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Bolivian indigenous struggle to be heard – by indigenous President Morales

Indigenous groups across Latin America are increasingly butting heads with leaders they elected and demanding greater participation in decisions that affect their ancestral lands.

By Staff writer, Sara ShahriariCorrespondent / October 5, 2011

Residents walk to set up a roadblock Sept. 20 to keep protesters from continuing their march to La Paz, Bolivia, to rally against the construction of a road through the TIPNIS nature preserve.

Juan Karita/AP

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Mexico City; and La Paz, Bolivia

When Evo Morales was elected Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2005, José Ortiz, a national indigenous leader, was hopeful.

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But today Mr. Ortiz stands in Plaza San Francisco in Bolivia's administrative capital of La Paz protesting against the man who was once his key ally. Marchers carry signs calling Mr. Morales a liar during a nationwide strike after police quashed a deadly protest against a road through rain forest that the government vowed to build, despite indigenous protests.

"At the beginning it was different; we worked together. The government even comes from humble beginnings. It identified itself as an indigenous government." Now, he says, "we've lost confidence."

Ortiz's disappointment is being felt in pockets across a continent once optimistic that the tide had finally turned in favor of indigenous rights.

Morales's election, followed by inaugurations across the region of presidents promising more social inclusion, had spurred hopes that new leaders would stand up for the interests of native peoples. But many groups are increasingly butting heads with the governments they elected and demanding greater participation in decisions that affect their ancestral lands, especially as it relates to massive energy and infrastructure projects these fast-growing nations see as key to their development.

Rifts in the Andean region

A case in point is Bolivia, where police confronted those protesting a proposed new road, heavily financed by Brazil, that was to cut through The National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS). The indigenous living in the lowland jungle say their rights to be previously consulted, enshrined in the new 2009 Constitution, have been violated and fear the road will open the park to oil and gas exploration and an influx of coca growers, among other concerns.

The movement has come to a head, with two ministers resigning – one in solidarity, another under pressure – over allegations that the government ordered police to crush the movement. Morales halted the project. But he said he might put its future to a broad referendum, which the marchers oppose.

More than 60 percent of Bolivia's population identifies itself as ethnically indigenous, and while they are hardly monolithic – some support Morales's highway – this protest has cost Morales support among many of his former allies. In the scandal's wake, he called protesters his "indigenous brothers," but at an earlier point labeled them lackeys of the United States.

"When he was campaigning he said, 'If you all support me and vote for me I will be the president of the disadvantaged.' So we, the indigenous peoples, decided to support for him,” says Cecilia Moyobire, president of Moxeno Trinitario group of the southern part of the TIPNIS. “We trusted in him and voted because with other governments we were always forgotten, discriminated against, crushed, and massacred.”

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