By Franz Chávez
A richly biodiverse rainforest the size of 3,000 soccer fields in central Bolivia will be the first victim of the highway planned to run through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), say environmental activists.
Opponents of the proposed highway also fear that it will open up the pristine rainforest nestled between the Isiboro and Sécure Rivers to the expansion of coca cultivation.
The national park, created in 1965, was demarcated in 1990 to cover a total of 12,362 square kilometers, while the 10,910-square-kilometer indigenous territory was officially established in 2009.
The forests and savannahs of TIPNIS extend from the Moxos plains in the northeastern department (province) of Beni to the sub-Andean mountain ranges of Cochabamba, ranging across different environmental strata from lowlands to altitudes of 2,700 meters above sea level.
In September of 2008, the Bolivian Highway Administration (ABC) estimated a total budget of 3.8 million dollars for the clearing of trees and clean-up of irrigation channels and land in a 1,530-hectare area of forest.
The highway will stretch 306 kilometers between Villa Tunari in the central department of Cochabamba and San Ignacio de Moxos in Beni, with a width of 7.3 meters, two-meter shoulders on each side, and a double-layer asphalt surface. The 177-kilometer section that would run through TIPNIS requires an environmental permit that has yet to be issued.
At a total cost of 415 million dollars, 80 percent of it financed by Brazil, the Bolivian government’s main argument for the highway is that it will integrate the 1.7 million inhabitants of Cochabamba and Beni while forming part of an international corridor for the transport of goods from Brazil to the Pacific Ocean.
For environmental analyst Teresa Flores, this high cost implies “the use of huge amounts of materials like cement and iron and the operation of heavy machinery to clear the forests, which will have enormous impacts,” she told Tierramérica.
The risks to the area, home to 714 different species of fauna and 3,400 species of flora, are enormous, according to Gastón Cornejo, a former senator from the governing Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement to Socialism) party. The highway will pave the way for the entry of projects to develop biofuels and transgenic crops, as well as herbicides and chemical products for the processing of marijuana and cocaine, which will also lead to increased crime and insecurity, he told Tierramérica.
An analysis conducted by the Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development, made available to Tierramérica, compared the impact of the highway with “the passage of a tornado that would destroy everything in its path, with the expected disappearance of the 64 communities who live in TIPNIS,” comprising some 15,000 people from the Moxeño, Yuracaré and Chimane indigenous ethnic groups.
Bolivia is among the countries with the highest deforestation rates in the world. Every year, around 320 square meters of forest per capita are cleared, which is 20 times more than the estimated global average of 16 square meters per capita annually, according to Andrea Urioste, coordinator of the sustainable biotrade program at the Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza (Friends of Nature Foundation).
The world loses around 130,000 square kilometers of forests – an area the size of Nicaragua – every year, added Urioste.
Bolivia “does not recognize the position it occupies as one of the countries with the highest rates of deforestation per capita” and lacks any kind of real proposal to “move towards a genuine plan of sustainable development,” Urioste states in the report “Deforestación en Bolivia: Una amenaza mayor al cambio climático” (Deforestation in Bolivia: A major threat to climate change), published in September 2010.
In May, the United Nations resident representative in Bolivia, Yoriko Yasukawa, said that “while Bolivia is not one of the countries mainly responsible for global warming, we do not believe that it has sufficiently contributed to reducing emissions, when we consider that 300,000 hectares of forest are destroyed in the country every year.”
For Flores, the highway represents “opening up the area to settlement and coca cultivation.” The government has allocated land to coca growers in the northern department of Pando, but according to Flores, the concentration of alkaloids in coca plants grown there is lower, which is why the growers have their sights set on TIPNIS.
In Bolivia, it is legal to grow coca for traditional use of the leaves as food, medicine and in religious ceremonies, but there are large areas where it is illegally grown for the production of cocaine.
On Sep. 28, 2009, officials from the National Service for Protected Areas and indigenous leaders reported the presence in TIPNIS of armed men, presumably linked to illegal drug trafficking, who were blamed for acts of violence that left one person dead and two wounded.
A day later, then vice minister of land Alejandro Almaraz voiced his suspicion that new settlements and coca plantations were associated with drug trafficking and that there were between 4,000 and 5,000 hectares of illegal coca crops on the reserve. On Feb. 2, 2010 he resigned from his post and is now one of the activists opposed to the highway.
The coca growers believe it is “legitimate” to dispossess the indigenous peoples of the lowlands of their territory because they view them as “savages” who are incapable of producing food, said Flores.
In fact, the expansion of coca growing in the tropical region of Cochabamba, particularly in the area of Chapare, forced the Yuracaré to abandon lands that are now covered in coca crops and take refuge in TIPNIS, added Flores. “The impact is not only environmental, it is also cultural,” she stressed.
The government believes that the highway will make it possible to combat illegal activities and reach a consensus among all parties for the preservation of the territory, ABC general secretary Antonio Mullisaca told Tierramérica.
But there has still been no prior consultation with indigenous communities regarding the construction of the highway. The right to prior consultation is guaranteed by the constitution and numerous laws, but the regulations for this mechanism are not yet in place.
In the opinion of Juan Ramón Quintana, former minister of the presidency and current director of the governmental Agency for the Development of Macro Regions and Border Areas, the protest march to La Paz being carried out by around 1,000 Amazon indigenous people has been spurred on by non-governmental organizations who espouse the environmental policies of the developed world.
Quintana, a retired army major and close aide to President Evo Morales, went so far as to accuse the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) of promoting the 600-kilometer march to create a climate of destabilization, and called for the agency’s expulsion. The government has not followed up on his recommendation.