Bolivia’s Morales halts controversial road project

Bolivian President Evo Morales has suspended construction of a controversial highway through a rainforest as more government officials resign following a police crackdown on protesters opposed to the project.

Officials say the deputy interior minister, Marcos Farfan, resigned Tuesday and could be a subject in an investigation into the police action. The immigration director, María Rene Quiroga, also stepped down, criticizing the crackdown as unforgivable.

Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon announced her resignation Monday. Ms. Chacon said she did not agree with the government’s decision to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who have been marching since August toward La Paz from the city of Trinidad to show their opposition to the highway.

Morales also was critical of the police action against the demonstrators and promised an investigation. Sunday riot police fired tear gas at marchers gathered in the Yucumo area. Police rounded up several protesters, who later were released after area residents blocked an airport landing strip to prevent authorities from flying the detainees out of the area.

The demonstrators say the $415-million project threatens a protected area of rainforest and that their right to be consulted was violated.

The nature preserve is home to Amazon Indian groups, who have lived in isolation for years. The local people fear outsiders will try to develop the region.

Morales had angered native people by saying the road would be built through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park “whether they like it or not.” Activists have said they will be ready with bows and arrows when the time comes to protect their land.

Morales is Bolivia’s first native president. In past speeches, he has said all nations must respect Mother Earth in their environmental policies.

In New York, a United Nations human rights expert called for negotiations between native people and Bolivian authorities.

James Anaya, a U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, called for the Bolivian government to “take all the necessary measures to guarantee the security of the people that are participating in the protest, in addition to preventing, investigating and sanctioning any act that affects the life and integrity of these measures.”

He also urged “the immediate start of a consulting process in good faith with indigenous people, with the end of finding a peaceful solution to this situation.”

In his annual report for U.N. Human Rights Council, Anaya remarked that development projects, along with the exploitation of natural resources, have become “one of the most significant sources of human rights abuse against indigenous people in the world.” He visited Costa Rica this year to inspect a hydro dam project in the southern part of the country.

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