On October 21, two days after thousands of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples completed their 500 km march to La Paz in protest of the government’s plan to construct a highway through their territory, President Evo Morales scrapped the construction plan, announcing that he would govern by obeying the people.
The massive highway construction project was intended to fulfill Brazil’s dream of having access to the Pacific Ocean and expand their growing economy. This highway is part of a series of multi-national infrastructure projects of the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA). The proposed highway in Bolivia was set to pass through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), a protected area and home to several indigenous communities. The Bolivian government had approved the plan, and the construction appeared to be getting underway.
In response, the affected indigenous communities and larger indigenous organizations rose up in a march of protest against the project and the government’s treatment of the indigenous populations. Starting in August, hundreds of protesters set off to march 500 km to La Paz to demand both a halt to the construction and to be adequately consulted before any similar project is undertaken. The numbers swelled as the march progressed, growing to thousands. The marchers endured high altitudes and cold weather, and overcame police blockades and violently repressive police tactics in order to reach the capital.
Over two months had passed by the time the marchers finally reached the capital. During that time, television footage of the peaceful march and police violence caused a national outcry, and led to the resignation of two high ranking government officials—one who was implicated in the violent repression of the demonstrators, and another in solidarity with the protest—and President Morales’s decision to suspend construction of the highway until there would be a “consultation.” But, not content with this promise, the marchers persisted in their demand for a strict prohibition on any highway construction in TIPNIS.
The marchers had international law at their back. As Magistrate Marco Baldivieso Jinés of Bolivia’s Constitutional Court explains, ILO Convention No. 169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and case law from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (principally the 2007 case Saramaka v. Suriname), combine to provide that indigenous populations have the right to “prior consultation” in the face of any development project, and the further right to demand their “free, prior, and informed consent” before any large-scale development project is undertaken that presents the possibility of a major impact to their territory.
All eyes were on the government to see how it would respond. President Morales, long considered a champion of indigenous rights and the protection of the environment, no longer seemed like an ally. Rather than firmly defending the rights of indigenous peoples and the need to protect the environment from possible irreparable harm, the President was instead explaining that the project was vital to the development of Bolivia’s economy and that any consultation would not be “binding” on the government.
Finally, on October 21st, after months of marching and two days of sustained demonstrations in the central square of La Paz, President Morales changed his tune and announced that no road would be constructed through TIPNIS.
This is a profound victory for indigenous peoples and the civil society movements to defend indigenous rights and the environment. The marchers have presented the world with a stirring example of the power of indigenous communities to mobilize a country of both indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds, as well as thousands of people around the globe, to pressure the government and to have their voices and choices taken seriously. It is vital that indigenous peoples, as any other citizen, are active participants in decisions that affect their lives.
However, this story is not yet over. We will be watching closely to see whether President Morales keeps his promise, whether other peoples that are potentially affected will be consulted, and whether the alternative route adopted will present other social and environmental impacts. These concerns highlight perhaps the most fundamental issue raised by the marchers. The prohibition on construction in TIPNIS was just one of a number of demands raised by the marchers, and must be considered as only part of a much larger struggle to ensure that indigenous communities are adequately consulted, and given the right to reject, any activity or project that threatens the environment and indigenous territory, culture and way of life.