On 13 August the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales passed new legislation paving the way for the construction of a 300km road through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (better known by its Spanish acronym, Tipnis).

The ruling has sparked protests among residents, who are concerned about the effect of the new highway on the ecosystem it is due to carve its way through, and the mostly indigenous population in the region. However, the issue is not new to Bolivian politics.

The 2011 dispute

The Tipnis case dates back to the summer of 2011, when President Morales announced plans for the construction of the first direct highway link between the administrative departments of Beni and Cochabamba, bisecting the Tipnis nature reserve. The land, which since 1990 has been a national park, is the ancestral home of the Moxeño-Trinitario, Yuracaré, and Chimáne peoples.

The news fuelled an immediate backlash from indigenous communities who, in line with the country’s strong tradition of social mobilisation, took to the streets to call for the reversal of the government’s policy. Following a 65-day protest, which was met with violence from the national police, and as a result of mounting domestic and international pressure, the Bolivian president signed a law in 2011 banning the construction of the Tipnis road and protecting the reserve as an “untouchable” zone.

The dispute marked the most divisive conflict since Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party came to power back in 2005, and one of the president’s most significant political defeats to date.

tipnis indigenous communities
Local people living near the national park have seen their livelihoods come under threat as the government strives to continue its economic growth. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The government strikes back

Last week a new bill cleared the senate, effectively stripping the park of the special protection status granted in 2011 in order to allow for the construction of the road. The reversal of the six-year old law came after one of the fastest legislative processes in the country’s history, with the governing MAS party taking full advantage of its two-thirds majority in the upper chamber.

According to government officials, the road represents a key infrastructural advancement that will benefit the communities that inhabit the area. Morales himself has emphasised the road’s geopolitical significance in promoting territorial integration and regional development in the country.

In turn, Galo Bonifaz, Bolivia’s Deputy Minister for Transport, told the BBC that one of the main objectives behind the new law is “to facilitate access to health, education, housing, electricity and other basic services” for local communities. Further, the country’s Construction Minister, Milton Carlos, stated that the construction of the road will be “environmentally friendly” and will not threaten the area’s ecosystem, a claim disputed by the majority of commentators.

Clashing visions of development

Just like in 2011, recent legislative changes have faced considerable opposition from different national and international actors including indigenous organisations, environmental activists and opposition parties. For the political parties arguing against the government’s discourse, the road symbolises the opening of the country to greater exploitation of natural resources, an expansion of coca cultivation and an eroding of the nature reserve’s ecosystems and indigenous culture. Moira Birss of NGO Amazon Watch warns that the road will “divide the park in two, and further the process of illegal deforestation that threatens to permanently damage the territory in the Amazon rainforest.”

It is worth mentioning that the Tipnis question echoes the differences in landownership traditions between indigenous groups and peasants in Bolivia, and the resulting clash of cultures and lifestyle that such national projects foment. For a short while these differences were concealed by a shared identification with the MAS party and the figure of Evo Morales himself. However, as rifts between the groups have slowly emerged, it has become increasingly evident that Morales’ loyalties lie with peasant communities, particularly the cocaleros (coca growers) that constitute his electoral base.

Evo Morales Tipnis
Evo Morales has promoted a conflicting agenda. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons


Ulterior motives for pressing ahead with the Tipnis project

Furthermore, as Emily Achtenberg argues, underlying the Tipnis controversy “is a deeper dispute about the direction of development in Bolivia”. Economically, Morales’ decision to move on the Tipnis issue has certainly been influenced by a steep decline in international oil prices, along with a decrease in the level of Bolivia’s proven gas reserves. As a consequence, an economic agenda driven by the need to maximise investment in extractive industries has taken priority over the further protection of indigenous rights over the past few years.

In fact, underpinning the Tipnis ruling is a critical contradiction within the MAS government: its continued reliance on extractive industries to finance redistributive programmes while maintaining a pro-indigenous and pro-environment discourse.

Consequently, although Bolivia has experienced a significant improvement in social indicators over the past few years, the government’s reliance on exploiting its natural resources has increasingly put Morales at odds with indigenous communities and environmental activists that advocate a more sustainable development model.

The new legislation confirms the view that, while the current government has achieved a great deal in terms of indigenous rights, when pro-indigenous policy clashes with more conventional development strategies – including the urgency to exploit available resources – the latter tends to prevail.

Ultimately, infrastructure projects like the Tipnis highway, especially in a resource-dependent country like Bolivia, can facilitate development and growth. However, the controversy also serves as a reminder of the potential socio-environmental costs of such projects.

There is a clear need to develop alternative development models that can sustain improvements in economic growth and public investment without jeopardising indigenous rights and the environment. How the issue unfolds might set a telling precedent for similar cases in Bolivia and, more widely, Latin America.


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