LA PAZ – Bolivian Amazon Indians have resumed a march to the capital to protest a jungle highway nearly a week after a violent police crackdown.
Roughly 1,000 Indians departed Saturday morning from Quiquibey, an Amazon town more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) northeast of La Paz where they had regrouped following the police action, said one of the leaders of the march, Fernando Vargas.
“We’ve already advanced some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) since Quiquibey. We hope to walk another 10 kilometers and set up camp,” said Vargas said on the road.
The protesters, who are demanding a definitive halt to plans to build the highway through the Tipnis nature reserve in Bolivia’s northern Amazon region, say they are determined to reach La Paz.
They began the march on Aug. 15 and had traveled 300 kilometers (185 miles) as of last Sunday, when road-blocking supporters of President Evo Morales who back the highway plan held them up at a roadblock near the town of Yucumo.
Then some 500 police, who had supposedly been deployed to prevent confrontations between the protesters and Morales supporters, violently cracked down on the march last Sunday.
The action, in which the police fired tear gas at the marchers, came a day after the Indians had forced Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca to walk with them through an initial police blockade.
The police repression touched off a wave of nationwide protests against Morales and prompted the resignations of two Cabinet ministers, a deputy minister and other officials, some of whom stepped down in protest.
Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, said the police operation was “unpardonable” but neither he nor any other authority has accepted responsibility for the crackdown.
On Saturday, the socialist president again defended the planned highway in an address to his supporters – a group of coca farmers in a lowland area of the central province of Cochabamba, near Tipnis, who demanded that the project continue.
Morales denied that the highway would be the “country’s most expensive,” as his political opponents and experts have stated, and insisted that only 66 kilometers (40 miles) would run through “virgin lands” because the rest of the reserve has already been settled.
“Some Indians are being badly informed and deceived” by organizations that do not want the highway built, the president said, adding that the dispute “is a political issue and not about protecting the environment.”
In recent days, the president has repeatedly said the media have exaggerated and falsely reported on last Sunday’s crackdown, although media associations denied the accusation.
He also has ordered a temporary halt to the project to allow a referendum on the highway’s construction to be held in Cochabamba and the northeastern province of Beni, but the protesters reject that solution.
“We’re really concerned because, on the one hand, he apologizes and on the other he instructs ruling-party lawmakers to pass a law authorizing the referendum in the two regions,” in violation of laws that stipulate that only the inhabitants of the Tipnis reserve can decide on the project, Vargas said.
Morales’ government insists that the Brazilian-funded highway, which would stretch for more than 300 kilometers (185 miles), is crucial to plans to connect the country’s road network.
Indigenous coca farmers loyal to the president, whose image as a defender of Indians’ rights and the environment has been tarnished by the conflict, announced they will hold a march from Bolivia’s Altiplano region to La Paz starting Oct. 12 to show their support.
A dozen opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, have filed a complaint with the federal Attorney General’s Office against Morales, accusing him of “genocide” for the violent police crackdown, one of the plaintiffs said Saturday.
Tomas Monasterio said that accusation is justified because under the Bolivian criminal code “genocide” can exist even when there are no fatalities but rather “cruel injuries” and violent “displacements” of people.
“Women were mistreated and gagged, children and men were beaten. There was excessive use of violence ... even though it was a police intervention, the president did not act in conformance with the laws to avoid this type of incident,” the legislator said.
The AG’s office has 30 days to investigate the complaint.