Evo Morales’s recent behavior has made it unclear just who and what the Bolivian president is for anymore. This has big implications not just for Bolivia but also for the rest of Latin America and the world.
Morales was elected twice as a champion of his fellow indigenous people. He’s been a paladin for Mother Earth, recently pushing for international adoption of a Bolivian law granting nature rights, to be protected like those of human beings. Yet, in insisting on cutting a Brazilian-financed highway through the delicate Amazon forest, bifurcating the autonomous homelands of three indigenous groups, Morales has trampled on both causees.
This duplicity caught up with him last month after police roughed up indigenous protesters marching from their homes toward the capital, La Paz. After several senior officials quit in disgust, Morales announced suspension of the highway segment that runs through the peoples’ homeland, pending a national debate.
The highway wouldn’t run through just any part of Bolivia. It would bisect the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory, set aside for its 12,000 native residents who live off the forest as fishers, hunters, gatherers and farmers. According to Bolivia’s 2009 constitution, the government cannot take measures affecting these people without consulting them, through their institutions, in advance.
That didn’t happen with the new highway. Instead, Morales’s government ignored the residents -- who are not members of his own Indian group, the Aymara -- and made deals with the Brazilian firm Construtora OAS Ltd. to build the road and with BNDES, the Brazilian Development Bank, to finance most of the $415 million cost.
A north-south road through Bolivia is certainly in Brazil’s interests: Combined with an extension through Peru, it would provide Brazil’s exporters quick access to the Pacific, and thus Asia’s markets. It would eventually be a boon as well to Bolivia, which has immense deposits of lithium and other commodities. And it would help knit Bolivia together, as government officials have argued.
But would the road benefit the people to whom the land legally belongs? The government argues that the road would help them transport their goods and access medical care more quickly. However, the groups are unlikely to use a transnational highway for that. Largely reliant on waterways to get around, the communities arguably would be better served by improved docks and more medical clinics. And, inevitably, the laying of road through the Amazon brings additional human activity, which leads to deforestation.
Morales has floated the idea of deciding the road’s future by a referendum in the two provinces in which the national park falls. It’s a bad idea, because the votes of the small native population within the reserve would be overwhelmed by those of residents outside it.
Morales would be wise to do now what he should have done to start with: begin a serious consultation with the native communities including a transparent assessment of the pros and cons of the highway and an exploration of alternative routes bypassing the park.
The episode, meanwhile, offers larger lessons for Morales and other regional leaders. They should take note that his initial attempt to delegitimize the protestors by calling them American stooges was laughed off in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region. This shows the declining power of empty anti-U.S. populism. Hugo Chavez, are you paying heed?
In another healthy sign, Brazil has seen its hegemonistic tendencies challenged. A robust Brazilian economy is a good thing for the world, but not if Brazil tramples its neighbors in the pursuit of growth. Brazilian officials may want to remember the road rebellion as they make final decisions about controversial dams that could damage the environment and displace communities in Bolivia and Peru.
The other lesson here is that the Amazon forests will remain imperiled as long as despoiling them provides the biggest payoff. The loss will be not just to the indigenous people but also to us all, because the Amazon slows global warming by absorbing as much as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.
This demonstrates the value, ultimately, of creating a global carbon exchange. With such a system, polluters would pay to release carbon into the atmosphere and the Amazonian people and governments would collect revenue to preserve their ecosystems. Until that becomes a reality, however, it’s largely up to tropical nations to maintain their rainforests -- and the future of Bolivia’s Amazon highway will give a good indication of how effective they will be.
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