Under pressure, Bolivian president scraps highway plan

Story highlights

  • President Morales scrapped plans for a controversial highway
  • The highway would have cut through an indigenous ancestral homeland
  • Protesters say they have more demands to negotiate
  • Talks resume Saturday
Bowing to months of pressure and demonstrations from indigenous communities, Bolivian President Evo Morales has scrapped a plan for the construction of an international highway through a national park that is their ancestral homeland.
The protests have pitted Morales -- the country's first indigenous president -- against a key constituency that helped him win the seat.
Moments before meeting with a delegation of indigenous leaders Friday, Morales sent a request to Congress to modify a law regarding the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, known as TIPNIS.
Morales suggested new language in the law that explicitly prohibits the planned highway, or any other highway, from being built in the reserve. The president also asked Congress to declare the territory "intangible" to protect it from coca growers and other non-indigenous settlers.
"I'm pleased that the president has reaffirmed the path of the defense of Mother Earth," said lawmaker Pedro Nuni, a representative of the indigenous population, the state-run ABI news agency reported. "I congratulate him for his determination."
The highway was probably the most important item on the list of demands that the protesters created, but talks with Morales would resume Saturday.
"We have 16 points and 16 points should be resolved, and until those 16 points are solved, we will stay here," said protest leader Fernando Vargas, referring to the protesters' presence in the capital, La Paz.
The protesters marched for two months to reach the capital to meet with Morales.
The indigenous leaders had asked Morales to meet with the protesters, which he did Friday evening at Plaza Murillo.
Morales did not comment about what to do with the contract of the road, being constructed mostly by a Brazilian company, aims to give Brazil access to Pacific Ocean ports by connecting to highways in Chile and Peru.
Brazil's National Bank for Economic and Social Development is financing $330 million of the road's estimated $415 million cost, the Bolivian government has said.
A turning point in the protests happened this month, when 500 police tear-gassed hundreds of the marchers who were making the 300-mile trek to La Paz. The marchers said four people were killed, scores of protesters were injured and several others were missing.
Morales apologized for the incident, while denying any deaths and saying that his government had not mandated the attacks. He said at the time that he was willing to suspend the construction of the highway, but only after a national dialogue.