Hundreds of members from indigenous tribes opposing a jungle highway financed by Brazil and that they say will spoil their lands in Bolivia's Amazon drew cheers Wednesday when they paraded into the capital La Paz after a 63-day protest march.
Their feat including a failed attempt by baton-swinging police to break up the march two weeks ago has won widespread sympathy and fuelled charges that Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales discriminates against Bolivia's Amazon-based indigenous groups in favour of the highland Indians who dominate his government and the National Assembly.
He doesn't care about his brothers from the lowlands, said Fernando Najera, a 35-year-old Siriono Indian with tattered sandals who met the protesters who walked to La Paz from the Isiboro-Secure nature preserve that would be crossed by the proposed highway.
Najera's sentiments are shared by many lowlands Indians who believe this poor Andean nation's first indigenous president considers them second-class citizens and favors his own people, the Aymara, and the other highland group, the Quechua.
But after the march ended at a plaza in central La Paz leader Fernando Vargas and Indian legislator Pedro Nuni said the intent was not to topple Morales but to find a solution to their complaints. Communications Minister Ivan Canelas said indigenous leaders were considering meeting with Morales on Thursday.
President Morales has said the highway is needed to help Bolivia's poorer regions develop and has accused the marchers of being dupes of right-wing groups. Protesters say the 300 kilometres highway would despoil the Isiboro-Secure preserve, a park that is home to 15,000 indigenous people. They fear with the highway an invasion of loggers, miners, hunters and landless peasants that would spoil their tropical homeland.
Frictions among indigenous communities have been a problem in Bolivia. About 62% of Bolivians identify themselves as indigenous, and the majority of these are Aymara or Quechua.
Quechuas and Aymaras have long migrated from their home grounds in the arid, wind-swept highland plains in search of opportunity in the eastern lowlands where the earth is fertile and life is easier.
Following accusations, so far unfounded, from Morales that the marchers were playing into the hands of conservatives and a US plot plus the failed police crackdown, many highlands Indians and educated Bolivians have rallied behind the anti-highway protesters. A nationwide protest drew tens of thousands of supporters.
Morales has apologized to the marchers, and denies he ordered the police crackdown. He also announced the suspension of the highway, saying he will let voters in the affected region decide its fate.
A week ago Morales had thousands of highlands Indians, coca growers and union members march in support of the government.
The cheered marchers arrived in La Paz three days after Morales suffered another major setback when a majority of voters (over 60%) spoiled or blanked their ballots to protest the attempt to legitimize through an election the naming of magistrates loyal to his MAS party.