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Indigenous protestors embark on 300-mile walk to protest Amazon road in Bolivia

Indigenous protesters are targeting a new road in the Bolivian Amazon, reports the BBC.

The 190-mile highway under construction in the Bolivian Amazon will pass through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (Tipnis), a 4,600-square mile (11,900 square kilometers) preserve which boasts exceptional levels of rainforest biodiversity, including endangered blue macaws and fresh-water dolphins. Indigenous peoples who live in Tipnis are participating in a month-long protest march against the road, which they claim violates their right to self-governance.

“This march will end in La Paz, so that the government understands and thinks about changing its attitude and changing the route of the highway project,” protester Fernando Varges told Al Jazeera News. More than 500 activists from a coalition of indigenous groups began a protest march in the Amazon city of Trinidad last week. The protestors plan to walk 310 miles (498 kilometers) to La Paz, a trip through the lowlands to the Andean highlands that may take a month. Bolivia’s 2009 constitution gives Tipnis and other indigenous communities the right to self-governance within their territories.

The proposed road would connect the Amazonian city of San Ignacio de Moxos with the highland city of Cochabamba. According to href=> BBC Brasil, more than 900 petitions have protested the road since it was first proposed in 1990.

The Washington Post reports road construction could lead to the destruction of 2,300 square miles (5,950 square kilometers) of rainforest by 2031. Protesters say the road will speed illegal settlement of native lands by farmers from the highlands and fear that coca growers (coca leaf is used to make cocaine) could bring violence to their territory. The Tipnis area is home to 15,000 Chiman, Yurucare, and Moxos peoples who hunt, fish, and farm within the rainforest.

The spreading protests are testing the reputation of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who ran on a platform of indigenous rights and environmental protection. More than three in five Bolivians are indigenous so their backing is crucial to Morales’ coalition, but he is losing their support.

At global climate talks, Morales has argued vehemently for the preservation of forests as he called for deep cuts in developed countries’ greenhouse gas emissions. Indigenous groups now accuse Morales of hypocrisy. In addition to protests against the road, environmentalists and indigenous activists criticize him for promoting oil and gas exploitation in pristine forests and for refusing to respond to complaints that mining has contaminated drinking water and crops.

Morales, however, insists these projects are necessary for poverty alleviation and development efforts. Bolivia’s government says the road is crucial for national integration, and that environmental safeguards will protect biodiversity.

“If we wanted to destroy the park and wipe out nature we would concrete over the whole park—that is not what we are going to do,” Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera told the BCC. The Washington Post reports Bolivia’s Environmental Defense League (LIDEMA) believes the highway is simply a pretext for oil exploitation in the rainforest.

While Evo Morales’s government supports the project, the road is largely a Brazilian endeavor. The road will connect the southern Brazilian Amazon with ports on the coasts of Chile and Peru, benefiting Brazilian commercial exports. The Washington Post reports $415 million from Brazil’s National Development Bank will enable Brazilian construction firm OAS to build the road.

“Human activity does not exist without environmental impact. We believe that this generates economic growth and prosperity,” Marcel Biato, Brazilian ambassador to Bolivia, told BBC Brasil . He noted further construction funds will be transferred only after Bolivians reach a consensus about the road.

“When there is no dialogue, it means that there is political intent,” said President Morales as reported by Al Jazeera.

“We do not want dialogue, we want them to respect us as indigenous peoples,” Pedro Vare, leader of indigenous organization CPIB, told the BBC.

Protesters say Morales’s government has neglected its constitutional obligation to consult indigenous peoples about development on ancestral territory. Pedro Moye of CIDOB, a coalition of 800,000 indigenous peoples in eastern Bolivia, told the Washington Post that the Yuracare, Chiman, and Trinitaria peoples are preparing to use “bows and arrows” to prevent the road from being built.

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