A thousand indigenous Bolivian marchers protesting the construction of a government-backed highway through their land reached the government seat of La Paz this week, walking 250 miles and climbing over 12,000 feet from Bolivia’s lowlands across the country.
The march from The National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS) became a point of national and international focus on September 25, when police tear gassed marchers and attempted to force them onto buses to return them home. National outcry led one minister to resign, while another quit in solidarity with the protestors.
The protest has become a major political challenge for Bolivian President Evo Morales. Tens of thousands of Bolivians filled capital streets and squares Wednesday to greet the indigenous protesters, who hope to meet with President Morales today.
On Wednesday, school children, office workers, university students, and even soccer clubs greeted the marchers with cheers of “Strength, brothers,” and “La Paz is with you!” Elderly women rushed into the street to hug men carrying the traditional bows and arrows they use to hunt in their tropical homes.
Many of the marchers wore donated socks under flip flops and tried to protect themselves from high-altitude cold to which they are unaccustomed. Several children are in La Paz hospitals with pneumonia after the march crossed a mountain pass at 15,000 feet earlier this week.
“I’m really happy because people from the TIPNIS know how to fight, and they’ll never give up,” says Marisol Loza of La Paz, who cheered the marchers along their route.
President Morales now faces the second major challenge to his policy. The first came in December 2010 when his government sought to end gas subsidies and rioting broke out around the country. The government quickly reinstated the subsidies.
The marchers arrived in La Paz days after the country’s first popular election of Supreme Court and other national judges. Morales promoted the elections as a key piece of his government’s leadership, while the opposition said the field of judges had been narrowed to include too many Morales supporters. In the end more than half of the country’s voters decided to spoil their ballots or leave them blank, calling into question to legitimacy of the country’s newly elected judiciary.
Now the government must decide what to do about the controversial road. It will radically shorten transport time between the cities of Trinidad and Cochabamba, easing commerce in a poor country that lacks good roads. Marchers counter that they were never consulted, as enshrined as right in the constitution, on whether they want the road and that it will destroy one of Bolivia’s most bio-diverse regions.
Remberto Mobo is marching for the third time in his life to defend his homeland in the TIPNIS. His first march was in 1990 when indigenous lowland groups undertook a historic trek to La Paz demanding rights to their land be legally recognized. “It breaks my heart that we got our territory and now the government wants to put a highway through it,” he says.