Bolivian Police Fire Tear Gas at Indigenous Protesters (Update)
UPDATE September 27, 2011: Bolivia's President Evo Morales has frozen construction on a road that would cut through the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS). Speaking at a press conference Monday night the President condemned a police operation that fired tear gas at indigenous marchers and forced hundreds onto buses to be returned to their villages. "We do not agree with violence and abuse against the indigenous brothers who were on the march," Morales said, stating that he did not give orders authorizing the attack by police. Bolivian government officials at the highest level deny involvement in the incident. Vice Minister of the Interior Marcos Farfan has been named as the official responsible for the violence and has resigned, according to Bolivian state news service ABI. The president's actions and resignation of Vice Minister Farfan do not satisfy the TIPNIS marchers, who say their right to decide what happens on their land is still being violated by the government. President Morales said during the press conference that the future of the road would be decided by people of the two Bolivian states that encompass the TIPNIS and which the road will connect, Cochabamba and Beni. This move reduces the people of the TIPNIS to a small part of a large population that includes some of Morales' staunchest allies who also support the road. Bolivia's 2009 constitution states indigenous communities have the right to be consulted on legislative and administrative projects that may affect them before the projects are underway. Marchers are currently scattered in several locations along the road they travelled before the attack. Announcements by leaders from the TIPNIS indicate they will continue their 350-mile trek to Bolivia's administrative seat in La Paz as soon as marchers can regroup. Bolivia's largest union organization, the Bolivian Workers' Center, plans a nationwide strike in solidarity with the TIPNIS marchers tomorrow. Locals in the tropical community of Rurrenabaque blocked passage of buses carrying detained indigenous marchers early this morning causing police to retreat and freeing the marchers. Bolivian police yesterday tear-gassed marchers protesting a road that will cut through their territory. According to Bolivian news outlet Radio Erbol, men, women and children were separated and hundreds of marchers were loaded onto buses to be transported back to their communities. “We are defending our rights as Indigenous Peoples. Our President has humiliated us," Nelly Romero, vice president of key march organizer Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia or CIDOB), told Radio Erbol last night. "We have suffered the same repression in the past and now we suffer it again. The Indigenous Peoples of the lowlands will not renounce our rights.”
The marchers, who have covered about half of their 350-mile route from Bolivia's lowlands toward the government seat of La Paz, are from the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS), an isolated stretch of tropical jungle. Their progress had been halted for six days by a police roadblock separating them from local farmers near the town of Yucumo. The farmers, many of whom are also ethnically indigenous, support the government's plan to build the road and hope that it will expand markets for their goods. Violent confrontations between marchers and the Yucumo farmers, who vowed to not let the march pass, were generally feared and the government said police were deployed to prevent problems. The marchers' primary demand is that the government halt work on the road, which they say will devastate their land, damage their traditional livelihood of hunting and gathering and open the park to oil and gas exploration. According to Bolivia's 2009 constitution the government must consult with indigenous Bolivians about projects that affect their territory prior to beginning work, but large portions of the road outside the park are already under construction. The government says it will consult with residents during the coming weeks. On Saturday Bolivia's foreign minister, who met with marchers to negotiate, was briefly held by them and forced to lead the group through the police blockade. That event combined with Sunday's police action deepened the divide between the TIPNIS residents and the Bolivian government and threw future negotiations into doubt. News that the police moved on marchers was met with surprise in many parts of Bolivia, where indigenous president Evo Morales was first elected in 2005 on promises to enfranchise indigenous Bolivians, who are the poorest people in one of South America's poorest nations. Today he finds himself pressed to meet different demands from within Bolivia's large and diverse indigenous society. Bolivia's interior minister Sacha Llorenti said in a press conference today that the government and police acted only to safeguard protestors and counter-protestors, and that they will continue this policy. Protests rejecting the government-ordered police action on the TIPNIS marchers are expected to gain momentum across the country early this week, as TIPNIS leaders vow that their progress toward La Paz will continue. For more information on pressures over land use in Bolivia click here.