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Bolivia cancels controversial Amazon highway

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By Gerardo Bustillos (AFP)

LA PAZ — Bolivian President Evo Morales announced Friday he was scrapping a hugely controversial plan to build a highway through an Amazon ecological reserve that has triggered widespread protests.

Morales told reporters he had sent an amendment to Congress, controlled by government supporters, halting plans for the road through the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).

“Therefore, the issue of the TIPNIS has been resolved,” Morales said. “This is governing by obeying the people.”

Morales made the announcement just ahead of a meeting with representatives of around 2,000 indigenous people who entered La Paz on Wednesday after a two-month march from their homeland in the Amazon lowlands to press him to cancel the highway.

The decision also “declares the TIPNIS an untouchable zone,” which strengthens protection against oil and gas mining and logging in the area, and also allows police to remove any outsiders that may enter the zone.

Amazon natives feared that landless Andean Quechua and Aymara people — Bolivia’s main indigenous groups and Morales supporters — would flood into the road area and colonize their land.

The marchers, who set out in August and trekked 600 kilometers (370 miles) to the capital, were met as heroes as they entered the city in the high Andes and made their way to camp out near the presidential palace.

Protest leaders however were cautious when they heard the news.

“We must first talk to the president, establish the rules of the game to begin a dialog, and only then we will analyze” Morales’s proposal, said Fernando Vargas, one of the leaders.

Therefore the 16 demands of the protesters “remain in effect,” he said. “For us, nothing has been resolved.”

Other protester demands include an end to oil and gas extraction and exploration in the Aguarague National Park, in southern Bolivia, and the right to seek compensation for the negative effects of global warming.

Government officials have said that those demands will be rejected.

About 50,000 people from three different native groups live in the remote territory in the humid Amazon lowlands.

The Brazil-financed road project was part of a network linking land-locked Bolivia to both the Pacific through Chile and the Atlantic through Brazil, key outlets for Bolivian exports.

The government has said it would be too expensive to build the highway around the preserve.

Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, has come under tremendous popular pressure to end the project.

A police crackdown on a march against the highway that left 74 people injured in late September triggered widespread anger, a general strike, and the resignations of several top government officials, including two ministers.

Government ombudsman Rolando Villena congratulated Morales for having “taken such a wise decision, because that puts an end” to months of protest marches.

Indigenous Amazon protesters gathered in the city of Santa Cruz cheered, calling it “a defeat for Evo.”

Thanks to the AFP (Agence France-Presse) for this story