'They lied': Bolivia's untouchable Amazon lands at risk once more
Locals blame coca interests for the state’s broken promise on protecting Tipnis national park, biodiversity hotspot and home to thousands of indigenous people
When Ovidio Teco’s Amazon homeland was declared “untouchable” by the Bolivian government in 2011, his war had been won.
The concerns of people like him had been listened to: their beautiful and ancient land would not be carved in two by a 190-mile highway.
That year, a demonstration half a decade in the making saw thousands of indigenous people march for nearly two months to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, protesting over the route that would have cut through the heart of the park.
The marchers endured teargas and truncheons at the hands of the authorities, but they persevered, won an audience with President Evo Morales and forced the government’s hand. The road was shelved and the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (Tipnis) was granted a new special status, rendering it off limits to such major and invasive building projects.
But six years later, the Bolivian government has backtracked. A bill rushed through congress, culminating in the stroke of a pen by Morales on Sunday 13 August, nullifies the park’s status as untouchable, paving the way for the road to be built after all.
Teco is seated at the head of his kitchen table. His voice trembles as he gesticulates fervently. “They lied, nothing more. After the march we thought the park would not be touched. This situation is all lies.”
Teco is a small-time farmer of cacao, the base product of chocolate, in the Mojeño community of Gundonovia, a remote settlement of about 40 families in the north-east of the park. It sits metres from the silently flowing Isiboro river, the peace punctuated only by the puff of pink river dolphins surfacing to breathe. Alligators line the banks, motionless, mouths agape, as they take in the sun.
Spanning an area of 1.2m hectares, Tipnis is home to close to 14,000 inhabitants, mainly indigenous people of the Mojeño-Trinitario, Yuracaré and Tsimané groups. Like Teco, many fear building a road through the park will destroy its biodiversity. A 2011 study by the Programme for Strategic Investigation in Bolivia forecast 64% deforestation of the park within 18 years if the road is built.
“It’s not the road itself. It’s what comes with it. Coca producers will go and settle down and get new land inside the park. And after that comes, they take the wood, plant coca leaves, etc. And where the road will run is the richest part,” says Pablo Solón, a former ambassador to the UN, who resigned from the Morales administration in 2011 over the Tipnis dispute.
The park’s heartland, where the planned road will run, is sacred to many indigenous groups and is where the animals take refuge during the rainy season, and where many indigenous people go to hunt them.
“The day the government rips up the land, this is all going to disappear. Who is going to suffer? It will be us who live in Tipnis. The animals will die. And so will we,” says Teco.
The government claims that removing the lands’ untouchable status is necessary to provide basic services to the local communities and construct educational and healthcare facilities. It also repeatedly cites a 2012 consultation that indicated the move was backed by locals.
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