Bolivian indigenous activists have started a long protest march from the Amazon plains to the country’s capital in against a government plan to build a 306km highway through a national park in indigenous territory.
“This march will end in La Paz, so that the government understands and thinks about changing its attitude and changing the route of the highway project,” said Fernando Vargas, one of the leaders of the protest, as he and at least 500 others started the 40 day, 375km walk from Beni to La Paz on Monday.
The $420m road, largely financed by Brazil, would link the plains of Beni to the Chapare, a sparsely populated region where Bolivian President Evo Morales began his political career as a coca farmer.
The national park, called TIPNIS, is also a self-governing area that gives legal indigenous autonomy to local communities, a right given by Bolivia’s widely supported 2009 constitution.
TIPNIS is home to endangered fresh-water dolphins and blue macaws, along with other wildlife, but environmentalists estimate that the road would erase more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles) of rain forest over two decades.
To prevent the road from being built, at least three different indigenous groups who who live in the TIPNIS are prepared to use “bows and arrows” against any interlopers, said Pedro Moye, a leader of the CIDOB association of indigenous peoples of eastern Bolivia, which says it represents 800,000 of Bolivia’s 10 million people.
Morales has gained notoriety as an environmentally friendly leader and Bolivia’s first indigenous-identified president, which is significant for many locals because the country has a higher per capita indigenous population than any other Latin American country.
Less than a year ago, Morales told Al Jazeera that he is opposed to environmentally destructive development practices that are common in ‘indistrialised’ countries.
“[Those practices are] leaving the world without ecology. I called it ecolocide, which will lead to genocide,” he said.
Organisers of the march have said that they are reacting Morales’ hypocritical stance on climate change and environmentalism, pointing to his promoting of natural gas development and oil exploration.
“Morales isn’t a defender of Mother Earth. His rhetoric is empty,” said Rafael Quispe, leader of the main indigenous organization in Bolivia’s highlands, Conamaq.
As a result of the conflict, Morales has lost a significant amount of support from his constituancy and put the president on the defensive ahead of national judicial elections in October.
Paralysed by strikes
To coincide with the march, strikes and road blockades were called in two other areas of the country.
On Monday, El Alto, a massive, mostly indigenous city neighbouring La Paz, and home to the country’s largest airport, was paralysed by a strike. Roads leading to the city were cut off by protesters.
The southern Bolivian town of Potosi was also at a standstill because of a 24-hour general strike over demands for greater government investment in local businesses.
Morales has accused these various social movements of creating upheaval for purely political motives.
“When there is no dialogue, it means that there is political intent,” he said, blaming a “spirit of conspiracy” for the coincidence of multiple flashpoints simultaneously throughout Bolivia.
In June, Morales angered indigenous activists by saying the road would be built through the Isiboro Secure indigenous territory and national park “whether they like it or not”.