Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bolivia president suspends construction of highway

By JUAN KARITA - Associated Press Sept. 26, 2011

RURRENABAQUE, Bolivia — Bolivia's president late Monday suspended a
planned Amazon highway that has sparked clashes between police and Indians
who say the road would despoil a nature preserve that is home to thousands
of natives.

President Evo Morales also distanced himself from the decision to break up
a protest march Sunday. His announcement came hours after police released
hundreds of activists when mobs of local people blocked roads and an
airport to prevent the detainees from being taken out of the area.

"We repudiate the excesses yesterday at the march," Morales said, adding
that a high-level commission including international representatives
should be formed to investigate the crackdown.

Hours earlier, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest over
the police action against opponents of the highway, who include not just
local indigenous peoples but also Bolivia's main highlands Indian

In a brief televised address Monday night, Morales announced that he was
suspending the highway project and would let the two affected regions
decide whether to proceed with the Brazil-financed road. He offered no
specifics, but on Sunday he said that a referendum on the road could be
held in the two affected regions, Cochabamba and Beni.

The proposed 190-mile (300-kilometer) highway would connect Brazil with
Pacific ports in Chile and Peru. Plans called for it to cross Bolivia's
600-square-mile (12,000-square-kilometer) Isiboro-Secure Indigenous
Territory National Park, which is home to 15,000 indigenous people who
live off hunting, fishing, gathering native fruits and subsistence

The residents fear an influx of settlers would destroy their habitat,
felling trees and polluting rivers. Environmentalists say the road would
mostly benefit Brazilian commercial interests such as timber exporters
while endangering a pristine nature preserve.

Police used tear gas and truncheons to break up a march Sunday by some
1,000 protesters who were marching to La Paz, the national capital
Bolivia's highlands.

Officers detained the protesters and loaded them onto buses planning to
drive them back to the eastern lowlands provincial capital of Trinidad,
where the march began in mid-August.

But hundreds of people lit bonfires on the roadway, forcing authorities to
detour to the airport in the Amazon town of Rurrenabaque. Residents of the
town, however, had blocked the runway with barricades.

Authorities then backed down and let the detainees go.

"Given the attack by hundreds of people, the police pulled back to avoid
confrontations," Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti said at a news
conference in La Paz before the president made his comments.

Bolivia's national ombudsman, Rolando Villena, told Erbol radio "there was
excessive use of force" by police. Protest leaders claimed a child was
killed and other protesters, including children, were missing. Bolivia's
Roman Catholic Church issued a communique saying a child had died but
offered no details.

Llorenti denied that police used excessive force, saying officers acted
Sunday only to "evacuate the marchers to guarantee their safety and
protect them from physical harm" because pro-government groups were
approaching to stop the march.

Vehement opposition to the road has been a dilemma for Morales, an Aymara
Indian whose support for the highway has alienated many of the indigenous
Bolivians whose support was crucial to his landslide re-election in 2009.

Morales, a coca growers union leader who is the first indigenous president
of a country where more than two in three people are Indians, has been a
passionate leader of the campaign to curb global warming.

But he has been less of an environmentalist at home, and insists the
highway is essential to strengthening Bolivia's economy.

Analysts have noted that Cochabamba, one of the regions that would be
affected by the proposed highway, is home to the coca growers who still
work with Morales and are in favor of the highway.

The crisis has hurt the president, whose popularity fell to 37 percent
this month, its second-lowest level since he was first elected in 2006.

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