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Bolivian police free Amazon protest marchers

By Juan Karita
Rurrenabaque, Bolivia (AP) October 2011

Bolivian police freed hundreds of Amazon Indians detained during a protest march over a proposed Amazon highway after mobs of local residents blocked roads and an airport runway to prevent authorities from taking the detainees away.

In the Bolivian capital, La Paz, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned, saying she didn’t agree with the government’s decision to break up the march against the highway, which would traverse an indigenous-inhabited nature preserve.

Hundreds of local residents used barricades to block a landing strip in the Amazon town of Rurrenabaque to stop police from flying the prisoners out of the area.

“Given the attack by hundreds of people, the police pulled back to avoid confrontations,” Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti told a news conference in La Paz.

Police used tear gas and truncheons to break up a march by some 1,000 activists marching to La Paz, the highlands capital, to protest the proposed 190-mile (300-kilometer) highway that is being financed by Brazil and would connect it with Pacific ports in Chile and Peru.

Police detained the protest’s leaders and loaded them onto buses to return them to the eastern lowlands provincial capital of Trinidad, where the march began in mid-August. But local residents lit bonfires on the roadway, forcing authorities to detour to the airport in Rurrenabaque. Residents of that town, meanwhile, had blocked the runway.

Bolivia’s national ombudsman, Rolando Villena, told Erbol radio “there was excessive use of force” by police. Protest leaders claimed a child was killed and other protesters, including children, had gone missing. Bolivia’s Roman Catholic Church issued a communique saying a child had died but offered no details.

Government officials denied the claim, while Llorenti said police acted to “evacuate the marchers to guarantee their safety and protect them from physical harm” because pro-government groups were approaching to stop the march.

The proposed highway would traverse the 600-square-mile (12,000-square-kilometer) Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park, home to 15,000 indigenous people who live off hunting, fishing, gathering native fruits and subsistence farming.

The locals fear an influx of settlers will destroy their habitats, felling trees and polluting rivers. Environmentalists say the highway will mostly benefit Brazilian commercial interests such as timber exporters while endangering a pristine nature preserve.

Vehement opposition to the road poses a dilemma for President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian whose support for the highway has alienated many of the indigenous Bolivians whose support was crucial to his landslide re-election in 2009.

Morales, who still leads a coca-growers union and sympathizes with many Indian causes, insists the highway is essential to strengthening Bolivia’s economy.

The president promised to hold a referendum on the issue in the affected Cochabamba and Beni regions, although analysts have noted that Cochabamba is home to the coca growers who still work with Morales and are in favor of the highway.

The crisis has already hurt the president, whose popularity fell to 37 percent this month, its second-lowest level since Morales was first elected in 2006.

Brazil’s government expressed concern in a statement that called for dialogue and stressed its view that “the project is of great important to Bolivia’s integration.”