Pacha Mama Mia

The presidents of Peru and Bolivia face resistance from indigenous communities over environmental plans

When Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, became the leader of Bolivia in 2005 he also became the first indigenous president. He came to power on a mandate to govern with a sort of ‘indigenous socialism’. Morales has been a strident defender of the rights of Bolivia’s native inhabitants and their stunning natural environment. He always liked to equate their struggle against colonial invaders with his fight against foreign traders, the US and Western capitalism; politics with which Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader currently battling cancer, has identified very strongly.

But it has been six years since his arrival and the outlook is now different for Evo. In the past he has called any interference in the way-of-life or homeland of the indigenous communities ‘ecolocide’. Now he is the one being accused of destroying pacha mama. On 16 August indigenous activists took the first steps on a 233 mile-long protest march from the Amazon plains to the capital, La Paz. Normally, this would be a demonstration that Morales would be more than happy to join. But the march is in opposition to one of his policies, namely a government plan to build a 190 mile-long highway through a national park in aboriginal territory.

The road would potentially link the Beni plains to the Chapare, where Evo was a coca farmer before going on to lead a coca farmers’ union. Brazil has stumped up $420m for the project and certainly knows a thing or two about controversial environmental politics and upsetting local tribes, having given the Belo Monte dam the green light on 1 June. Foreign investors are on the horizon and the forest stands between them. Morales’ ‘indigenous socialism’ seems to be morphing into something more like ‘investment socialism’.

Ollanta Humala, who replaced Alan Garcia in the Peruvian presidency in July, has also found that he is having to alter the populist, pro-indigenous policies he has previously championed. In opposition he had been a creature in the mould of Chavez and Morales, denouncing free trade and capitalism but he has since ensured his new government is not seen as isolationist and instead said:

“We are building a government of national unity. This isn’t a Cabinet of the left or the right, but a Cabinet for all of Peru.”

He has angered native Peruvians with his plans for expanded oil and gas investment and exploration. And, just like in Bolivia, new roads through the Amazon rainforest have been proposed. The indigenous communities have criticised Humala and seem ready to rise, just as Bolivia’s Indians are now doing against one of their own.

Both countries could do with more infrastructural integration with neighbours and natural resources can be shared and developed but there is now a strengthening indigenous challenge. The once-quiet, Quechua and Aymara-speaking communities seem to have found a collective and growing voice.

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