MORE than 700 Indians from Bolivia's Amazonian basin were due to arrive yesterday in the 12,000 foot-high capital La Paz, completing a 400-mile ``march for dignity and territory.'' The Indians are demanding the return of 1.5 million acres which they say have been ``invaded'' by logging companies, settlers, and cattle ranchers. On August 15 the marchers set out from the northern tropical town of Trinidad, in the center of the rain forests where they and their ancestors have lived for centuries.
``We want to live as we lived before,'' explains Tomas Ticuasi, the leader of the Siriono Indians, one of the 10 ethnic groups represented on the march. ``[We are marching] to demand back what the `carayanas' [whites] have taken away from us.''
Many have left their forest homes for the first time to walk to La Paz to discuss their demands with President Jaime Paz Zamora, whom they call ``the white chief.'' The last stage of their journey involved an exceptionally arduous climb over the eastern range of the Andes, which reaches a height of 15,000 feet and registers sub-zero temperatures.
Wearing Western dress and carrying long wooden spears, the marchers have kept up their morale and energy by playing traditional music. Villages on the way have opened their arms to welcome them. Help has come from church groups and dozens of support organizations, especially for the 12 pregnant women and 90 child marchers.
For the first time in Bolivia's history, Indians from the jungle lowlands are big news. Daily newspaper headlines have followed the Indians' march and highlighted their plight. The groundswell of popular support and wide media coverage forced President Paz Zamora and most of his Cabinet to travel last week to meet marchers in mid-route.
The government repeated its offer to recognize as Indian territory most of the land the marchers are seeking. But the sticking point remains 400,000 acres of land in the heart of the Chimane Forest, which the government legally handed over to four Bolivian logging companies in 1987.
The Indians want loggers out, saying they are ruining flora and fauna and threatening Indian culture. ``Money and money, they squeeze the land dry, they exploit it until it cries out, they kill the trees - we don't understand it,'' complains Ernesto Noe, of the local Indigenous Peoples' Council.
The government is trying to walk a tightrope between logger and Indian interests - ``the two `logics' of exploiting the forest and living with it,'' says Zulema Lehm, a Bolivian specialist on the Chimane Forest.
The latest government offer is to re-zone areas given over to timber company operations, but not to revoke all timber rights. Critics say concessions to the companies have led to rapid depletion of mahogany, as the companies are not reforesting as Bolivian law demands. Paz Zamora acknowledges that ``irrational'' exploitation of the Chimane Forest has occurred. He estimates 93,000 cubic meters of mahogany have been taken in the last four years, though some dispute this.
Guillermo Mann, former vice-president of science for the US environmental group Conservation International, estimates each of three large timber companies working the forest make $1.3 million in profit a year, but only pay $70,000 each to the state in taxes. ``The difference is appalling, and has to be changed,'' he says.
The companies say it would be perfectly possible to live harmoniously with the Indian groups in the Chimane Forest. They also claim any revision of the concessions would cut the foreign exchange of South America's poorest country. Wood exports totaled $44 million last year, roughly 5 percent of the country's total.
The companies and their supporters place hopes on a new three-year $1.2 million management plan for the Chimane Forest funded by Conservation International, the International Tropical Timber Organization, and the companies themselves. The plan aims to integrate three elements of forestry use: protection of flora and fauna, participation of Indian communities, and forestry. (See related story).
Paz Zamora also promises a law to protect Bolivia's indigenous peoples - about 200,000 Indians. Experts say the move is overdue since current law considers Indians to be, in essence, part of the forest's flora and fauna.