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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bolivian President Caught in the Middle

Air Date: Week of

Construction of a highway that would have gone through a 2300 square mile rainforest in the Bolivian Amazon was cancelled after thousands protested. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

After months of protests, Bolivian President Evo Morales cancelled a major highway project that would have cut through indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest. But Morales is still intent on bringing roads and other development to Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America. As Mary Stucky reports, this push is putting his image as a pro-environmental leader in question.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

GELLERMAN: In Bolivia, the people spoke and the government listened. For three months, a thousand people marched across the Andes Mountains, closing roads, enduring police crackdown and arrest. They were protesting the government's plan to build a highway through indigenous lands and Amazon forest.

Bolivian President Evo Morales gave in to the protesters and scrapped the project. But while demonstrators may have won this round, the fight over how to develop Bolivia's economy and protect its environmental future continues. Mary Stucky reports.


STUCKY: The proposed highway would have cut through more than 23 hundred square miles of Amazon rain forest in what’s called the Isiboro Sécure park, home to at least a dozen endangered species including fresh water dolphins and blue macaws, not to mention 15 hundred tribal people who live in relative isolation, surviving by hunting, fishing, and gathering food. Adolfo Moye is one of their leaders. He says his people have no need for highways.

The old road meets the new in Isinuta in Isiboro Sécure Park in the Amazon. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

MOYE (via translator): Our way of life is sustainable and organic. The rivers are the highways of the communities. We have our own natural highways and have no need for roads.

STUCKY: Moye and the tribal people he represents won the battle over their land – for now. But Bolivia’s environmental future is far from decided. This is the poorest country in South America. And its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, is intent on developing the country’s rich resources, giving more of the proceeds to Bolivia’s poor. To do that, he says he needs roads.


STUCKY: In Bolivia, roads are either dilapidated or nonexistent. One province - the size of Great Britain - has just 150 miles of paved roads. The highway through the Amazon was meant to dramatically reduce the distance traveled between several major cities and is part of a network that would connect to Pacific ports. Bolivia has large natural gas resources that Morales has promised to exploit. But this presents a conflict, says John Zambrana, head of the environmental organization FOCOMADE.

ZAMBRANA (via translator): Basically the government wants to develop the country by taking advantage of natural resources. We don’t have any other type of income in Bolivia so hydrocarbons and petroleum are being exploited. And these things are generally inside environmentally sensitive, protected areas.

STUCKY: This pits two powerful forces against each other – Bolivians who want to protect and preserve the environment against those whose priority is to develop the country. Morales may have caved in on the road through the Amazon, but he’s still facing an almost irresolvable conflict, according to Kathryn Ledebur, head of The Andean Information Network, a Bolivian think tank.

LEDEBUR: Part of it is a difference in worldview and the vision between campesinos who are farmers who want to chop down chunks of forest and establish boundaries to the farms and then the indigenous people who have different visions of land use.

STUCKY: In that struggle, the country appears to be split. One poll showed nearly half the Bolivians supported Morales in his quest to run a highway through the Amazon.

This summer, workers began constructing the first section of the highway that was to cut through the Isiboro Sécure Park in Bolivia’s Amazon. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

[MUSIC: Gato Barbieri “Bolivia” from Bolivia Under Fire (BMG Heritage Records 2003).]

STUCKY: Hundreds of people showed up this past summer to celebrate the president in his hometown Villa Tunari in Bolivia’s sub-tropics. These are Morale’s staunchest supporters – waving flags and showering him with confetti, a Bolivian tradition bestowing honor on an important person.


STUCKY: Morales told the crowd that he is determined to develop the country’s extensive natural resources. He’s planning to build dams, more roads and other infrastructure. Apolonia Sanchez Miranda, president of the Villa Tunari City Council, praised Morales and says he’s giving Bolivians what they need.

President Evo Morales is celebrated in his hometown Villa Tunari in Bolivia’s sub-tropics this summer. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

SANCHEZ (via translator): He is doing what no other Bolivian president has done. This president is wanting to carry through with what has been promised.

STUCKY: It was here in Bolivia’s subtropics that Morales got his start in politics, leading the union of farmers who grow coca. He’s walked a fine line between meeting the needs of coca farmers who want more land and the traditional Amazon tribes. Morales’ policies have sometimes angered the country's wealthy class. He nationalized energy companies and tried to end government fuel subsidies, which drove up the price of gasoline and diesel.

And his push to develop the country’s fossil fuels is at odds with his statements at last year's Cancun climate summit where he chastised industrialized nations and warned that climate change will result in environmental genocide. Kathryn Ledebur says these contradictions have caused his image as one of the world's greenest presidents to suffer.

LEDEBUR: His own base - coca growers - places a lot of pressure on him to generate income, but at the same time, he needs to meet the need to comply with his international discourse, and a discourse that I think is well intentioned and well focused on protecting Mother Earth and the environment. It’s just been impossible for him to do so, and to reconcile these demands.

STUCKY: The victory, at least for now, has gone to Bolivia’s environmental activists like Pablo Rojas who explains what he thinks was at stake in the rain forest.

ROJAS (via translator): There is no radio, no Internet, none of the technology of the world which we have been convinced is happiness. There’s a different type of happiness: listening to the river at night, listening to the laughter of the children with their games and climbing trees. It’s the magic that we have forgotten in our jungles of cement.

STUCKY: In backing off the Amazon road project, Evo Morales may have bought a little time to protect Pachamama, what Bolivians call "Mother Earth," while also developing the country. The question is whether he can satisfy Bolivia’s many interests without further protest. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Stucky.

GELLERMAN: Libby Arnosti also contributed to our report from Bolivia.



Andean Information Network

This story was produced in collaboration with Round Earth Media


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