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Following violent crackdown against protestors, Bolivia puts Amazon road project on ice

After a police crackdown against indigenous activists, Bolivian President Evo Morales has suspended a large highway project through the Amazon rainforest. The police reaction—which included tear gas, rounding up protestors en masse, and allegations of violence—resulted in several officials stepping down in protest of the government’s handling. Some indigenous people marched 310 miles (498 kilometers) from the Amazon to La Paz to show solidarity against the road, saying they had not been consulted and the project would destroy vast areas of biodiverse rainforest.

President Morales said on television that he would turn over decision about the road projects to the two states impacted, Cochabamba and Beni. He condemned police action against protestors—made up largely of indigenous people and college students—and stated there would be an investigation into the matter. Still, officials under Morales were stepping down to protest the crackdown.

Yesterday, defense minister Cecilia Chacon stepped down after disagreeing with the government’s decision to disperse marching protestors as they reached La Paz. Today, Maria Rene Quiroga, immigration director, stepped down after calling the government’s reaction ‘unforgivable’, reports Voice of America. As around 1,000 marchers approached La Paz, riot police attempted to break up the march, forcing protestors onto buses with tear gas and batons. Protestors claim riot police used ‘extreme violence’ against them and rumor has spread that an infant was killed.

In response protestors blocked roads by building fires and used burning tires to shutdown an airport when rounded up protestors were brought there.

“We don’t understand why the government has acted in this brutal manner,” Rafael Quispe, one of the protest leaders, told AFP. “This is a government that says it is of the indigenous people, yet it has attacked them.”

Officials are spreading blame with none admitting to ordering the police to break up the march.

Indigenous tribes have opposed the project for decades given that the 190-mile (300 kilometer) highway would pass through 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. Himself indigenous, Morales has often used his background to appeal to Bolivians as 3 out of 5 people in Bolivia are of indigenous origin. However, when it came to the road issue he told tribes the road would be built regardless of their concerns.

Morales has walked a thin line between economic development and making good on his pledge to protect indigenous groups and safeguard the environment.

Critics contend that the highway would do little for Bolivians, but only benefit Brazil as a route to the Pacific. The road received hundreds of millions in loans from Brazil’s development bank, BNDES, and would be built by OAS, a Brazilian construction firm.

The Guardian reports that defense minister Chacon wrote in her letter of resignation: “This is not the way. We agreed to do things differently.”

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