Indigenous Bolivians march against Amazon road

Indigenous people and environmentalists are approaching La Paz after a 500km march from the southern city of Trinidad, as they turn on president in protest against a planned road that would cut through rainforest.

They are marching on.

More than 1,500 indigenous Bolivians in the final days of a remarkable 500km march across the country.

Final destination: The seat of the national government – La Paz.

Their message to Bolivian President Evo Morales: Stop the building of a controversial highway that would cut through their indigenous land.

A good overview of the Bolivian road project by Carwil Bjork-James can be found here.&nbsp

The marchers are less than 40km from La Paz [Photo: Gabriel Elizondo]&nbsp
They are more than 60 days into this march.

It is Monday and they now are only 40km away from La Paz.

But this is one of the most exhausting parts of the journey, a winding, narrow, mountain pass that in parts is unpaved.&nbspIt is the last gruelling leg of the journey before dropping into La Paz.

The pass is 4,000 metres high or about 12,000 feet above sea level.

It is lightly raining. It is cold. At these heights, oxygen is sparse.

The mountain pass they are on now is a difficult climb [Photo: Gabriel Elizondo]

It is mostly silent, with only the sound of light rain falling on plastic tarps covering most of the marchers. There are men carrying bows and arrows. There are pregnant women and children.

Occasionally they break into chant. One man plays a harmonica. &nbsp

An occasional bus comes roaring down the mountain road, spitting exhaust, slowing down to a near stop as people lean out the windows to encourage the marchers on: Adelante! Adelante! Adelante!

But over this long journey they have faced worse than this mountain climb. Like on September 28, when police attacked the marchers and fired tear gas at them in an attempt to break up the march along the highway before it go too close to La Paz.

Nobody was killed, but dozens were injured. But the marchers carried on, this time with even more determination, they said.

Morales says the road project is an important aspect of economic development. He has also said it would be build “no matter if the indigenous people like it or not”.

Such tough talk from a man who is indigenous himself, and directed at people who once considered Morales a brother more than a president, backfired badly on Morales. It has turned a local issue into a national one.

The march has become a rallying cry, marchers say, for indigenous people in Bolivia who feel as though Morales has not lived up to all the expectations they had for him.&nbsp &nbsp&nbsp

Cosyo Chiman and his 12 year old son say they are part of the march because the road project would run through their community and ruin their traditional way of life [Photo: Gabriel Elizondo]&nbsp

“Evo has never built a multi-ethnic state, he doesn’t understand it,” Rafael Quispe Flores, a prominent march organiser told me.

“There is a lot of incoherence in his policies. There is no understanding within the government because they didn’t build this state: We built it. We feel disillusioned and upset, but still strong.”

With pressure building, the Morales government has seemed to at least partially reconsider the road project. Morales has put a temporary halt to one section of the project, but construction on the rest of it continues.

It’s a project that probably would not be possible without a multimillion dollar loan from Brazil’s BNDES bank, the powerful national development bank.

Last week, I was in Rio, the headquarters of the BNDES, and I requested an interview about the Bolivian road project with the bank.

A BNDES spokesman said there would be no interviews, but confirmed the bank had set aside a $332m loan and said all else would be handled in accordance with the Bolivian government.&nbsp

The construction company building the highway is OAS, one of Brazil’s largest construction and engineering companies.

For the marchers, none of this smells right.

So when they arrive in La Paz on Wednesday, they say they will occupy a main plaza and demand Morales heed their calls to stop the project altogether.

Nightfall in Pongo, Bolivia as the marchers set up camp off the side of the road under very cold temperatures and thick fog [Photo: Gabriel Elizondo]&nbsp

There are already rumours swirling around La Paz that thousands of other people might join the marchers once it reaches the city.

But on Monday night, the marchers pulled of the highway in a tiny little place called Pongo, Bolivia – a mountain rest stop area with a population of maybe 50 people.

They pitched their tents, and started making soup.

A thick fog mixed with mist engulfed them blocking out any last bit of sun that was left. The temperatures dropped to dangerously cold levels.

But they knew the end of this march was in sight. Hoping once they arrived in La Paz, their endurance would send a message their president could not ignore.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

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