Bolivian president Evo Morales recently yielded to significant protests against a proposed highway through indigenous and protected territories called the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS in its Spanish acronym). While the plan was proposed before Morales took power in 2006, he surprised and infuriated many by going forward with the project without consulting affected indigenous communities as required by Bolivia's new constitution and international agreements. Though Morales ended up ceding to protestor demands, the process has severely strained relations between his administration and social movements and between movements themselves. The following article appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of NewsNotes.

The Morales government in 2009 granted indigenous territory status to the TIPNIS where three different groups living in 64 communities hold legal title to the land in common. The proposed highway, to be built by Brazilian company OAS with at least 80 percent of the $415 million price tag coming in the form of a loan from Brazil's national development bank BNDES, would cut through a 4,600 square mile nature preserve.

Numerous complaints have surrounded the proposal. Some say the road will mostly benefit Brazilian interests such as logging exporters. Environmental organizations and some indigenous groups complain that the road will rapidly accelerate deforestation and other environmental destruction in the area. One recent study estimated that within 18 years of the road's construction, 64 percent of the TIPNIS will be deforested. The state hydrocarbon industry, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), announced its intent to explore important petroleum reserves in the park adding to the ecological concerns.

The government sees the road as critical to Bolivia's economic development, linking the Amazonian region where many meat and agriculture products originate, to Cochabamba, the gateway to the Andean highlands. The road will significantly decrease travel times. Others who are in favor of the road are Quechua and Aymara "colonists" who left the highlands to live in the TIPNIS in the 1970s. Today, the colonists outnumber native indigenous people in the area by almost three to one. And as most are farmers who need access to markets for their products, they want the road to go through.

For native indigenous groups who rely on fishing and food gathering, the road represents an existential threat. They complain that eight communities have already disappeared in past years due to pressures from loggers, farmers and others encroaching on and polluting their land.

In addition to these environmental and social concerns, many objected to the way the Morales government moved forward with the proposal without free, prior and informed consent from the indigenous groups who would be affected by the project, as called for in Bolivia's new constitution and international agreements such as the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Convention 169. Bolivia was the first country to sign this convention and encouraged other countries to join. The fact that none of these groups were consulted motivated indigenous and civil society groups to organize a protest march from TIPNIS to the capital, La Paz, to stop construction of the highway.

The march started on August 15 and created a quandary within social forces that generally support Morales: While many were concerned about the road itself and the apparent ignoring of the new constitution, some felt that the protests would play into the hand of opposition forces. The issue especially brought out tensions between indigenous and small-scale farmers. Intense debates sprung up both in Bolivia and around the world about how best to react to the proposed highway.

As the march wound its way toward the capital, opposition forces began to take advantage of solidarity protests to make them appear to be more anti-Morales than they really were. While many were willing to protest the road and how the government was handling it, most felt uncomfortable with some protests becoming very adversarial to the government, at times even racist.

Another surprise was the government's reaction to the march and protests. While Morales frequently used such tactics when he was a union leader, as president he reacted with a heavy hand. He warned in June that "whether they like it or not, we're going to build this highway and we're going to deliver it under my administration." He also accused environmental NGOs and community leaders of manipulating their constituents, saying that anyone who is against the road is an "enemy of Bolivia," suggesting that they were being influenced by the U.S. embassy and international environmental groups who practice a new form of "green imperialism."

In early September colonists who were against the march set up blockades near Yucomo in the northern department of Beni saying that the marchers should sit down and negotiate with Morales, not march to the capital. The government allowed the blockade to remain for many days forcing the march to stop and camp. While leaving that blockade alone, police broke up two other blockades that had been set up by the Ayorero and Guarani people in support of the marchers. The police used tear gas and there were injuries in both instances.

Some groups accepted Morales' offer to negotiate with marchers who returned home, while others insisted on a consultation with affected indigenous groups as required by law, among other demands.

When Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca visited the marchers' encampment on September 24, leaders of the march used the minister as a sort of human shield to get through the police barricade in front of the blockade. The government considered the incident to be a kidnapping and sent hundreds of federal police to raid the encampment the next day. Videos of the violent repression outraged many and increased public support for the marchers.

The next day Minister of Defense Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest over the government's handling of the protests, followed on Tuesday by Minister of Interior Sacha Llorenti; the resignations of two sub ministers added to the crisis facing Morales.

The president offered to hold a referendum of all people in the TIPNIS including 15,000 coca growers (who are generally in favor of the road), but this was refused by most who pointed out that the Bolivian constitution, the ILO's Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples all require consultation of affected indigenous communities and that the consultation be done before any work begins on the project. As the contract to build the highway was signed with the Brazilian firm more than three years ago, a non-binding referendum at this time would be at best symbolic.

On October 13, the Senate passed a bill suspending the highway's construction and declaring TIPNIS a natural reserve. Morales signed the bill into law a week later. While the law will end protests, some of its language is unclear, so future conflicts over the law's interpretation are possible.

The TIPNIS controversy is sandwiched between two other events that have weakened levels of support for the Morales government. In December of last year, Morales abruptly announced the end of gas subsidies that resulted in massive price increases overnight. Large protests convinced Morales to reconsider and the subsidies were reinstated.

A more recent setback for Morales took place during the country's first elections for judges: Opposition forces said the candidates were handpicked by Morales' political party, and told voters to nullify their ballots – purposefully fill them out incorrectly – in protest. (Examples of null votes included ballots with more than one box checked or with large cartoons drawn on them.) Forty-five percent of the ballots were considered null, and 16 percent were left blank; it's possible some of these votes were the result of a lack of knowledge and general confusion in choosing among 115 candidates. Only 39 percent of people voting did so correctly.

Regardless of why so many voted null, the results weaken the beginning of reforms in the corrupt judicial system and add to the list of perceived failures of the administration. While the TIPNIS crisis is over, Morales now faces a more difficult situation with an emboldened opposition and increasingly divided base.