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Bolivian Revolt over Jungle road Growing

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bolivian President Evo Morales faced renewed pressures from Amazonian environmental protesters who want him to drop a Brazilian-funded road cutting through an environmentally fragile but impoverished part of the jungle.

As the protest entered the third month, campaigners calling for the road construction to stop spilled into La Paz, demanding immediate action from Morales, himself an ethnic Aymara and former trade unionist.

Officials said direct talks with the protesters' representatives wouldn't be ruled out.

The road will cut through about 185 miles of forest and will likely displace many of the clusters of indigenous communities. About 15,000 inhabitants are directly in the path of the highway, campaigners said.

The road protest has accentuated Bolivia's multiethnic politics, in which Morales enjoyed wide popularity across racial and social divides. But the road project has seen critics calling Morales elitist and disdainful of native communities from the Amazonian lowlands.

Opponents of the road project say the jungle highway, financed by Brazil, will ruin the Amazonian environment and deprive them of livelihood and a long-preserved lifestyle.

Opponents also say they fear the highway will bring organized crime, increase farming of coca, the main ingredient for cocaine, and encourage criminals engaged in illegal logging and land grabs.

As Morales foes seized on the protests to take the president to task, leaders of the campaigners said they had no quarrel with Morales and would seek an amicable settlement of the dispute.

Morales and his aides have said the highway is needed to help Bolivia's poorer regions develop and have accused the marchers of being influenced by Morales's foes.

Although the president has apologized to protesting citizens and ordered suspension of work on the highway, the campaigners want long-term assurances that the project won't be taken up again.

Only a few days ago thousands of Morales loyalists, including highland Indians, coca growers and union members, marched in La Paz in support of the government.

The pro-government rally contrasted with protest marches against the highway and other expressions of popular dissatisfaction, including blank ballots cast in a vote on the nomination of magistrates.

The road will link the Andean highlands of central Bolivia with the Amazon lowlands to the north increasing communication and trade exchanges between Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos. When the project began Bolivia and Brazil hailed it as a major step toward regional integration.

Opponents say the highway will irreversibly damage the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, a rainforest region of exceptional biodiversity, known to be home to an extraordinary wealth of plant and animal species.

Isolated communities of Chiman, Yurucare and Moxos Indians live in the area, hunting, fishing and farming in the rainforest.

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