indigenous people.  Nor is it a simple conflict between supporters of development and defenders of the environment.

All sides in the dispute want greater development and improved access to basic services.  The issue at stake is how the second poorest country in the Americas, facing intense pressure from more powerful governments and corporate forces, can meet the needs of its people while protecting the environment.  Given this, surely it makes more sense for those who wish to defend Bolivia’s process of change to support steps towards dialogue, rather that deepening the divisions.