Indian Revolt Targets Morales Road Project as Bolivians March

Bolivian President Evo Morales has built his presidency on promises to defend people like Cecilia Moyovire from the excesses of global capitalism. Now, the Moxeno-Trinitario Indian and fellow protesters are threatening his plans to open up a region of the Amazon rain forest rich in energy, timber and other resources.

Moyovire, 42, has been camped a few blocks from the government palace in La Paz since police attacked a group of 1,000 marchers from a national park in central Bolivia on Sept. 25 as they protested against plans for a Brazilian-built road through the region. That march will likely paralyze downtown La Paz when it reaches the capital this week.

“If the government continues being obstinate, their machines will have to pass over our dead bodies,” said Moyovire, a mother of five from the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure as she sat outside her tent last week.

Morales, an Aymara Indian who has harnessed indigenous support to become Bolivia’s longest serving president since military rule ended in 1985, backs the $415 million highway being built by Sao Paulo-based Construtora OAS Ltd. with majority funding from Brazil’s state development bank. The road will connect with the Chilean port city of Arica, allowing Brazil to export food and minerals to China. The park also holds some of the gas reserves whose development nationwide is driving 5 percent economic growth this year in Bolivia.

The dispute comes almost two years after Morales, 51, endorsed a new constitution that grants indigenous groups, including Moyovire’s Moxeno Trinitario, the right to be consulted before projects begin on their land. That process is not clearly defined and no one asked the people of three indigenous groups that live in the TIPNIS, as the park is known, if they wanted a road through their territory, said Jose Ortiz, an indigenous leader from Bolivia’s lowlands.

Future Conflicts

“There will be more conflicts,” said Miguel Centellas, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “The TIPNIS issue is only the most pronounced indigenous opposition to these developmentalist projects. The success of the TIPNIS protest will embolden future groups.”

Bolivia is seeking to boost gas output by 40 percent to 66 million cubic meters a day by 2014 to meet its supply contracts with Brazil and Argentina, according to state oil and gas company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos. The La Paz-based company exports the bulk of the 39 million cubic meters of gas a day Bolivia sells to its two neighbors.

That increase will be dependent on natural gas and oil exploration contracts to be granted this year for the first time since Morales took office in 2006. In that year, the government forced companies including Rio de Janeiro-based Petroleo Brasileiro SA (PETR4) to renegotiate contracts, driving up taxes. Moscow-based OAO Gazprom and Vietnam Oil & Gas Group from Hanoi are among the energy companies that have expressed interest.

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