Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Bolivia's Isiboro national park highway controversy

Illegal logging, coca farming and unchecked exploitation of natural gas reserves - for the indigenous people of the Tipnis this could be the way of life, a far cry for the current tropical rural idyll, if the new Amazon highway is built by the Bolivian government. The proposed 300km (190-mile) $211million road, known as the Isiboro national park highway, financed by Brazil, would link Brazil to Pacific ports in Chile and Peru.But it will also pass through an Amazon nature reserve that is home to about 50,000 people from three different indigenous groups.

Bolivia is a very poor and impoverished country. A country defined by it's geography; located in the heart of the Andes and landlocked, it encapsulates one of Collier's poverty traps: 'Being landlocked with bad neigbours'. Despite macroeconomic stability for the past 15year, Bolivia's economy has grown at only about 4% a year in the 1990s, and has been much lower over the last two years. At this rate, it will take over 40 years for the per capita gross domestic product to double. With a population growth rate of 2.3%, the economy needs to grow significantly faster and distribute benefits more broadly in order to alleviate poverty. Therefore, in order to develop, one could argue that Bolivia needs to develop it's infrastructure in order to improve the transportation of goods and services to and from its' neighbours. The government argue that, like the Trans-Amazon highway (a highway which aims to run from Peru to Brazil), the "road is essential for development and would encourage trade by linking remote communities to market towns" (BBC News). It would also enhance links with one of the emerging superpowers, Brazil.

However, since August hundreds of people, many of them indigenous from the Tipinis region, have been protesting and marching towards the administrative capital of La Paz. The protests are not only concerned about the project's potential negative impacts on the area's biodiversity, but also because the government have seemingly ignored the constitutional rights of the people by not consulting them. The latter point has been the main criticism directed to the President Morales, who was elected based upon his commitment to defend local people and 'Mother Earth'.

It is not surprising to learn therefore that after violent clashes on Sunday 28th September between police and about 1,000 protesters marching towards La Paz combined with the resignation of the Bolivian Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti (after being heavily criticised over a police crackdown on a protest march),  Morales has suspended the the Isiboro national park highway until a referendum has been conducted - Bolivia it seems has had it's own mini-Spring and the the message for the moment is that people power can make a difference.

This story raises a number of points that should interest both geographers and economists as well as those with a wider interest in the environment. Questions for contemplation could include:

1. Should the 'Business as Usual' approach of economic concerns over environmental heritage always be applied, even when it concerns the most fragile and biodiverse ecosystems?

2. To what extent should local indigenous people be involved in the process of national development? Are their views an obstacle to development or a useful tool?

3. Is it fair that Bolivia bears the brunt of the costs for a Brazilian project? And how will Bolivia benefit, if the road goes ahead?

4. What lessons can be learned from the TransAmazon Highway?

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