Bolivia finally bows to road block

Protests force Morales to sign law canceling a contentious jungle highway

Bowing to massive public pressure, Bolivian President Evo Morales signed a law on Monday night that officially canceled the planned construction of a controversial highway that would have cut through indigenous lands on a pristine nature reserve known as the Tipnis.

With the signing of the new law, Morales put an end to a two-month-old social conflict that culminated with a violent police crackdown against protesting Indians on September 25.

"Here is the law - this has been the fruits of your efforts," said Morales in a signing ceremony at the presidential palace in La Paz surrounded by indigenous community leaders.

Leaders ended a 65-day, 603- kilometer march last week to protest the construction of the road through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory National Park, or Tipnis.

Following the police crackdown, Morales promised to rescind the law but it took some time to do so as lawmakers, including six indigenous members from Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, argued about the changes. The law was finally passed after a six-hour debate.

"Here is the enacted law so that no road will cross into the Tipnis, which will be respected, as we say, like virgin territory," Morales said at the ceremony. "For me, this is called governing by obeying the people."

Indian community leaders and their supporters had been camped out in La Paz's main Plaza de Armas square since Wednesday, demanding that the road law be rescinded as quickly as possible.

Morales had pushed for the $420-million highway, which was to be financed by Brazil. But the estimated 15,000 Indians who live in the region feared that coca growers and farmers would move in, destroying the vegetation. The government wanted to build the highway to gain a direct access to Brazilian markets and promote development in the poorer regions of the country.

Last month's confrontation put Morales, who was elected to office championing Indian rights, in a difficult position. His defense minister resigned over the incident, saying that she didn't agree with the way the government was handling it. Several MAS party members immediately called on the president to cancel the project.

One of the protest leaders, Fernando Vargas, said he was still wary up until the signing of the law over whether the project in the Tipnis would actually be abandoned. "It's a good sign but we need to talk with the president and analyze several pending topics," Vargas told reporters before he met with Morales last week. Afterwards, he said he told the president "with affection, not to pit east against west as enemies."

The Bolivian leader had at first said he wanted the issue put to a referendum vote for the residents of Cochabamba and Beni provinces, who would be affected by the construction. But he quickly decided against that option as the Indian protest movement swelled. Morales claimed that close to 200 organizations had supported the construction in the area "but history will judge whether the president and his ministers were right or wrong" for planning this road.

"But we complied with the task, and we complied with the people who have asked us to respect the Isiboro Sécure park," he said.

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