Bolivia's President Evo Morales is never shy when it comes to accusing the US of meddling in the Andean nation's domestic affairs. This time he says the US is behind a march of more than a thousand indigenous Bolivians protesting a highway that will bisect their territory.
President Morales has called a meeting with the US Embassy's Chargé d'Affairs John Creamer, according to Bolivia's state news agency ABI, citing comments Morales made on state television yesterday. The Bolivian president presented phone records that show calls between indigenous leaders of the march and the US Embassy, the news agency reported.
"It's a strategy of imperialism and the United States through its agencies to prevent national integration and provoke a confrontation between the people of western Bolivia and those from the east," said Morales.
The march, which began on Aug. 15, is tracing a 350-mile route from Bolivia's lowlands to the administrative capital of La Paz. The marchers are from the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS), a stretch of tropical national park that encompasses Original Communal Lands (known by the Spanish acronym TCOs) belonging to three small indigenous groups.
Residents of the TCOs say the road will harm their traditional livelihood of hunting and gathering and be detrimental to the biodiversity of the region. Some leaders from TIPNIS are particularly worried the road will facilitate colonization of the area by Bolivians from the country's western highlands and oil exploration by the Bolivian government in the area, a move the government has not discounted.
The march finds Morales, who often talks of protecting the environment, in a difficult situation. The road would greatly facilitate transport between eastern and western Bolivia, and gas from the TIPNIS would be a boon to Bolivia's economy, which relies heavily on extractive industries such as mining and gas.
At the same time, Bolivia's new constitution, which the Morales government pushed forward in 2009, requires that the government consult indigenous peoples regarding any activities that will take place on their land. This consultation has not yet taken place with the people of the TIPNIS, though the government has called for a meeting on several occasions.
Adolfo Moye, a leader from the TIPNIS, says that marchers will not speak with the government until construction on two branches of the highway that are closing in on the TIPNIS is halted. Also in question is the power of these meetings. The Bolivian government says they are not binding, while some indigenous groups think they should be.
The Morales government and the US have a strained relationship. Morales expelled the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2008 saying they were undermining his government. Following those expulsions, the Bolivian government has accused indigenous leaders who oppose it on key issues of ties with the US and foreign NGOs on several occasions.
Mr. Moye spoke to reporters on how crucial unity is for the people of the TIPNIS before the march began. “We must avoid ruptures amongst ourselves caused by discourse from outside that says we are being used and directed by NGOs,” said Moye, who rejects the idea that this protest is driven by anyone but the indigenous residents of the TIPNIS. “This is our own concern.”
The US Embassy in Bolivia has not yet responded to Morales' statements. Meanwhile, the march continues and the question of whether or not another route for the highway can be found to bring economic benefits to the people of one of South America's poorest countries without crossing the TIPNIS remains