Lowlands Indians abandon Bolivia's president
February 13, 2012 - Associated Press


LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivia's long-downtrodden indigenous majority adored President Evo Morales as he championed a new constitution that promised the nation's 36 ethnicities unprecedented autonomy.

But three years after voters overwhelmingly approved that document, making poor, landlocked Bolivia a "plurinational" republic, the country's first indigenous president is under attack for essentially ignoring it.

Lowlands Indians have quit his Movement Toward Socialism over his insistence, without seeking their consent, on building a road across a virgin jungle preserve and for forging ahead with natural-gas projects on their traditional lands.

Neither marathon marches nor weeks-long occupation strikes have swayed Morales, an Aymara Indian who was a rabble-rousing coca growers' union leader before first winning the presidency in December 2005.

Fellow native Bolivians, ironically, likely now represent the biggest threat to Morales' goal of winning re-election in 2014 to a third term. Even his allegiance among the Aymara and Quechua who dominate Bolivia's more populous highlands is flagging.

Lowlands peoples' anger with Morales was on display at a Jan. 25 banquet in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, where leaders of Bolivia's main lowlands indigenous federation, known as CIDOB, forged an alliance with Santa Cruz's business-friendly Gov. Ruben Costas, Morales' arch-nemesis.

Three years earlier, federation activists had battled Costas' confederates in the streets with sticks and rocks, defending Morales' revolution against a pro-autonomy campaign by the wealthy agribusinessmen Costas represents.

Now the two groups were breaking bread at an exclusive club where Bolivia's indigenous were more accustomed to waiting tables.

"Traitors are never scarce," a wounded Morales complained afterward. "I don't understand how some of our leaders can sign agreements with representatives of big landowners, with the oppressors of the past."

Morales had, after all, expropriated tens of thousands of acres of land the government had declared fallow or ill-gotten from major landowners and turned it over to indigenous groups with historic claims.

Nothing formal was signed at the Santa Cruz banquet, but formerly implacable foes entered a marriage of convenience.

The target was Morales.

No longer could the Aymara Indian who knew hunger as a child count on the unwavering support of the more than three in five Bolivians of native origin who re-elected him in December 2009 with 63 percent support — a symbol of native empowerment after centuries of suppression.

The new constitution he championed, which voters approved earlier that year, stipulates without specifying how that Bolivia's indigenous be consulted in matters affecting their lives and traditional lands.

In practice, Morales ignored a central aspect of the charter, his critics say.

CIDOB calls Morales a hypocrite for insisting on reviving plans to build a 190-mile (300-kilometer) highway across a virgin jungle preserve where 15,000 indigenous people live off hunting, fishing, gathering fruit and subsistence farming. Park inhabitants fear the road would bring an influx of settlers who would destroy their habitat by felling trees and polluting rivers.

Morales had suspended the plans to splice Amazon jungle with the Brazilian-funded highway after protesters marched on the capital last year. A ham-fisted attempt by security forces to disperse the marchers by force failed, triggering the resignations of several top Morales ministers.

Last week Morales scheduled a June regional referendum to vote on the highway.

CIDOB has called for a boycott, arguing that migrants and coca-growers who are relative newcomers to the 4,600-square-mile (12,000-square-kilometer) Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park, or TIPNIS, will outvote its native inhabitants.

CIDOB's ranks encompass most of Bolivia's ethnicities, including the Guarani, the country's third-largest.

Its disaffection has prompted five allied congressmen to defect from Morales' party, stripping it of its two-thirds majority in the lower house though it still holds that margin in the Senate.

The Guarani inhabit southeastern provinces rich in natural gas, Bolivia's No. 1 export, yet most live in poverty. They have recently blocked several key energy projects over not being consulted, demanding compensation for anticipated environmental damage.

Guarani protesters in the community of Takovo Mora held up construction of a natural gas liquefaction plant there with a two-week occupation in January because the government approved its environmental impact study without their input.

They demanded $39 million as compensation but stood down after Morales promised a good-faith solution.

"We feel trampled upon. The constitution and the laws require that the indigenous be consulted. But they aren't heeded," said Higinio Coca, a Guarani leader in Takovo Mora.

"We live in a rich region but there's not a single quality health clinic. Education is basic. Our kids must walk to other towns after primary school."

Former hydrocarbons minister Jose Luis Gutierrez, defending Morales, accused indigenous leaders of using the 2009 constitution as a pretext for economic blackmail.

"They are looking for a cut. They want 10 percent of every project. That's a lot," he said.

Bienvenido Zacu, an ethnic Guaraya congressman and longtime ally of Morales, puts the blame squarely on the president.

"The problem with the indigenous emerged because the government refuses consultation," he said.

Morales argues that the disputed highway through TIPNIS, like gas and oil development, are essential to reducing Bolivia's 54 percent poverty rate.

"This is a problem of poverty," he told a Feb. 9 news conference. "Development and the environmental are not in conflict. That's false."

Maria Teresa Zegada, a sociologist at Cochabamba state university, says that once the new constitution passed "Morales distanced himself from his initial rhetoric of empowering the indigenous and took a pragmatic turn."

That helps explain why his approval rating has been hovering around 40 percent for the past year, she says.

Luckily for Morales, prices for natural gas and minerals remain high. Bolivia earned a record $9.1 billion from exports last year, up 29 percent from 2010.

It also helps that the traditional opposition is weak.

Most of Morales' main non-indigenous foes either face trial on corruption charges or have been forced into exile. They say they are targets of political persecution, noting that Morales' government has not been immune from corruption.

Last month, a former close Morales ally was sentenced to 12 years in prison for taking bribes and influence-peddling while president of the state-owned oil company.

Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.