In August this year, a march of 4,000 indigenous people set off from the Isiboro Secure National Park, a protected Amazon region in eastern Bolivia known as Tipnis.
They are protesting against president Evo Morales’ decision to allow a huge highway to be built through the middle of their area—destroying the rainforest and wrecking the agriculture they depend on.
This week their march will finally reach the country’s capital, La Paz, and gather outside the presidential palace. By then their numbers will have swollen to tens of thousands—trade unionists, students, and indigenous, community and left wing organisations.
It has become a national protest.And it has raised questions about Morales—a leader who came to power as part of a movement for indigenous rights and against the neoliberalism that swept Latin America in the early 2000s (see column, right).
Morales and others like him became a beacon of hope in the region and across the world.
He came from a mining family in the Andes and grew up speaking an indigenous language—Quechua. They were given land to grow coca when the mines began to decline—and he became leader of the coca farmers’ organisation.
His election was the result of years of mass mobilisations, beginning in the city of Cochabamba in 2000.
When the then government privatised the city’s water supplies, selling them to the Bechtel corporation, the local organisations united to resist. And they won—Cochabamba’s water was returned to public control.
The experience was repeated two years later in the indigenous city of El Alto, when another multinational water corporation, Suez, was given the contract. Protests, occupations and strikes stopped the privatisation there too.
As the movement expanded, led largely by the indigenous organisations, mass assemblies presented their key demand—the nationalisation of oil and gas. Instead of the profits going to foreign multinationals, backed by the IMF and World Bank, they wanted the money used to reverse the drastic decline in living standards.
When Morales was elected president in 2006, his promise to those who put him there was to fulfil those long-frustrated demands—to reclaim Bolivia’s wealth from the corporations and use it for the benefit of the majority.
Morales was not like the previous incumbents—not like Goni, for example, who spoke Spanish with a American accent.
Morales’ victory was their victory.
And when the big landowners and corporations of the eastern provinces, the so-called “media luna” (half moon), tried to split the country in 2008, it was the mass movement that defended Morales’ government and broke the back of the right wing attack.
Central to Morales’ new 2009 constitution was the recognition of the right of indigenous peoples to the collective ownership of their traditional lands—a right denied through the 500 previous years of colonisation and economic domination.
The constitution also recognised, to the delight of the international environmental movement, the rights of Mother Earth, or “Pachamama”.
This was not just a recognition of a culture of living in harmony with nature—it was also a recognition of a duty to ensure that multinationals would not ruin natural resources for future generations.
But then Morales decided to let them build the Tipnis road. He didn’t ask the people who lived there first, though his own constitution said he should.
The great highway was not intended to bring benefits to the local population, but to give multinational oil, gas and mining corporations more direct and rapid access to the region.
It was a plan elaborated years ago by the World Bank to build a “transoceanic corridor” from Atlantic to Pacific.
A major beneficiary here would be Brazil, the world’s eighth largest economy and home to several multinational corporations—including the construction giant OAS.
OAS was given the contract to build the road at double the standard price—$1.3 billion per kilometre along its 600 kilometre length. It also financed the visit to Bolivia of Lula, Brazil’s powerful ex-president, on 30 August. Morales attended, just two weeks after the indigenous marchers set out.
In December, mass violent protests overturned a government decision to raise the price of petrol by 83 percent. This was a sign of things to come.
In August, Morales attacked the Tipnis anti-highway marchers, claiming they were backed by “foreign interests” and stood in the way of progress. This charge was echoed by Garcia Linera, the vice president and ideological power behind the throne.
There were some NGOs and religious organisations, with a range of interests, supporting the march. But the bitter truth is that Morales was defending the interests of foreign multinationals, like the Brazilian corporation Petrobras. And it was Morales who recently signed contracts with mining companies to extract lithium and uranium. Who, then, is driven by external interests?
The moment of truth came at Yucumo, where Morales’s organisation, MAS, mobilised 200 or so coca farmers with clubs and dynamite to stop the marchers.
They injured a number of people, and the police moved in behind them and attacked and teargassed the marchers, arresting 270.
The impact was dramatic. The buses taking the prisoners back were physically stopped by the people of two nearby towns—San Borja and Rurrenabaque. The marchers were given food and shelter.
News of the violent assault spread quickly. Interior minister Sacha Llorente supported it on television, then resigned. Defence minister Cecilia Chacon resigned immediately too, in protest at the repression.
It was 28 hours later that Morales ordered the police action to stop and claimed to have known nothing about the order to attack—even though he is commander in chief of the army and head of the national police. Very few people believe him.
He said the road building would be stopped pending a referendum. But he made it very clear that there are two possible outcomes—yes or yes.
The Tipnis march is a turning point. It exposes the gulf between the rhetoric of an alternative model of development and the continuing domination of neoliberalism in reality.
Morales’ government, like so many before, has tried to mediate between global capital and the people. One indigenous leader described him as “the lieutenant of the multinationals”.
When the movement began that brought Morales to power, their vision was to change society, to ensure social justice for those so long excluded from control of their own lives.
They wanted development, but not the capitalist development that had wreaked such havoc—the model that Morales and Linera are now advocating so forcefully.