LA PAZ, Bolivia—In what can be seen as a victory for indigenous rights, President Evo Morales signed a law banning road construction that would cut across indigenous land.
President Morales signed the law on 24 October 2011, after about 1,000 protesters from the Amazon had participated in a 66-day march to La Paz, a dedicated 600-km effort to preserve their ancestral territory.
“The government knows it cannot decide on the future of our land without consulting us,” the governing party’s Movement to Socialism (MAS) indigenous lawmaker Pedro Nuni was quoted in Inter Press Service (IPS). “Native peoples have thought deeply about the defense of our territories.”
The $415 million, 177-km road would have been built across the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) and was supposed to be part of a highway that would transport resources from Brazil to the Pacific Ocean, maximizing travel time between cities.
Although news coverage has reflected the views of indigenous Bolivians who protested against the road, there are indigenous Bolivians who think a road through TIPNIS would have brought development to the community.
Brief history of Bolivia
Bolivia is located in central area of South America. Brazil borders the country’s north and east; Paraguay and Argentina border its south; Chile borders its southwest; and Peru borders its west.
The country has a population of about 10 million people, and considered the poorest country in South America with a poverty level at about 60 percent. As a multiethnic country, Bolivia includes Amerindians, or indigenous people, Mestizos, or people of both Spanish and indigenous ethnicities, Europeans, and Africans.
Spanish is the main language spoken, as the Spanish began colonizing the area in 1524; however, there are 36 indigenous languages that have been made official in Bolivia, Aymara and Quechua being the most common.
The Aymara are believed to have arrived in the area now known as Bolivia over 2,000 years ago and advanced into a civilization known as Tiwanaku, with as many as 1,482,000 people.
They created colonies, made trade agreements, and instituted an empire of states. Rather than getting rid of cultures, the Tiwanaku civilization included them into its own when expanding into the areas now known as Peru and Chile.
However, around AD 1000 the Tiwanaku civilization disappeared due to lacking food supply and the area of Bolivia remained uninhabited for centuries. When the Spanish came to the area, the Incas, who had expanded the area from 1438-1527, were the area’s habitants.
Indigenous people were used as the Spanish labor force, as silver was important to the colony in the late 16th century. In 1781, there was an indigenous rebellion that killed 20,000 people and by 1809 indigenous and non-indigenous people in the area were both struggling for independence from Spain.
In 1825, independence was proclaimed and the area was named Bolivia after Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan military and political leader who fought for independence in parts of South America.
For the indigenous people, currently identified as over 62 percent of the country’s population, independence meant they would still have to struggle to keep their ancestral land, as Mestizos and other Bolivians born in the country felt more entitled to it.
Revolts were frequent until 1953 when the government discouraged identity with indigenous roots, rather focused its energy on identifying the rural indigenous people as “campesinos” (“peasants” in Spanish).
However, in the 1970s ethnic pride resurfaced and by the 1990s, there were indigenous people involved in local politics.
In 2005, Bolivia elected President Evo Morales as its first indigenous Aymara descendant to the presidency and in 2009 Bolivia became the first South American country to give indigenous people the right to govern themselves.
Yet, actions like the previously planned road through TIPNIS land symbolize Bolivian indigenous people’s continuous struggle for their rights.
Being a proponent for the road project, President Morales has had his reputation as a leading champion for the environment questioned.
President Morales seemingly signed the law banning the road because of the indigenous people’s pressure on the legislature, as they held a vigil outside the building the day the law was passed.
The IPS reported President Morales as saying the indigenous leaders would be responsible for explaining cancellation of the road project to the TIPNIS inhabitants that wanted the road built.
Though, news coverage has mostly reported on the inhabitants who did not want the road built.
“Let's continue forging ahead with the process of change, but without destroying the 'tierras comunitarias de origen' (‘communal lands’ in Spanish), and with full respect for the rights of indigenous peoples,” leader of the TIPNIS native communities Fernando Vargas was quoted in the IPS.
Mr. Vargas reportedly urged President Morales to build a country that conserves nature, suggesting that there will be future battles with Bolivian indigenous people over their land.