Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bolivian crowds greet road protesters in La Paz

19 October 2011
Source: BBC NewsLink

Demonstrators reach La Paz in Amazon protest

A protest by indigenous Amazonians has reached Bolivia's main city La Paz to a triumphant welcome.

Thousands of people turned out to support them as they arrived at the seat of government.

The two-month march was made by 1,000 men, women and children campaigning against plans to build a road through a rainforest reserve.

As they reached the edge of La Paz, President Evo Morales sent a message offering direct talks.

Mr Morales has already ordered a temporary halt to the project, but campaigners want it scrapped altogether.

The government argues that the road will boost economic development and regional integration.

The protesters say the project - which is being funded by Brazil and built by a Brazilian company - will encourage illegal settlement and deforestation in their rainforest homeland.

About 1,000 men, women and children set off in August on a 500km (310-mile) march from the Amazon town of Trinidad to La Paz in the high Andes.

The marchers, many of them from the humid lowlands and unused to the high altitude and cold of the Andes, made a triumphal entry into La Paz on Wednesday, being greeted as heroes as they entered the city, accompanied by groups of workers and students.

They received the demonstrators with food, blankets and music, cheering as they marched into the city centre.

The protesters say they will not return home until the government scraps the project, which they say will destroy their way of life.

They want the government to reverse plans to build a highway through the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park - known by its Spanish acronym Tipnis.

Under pressure

During their weeks on the road, they were blocked and then dispersed by riot police using batons and tear gas - scenes which provoked an outcry in Bolivia.

Two ministers resigned amid the outrage.

In response, President Morales, whose popularity has been dented by the protest, suspended construction of the highway and promised a local referendum on whether it should continue.

On the eve of the demonstrators' arrival in La Paz, Mr Morales offered talks.

"This dialogue would aim to iron out and build consensus on their demands in the framework of broader political action," the president's spokesman, Carlos Romero, said in a statement.

But the protesters voiced determination to stay until their demands were met.

"We will stay for as long as it takes, we have no intention of going back to our land empty-handed," indigenous deputy Pedro Nuni told Bolivian media.

Recent weeks have been a testing time for Mr Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president.

About 45% of voters spoiled their ballot papers in Sunday's election for top judges, which was a key policy of the president.

However, there have been demonstrations in support of the road project from indigenous groups that remain loyal to the president.

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