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Bolivian marchers trek hundreds of miles to protest road -- again

May 1, 2012 | 11:16 am

Bolivia

Bolivia is experiencing déjà vu as a band of marchers makes an arduous trek from the east of the country to the capital, La Paz, hoping to stop the government from building a highway through a pristine national forest -- exactly like they did last year.

Roughly 300 people started the journey of more than 350 miles last week.

"They haven't complied with our demands from the first march," said Nelly Romero Lopez, vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Pueblos of Bolivia. "Marching is the only tool we have to expose the duplicity of our president and defend the forest. Our people never asked for a highway."

A highway that would divide the national park ended up dividing the South American nation last year. While President Evo Morales pushed for the road to Brazil as an economic lifeline for the impoverished country, many of the indigenous people living in the park said it would destroy their way of life.

Their march last year from the Amazonian forest to La Paz captured the nation's imagination and became politically toxic for Morales, who rose to power pledging to defend the environment and indigenous people.

To his critics, the highway dispute was the clearest example of the gap between rhetoric and reality under Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia.

"We’ve said, 'Enough with this government,'" Carlos Salvatierra Leite, a marcher from the far-flung province of Beni, said in an October interview. "It’s a lost cause. No more will we support them."

After exhausted marchers were greeted in La Paz last year by adoring crowds bearing water and throwing rose petals, Morales seemed to back off, ushering in a new law that made the forest "untouchable."

But a few months later, a competing march of indigenous people trudged to La Paz demanding that the road be built, arguing that it would help them advance economically.

Morales said the solution was to hold a vote among the people who live in the forest. Road opponents argue that the government is manipulating the process to make sure it gets what it wants. The marchers are demanding that Morales roll back a new law that sets up the road referendum and hold to his earlier decree to leave it untouched.

Bolivian officials say the marchers have a right to make the trek, but have brushed off their demands so far, saying the only fair way to decide the matter is through a vote.

"If they march against this consultation, it will be the first march in the history of Bolivia against democracy," Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera was quoted by Pagina Siete in April.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Indigenous people from the Bolivian lowlands start marching from Trinidad, in northeastern Bolivia, to La Paz on April 27. Credit: Aizar Raldesaizar Raldes / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

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