Bolivia approves controversial highway in Amazon biodiversity hotspot

Major 190-mile road will strip national park and home to thousands of indigenous people of its protected status, making it vulnerable to deforestation
Dan Collyns

Bolivia has given the go ahead to a controversial highway which would cut through an Amazon biodiversity hotspot almost the size of Jamaica and home to 14,000 mostly indigenous people.

President Evo Morales enacted the new law opening the way for the 190-mile (300km) road through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, known as Tipnis, its Spanish acronym. The road will divide the park in two and strip it of the protections won in 2011 when a national march by thousands of protesters ended in clashes with the police and forced the government to change its position.

Speaking to supporters of the road in the Amazon city of Trinidad, Morales accused developed countries of pushing "colonial environmentalism" in Bolivia.

"This so-called colonial environmentalism isn't interested in the indigenous movement having schools, hospitals; they're not interested in the indigenous movement having electricity or that we have highways," he said. The law was backed by the majority of local authorities and the governor of Beni, Bolivia's main Amazon region.

The legislation passed through Bolivia's Senate last week where Morales' governing Movement Toward Socialism party holds a two-thirds majority, and was enacted on Sunday. Rival political parties and the Catholic church opposed the law, joining activists and indigenous groups who marched in several cities across the country.

"This is the beginning of the destruction of protected areas in Bolivia and indigenous peoples' territory," Fernando Vargas, a Tipnis indigenous leader, told The Guardian. Tipnis, which stretches for more than 10,000km2, is home to the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.

"Evo Morales is not a defender of Mother Earth, or indigenous peoples. He's in favour of extractivism and capitalism," Vargas added, rejecting the leader's assertion that the Tipnis movement was driven by foreign NGOs.

"We know that the road means the destruction of our territory, we don't need anyone to tell us," he said.

Opponents of the road say it will open up the park to mining and oil and gas exploration, as well as loggers and coca farmers, known as cocaleros, whom they accuse Morales, a former cocalero leader, of supporting. Illegal coca crops in Bolivia increased by 150% from 2015 to 2016, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime .

Moira Birss of Amazon Watch said the law could lead to "severe deforestation in a key biodiversity hotspot and currently-protected area of the Bolivian Amazon."

"The cultures of the three indigenous peoples that inhabit Tipnis are intrinsically tied to the rainforest. By failing to adequately consult with them and ensure their territorial rights, the Bolivian government is endangering their future and that of the whole of the Bolivian Amazon," she added.

In 2012, the Bolivian government held a consultation process in Tipnis which was widely criticised by international and national monitors. Bolivia's human rights ombudsman concluded that the government's process had failed to allow free and informed consent.

A 2011 study by the Bolivian Institute for Strategic Research found that the road would accelerate deforestation by increasing access to the territory for illegal loggers and farmers. It predicted deforestation of 64% of the park within 15 years if the road was built, more than a projected 43% loss without the road.