Bolivian highway: omen of an emerging new regional and world order

A highway to be built through a national park and indigenous lands has sparked protests in Bolivia. The author contends that far more than just an issue in Bolivian politics, this dispute is played out in the region with a more aggressive Brazil shaping Latin relations and internationally, between a newly assertive China and a waning United States. 

Arun G.Mukhopadhyay
17 July 2012

A controversial highway project that is designed to go through the ‘Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park’ (in Spanish, El Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure, or TIPNIS), a richly bio-diverse, 10,910 square kilometer indigenous territory within Bolivia has sparked protests in the country and has become a key issue in Bolivian politics once again since mid-2011. The dispute centres around one segment of a multi-country highway project linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts that goes through a landlocked Bolivia. The Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), the main financing agent for development in Brazil since 1952, agreed to lend to the Bolivian government 80% of the $415 million project to build the TIPNIS roadway to extend its regional influence.

In July 2011, the legal holders of the TIPNIS collective land title raised concerns over the lack of consultation with indigenous peoples and the adverse impacts of the proposed highway on local communities. They organised a march to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, demanding that the TIPNIS roadway project be abandoned. The march included supporters from two important indigenous organisations: the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ). The march reached La Paz in October 2011, and was successful in getting the Bolivian Parliament and the government to revoke the law constructing the roadway.

In December, however, a countermarch was initiated by the Indigenous Council of the South (CONISUR), consisting of some indigenous lowland communities within TIPNIS and in “Poligono Seven,” a small area within the southern part of TIPNIS. These groups strongly support construction of the highway, considering it essential to gain access to education and public health services as well as to reach markets where they can sell their produce. The CONISUR, pro-highway march arrived in La Paz in February 2012, and the government proposed a new law, with the backing of the pro-road supporters, that called for prior consultation with indigenous groups regarding construction of the road. Bolivian President Evo Morales advised the leaders of the anti-roadway march to consult with CONISUR’s leadership to resolve the dispute. CIDOB and the TIPNIS Subcentral have alleged that the consultation process was meant to reverse the government’s earlier decision in which the President had agreed to suspend development of the TIPNIS highway. The new law has sparked additional protests as the anti-road protesters rejected the terms and conditions of the consultation law. According to La Paz-based daily Pagina Siete, Evo Morales then said, “Those who reject the consultation reject the constitution.” CIDOB leaders organised another march to La Paz to oppose the recent moves. On June 27, 2012, more than 1,000 indigenous marchers entered the Bolivian capital. The Bolivian President accused conservative forces of backing the TIPNIS march and planning to destabilize the government, claims that the TIPNIS march leaders vigorously deny.

There are some valid reasons to question the need for a roadway to connect Bolivia's isolated northern Amazonian region with the country's central and western parts. The Bolivian Highway Administration’s (ABC)  call in early 2012 for a “technical debate” on the specific highway route continues to exclude all of the meaningful alternatives put forth. The ABC welcomes alternatives for only Segment Two of the highway between Isinuta and Monte Grande. Despite the massive protests to suspend construction, the ABC continues to build Segments One and Three of the road.  On June 3, 2012, the leaders of the anti-roadway movement met with the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, to convey that they are not against the project entirely, but would prefer it to bypass the park. CIDOB denounced President Evo Morales at the Summit of the Peoples Rio + 20 for denying the rights of the indigenous peoples of lowland Bolivia.

Back in January, 2012, author Juan Carlos Zambrana appeared live on Al Jazeera to say that the destabilization campaign against Evo Morales was being led by US-funded non-governmental organizations like Democracy Center, Amazon Watch and Avaaz. This effort is being funded by USAID, NED, Open Society Institute (George Soros), and the Rockefellers, etc. Further, he argued, these funders have heavily invested in Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), a neoliberal ploy to annex tropical forests under the pretext of curbing the climate crisis. REDD’s goal is to transform land use and property relations, and is potentially capable of plundering the tropical socio-ecology through evictions, human rights violations, fraud and militarisation. Embassy leaks from Wikipedia show that the American government through USAID has been financing CIDOB. CIDOB has joined the anti-Morales, Santa Cruz landholders to support greater autonomy for the region, and has opposed oil companies’ prior consultation with indigenous communities while also opening up new oil sites on indigenous lands. They have also demanded that the Bolivian government drop its opposition to REDD so that landholders in the TIPNIS can get money for selling carbon credits to polluters in developed countries.  The ‘People’s Agreement’ reached at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (April 2010) clearly condemned REDD, stating that they violate “the sovereignty of our Peoples.” TIPNIS Subcentral, ally of CIDOB, has also strongly criticized some of CIDOB’s strategic moves with regard to collaborating with rightist forces that ultimately hamper indigenous interests.            

The other side of the coin, as described by Jeffery Webber in his January 2012 article, reveals that the soy agro-industrialists in the eastern lowlands, including Santa Cruz, have always played the role of a catalyst to serve the wider interests of Brazilian sub-imperialism. The drug and timber barons, with various links to government authorities, are also supposed to benefit from easier access through TIPNIS. The possibility of massive hydrocarbon reserves within TIPNIS has also been an important factor in proceeding with the project, as the proposed road would immensely facilitate exploration. The TIPNIS road development project has thus been viewed as a part of an ambitious regional integration project propelled by Brazilian capital and the Brazilian state, known as the ‘Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America’ (IIRSA). The proposed highway would open up Bolivia’s northern savannah region to further capitalist expansion by linking its northeast and southwest borders. The highway, cutting through Bolivia’s TIPNIS, is crucial for transporting Brazilian commodities from its western parts to Pacific ports in northern Chile.

Since 2009, China has become Brazil’s primary trading partner, replacing the United States. The value of this relationship is said to be $17 billion between 2009 and 2011, mostly through indirect routes. The Chinese modus operandi in Africa and Latin America starts with contacting suppliers to form joint ventures, followed by mergers and acquisitions. Finally, Chinese firms begin the process of ‘land grabbing’ to safeguard the future supply of raw materials. China has provided Brazilian companies with billions of dollars worth of credit in yuan, and Brazil’s ‘Real’ has been linked to China’s fluctuating currency. Brazil‘s economic relations with China resemble the typical ‘North-South” relationship, exemplified by Brazil’s imports of capital goods and manufactured products and its exports of agricultural, energy and mineral products that result in Brazilian deindustrialization.

Since Morales was elected President of Bolivia in 2005, the United States, previously supported by the country’s comprador capitalists, has not been able to shape Bolivian policies. On the contrary, Bolivia has broken with American drug war policies, protecting coca cultivation in family farms. Bolivia has rejected the practices by which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank controlled Bolivia’s financial policies. Bolivia has also initiated effective steps toward regional integration that undermine US views on climate justice and world peace. The world order is fast heading towards Sino-US bipolarity, with the astonishing rise of China as a military-industrial power challenging the United States even in Latin America. Under this scenario, President Morales may be inclined to forge a strategic alliance with China to counter-balance US influence. The advent of a socialist Morales government in Bolivia beginning in 2005 has pushed the United States into an "undeclared contest” for political influence in the Andean region. In 2006, former Brazilian president Lula met with his Peruvian counterpart, Alan Garcia, who had frankly declared his preference for a Brazilian regional hegemony to that of the United States. Colombia, a strong US ally, announced in early 2011 its collaboration with China to build a railway to link its Atlantic and Pacific coasts and go around the Panama Canal. A network of highways under construction with Chinese aid to link five Peruvian ports on the Pacific coast shows how China is reshaping regional trade patterns. The USA, focusing more on internal rather than external politics under Barack Obama and his predecessors, has resulted in a loss of ‘leverage, confidence and credibility’ throughout Latin America. The military agreement between the United States and Colombia in August 2009 was strongly criticized by most South American countries, including Brazil. The lack of sincerity in normalizing US-Cuba relations has discredited US politics.  The United States’ role in the Honduran ‘coup d'état’ of June 2009, under the pretext of promoting democratic values and containing an imaginary communist threat, is very much dubious. Recently on June 23, the Paraguayan Senate impeached and overthrew President Fernando Lugo who was known for defending peasant rights. Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay all condemned Lugo’s ouster, allegedly masterminded by the United States.

Even though seemingly a waning power in Latin America, the United States can never let Chinese, anti-American hegemonic aspirations make inroads in Latin America, a continent so close to the United States. The ‘indigenous versus indigenous’ controversy surrounding the TIPNIS road project may turn out to be a proxy war in a new, emerging, bipolar world.

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