Alvaro Garcia Linera: Geopolitics of the Amazon - Part III: The historic demand for construction of a road to unite the Amazon valleys and plains

[To see the Table of Contents, click here. A glossary of terms and acronyms appearing in the text will be found here.Translation by Richard Fidler, Life on the Left]

The historic demand for construction of a road to unite the Amazon valleys and plains

But first let us analyze the history of the demand for construction of this highway that would have to pass through the TIPNIS. Is it true that it is part of a sinister plan for “inter-oceanic corridors that would pillage the forests and suck us into the vortex of the Brazilian empire,” as the recipe of some NGOs would have it?[1]

The historical need for a road connecting the Andean zone with the Amazon region, through what used to be called the “Mountains of the Yuracarees,” now the Isiboro-Sécure park, dates back more than 300 years.

In 1763, the Royal Court of Charcas, with the intention of expelling the Portuguese who were repeatedly invading the left bank of the Iténez river, ordered that a route directly connecting Cochabamba with Moxos be explored. The objective was initially military in nature, to put an end to the already expansionist attitude of the Portuguese who were trying to occupy the province of Moxos. The route between Cochabamba and Moxos (Beni), without passing through Santa Cruz, would allow rapid movement of troops against the Portuguese advances.

The Jesuits report that in the early 1700s there had been a road that went from Colomi, the Ajial, descending to the Mission of Santa Rosa and the Mission of Loreto (in the province of Moxos). They assert that it took about six days to travel along the road bringing in “a load of flour, wine, baskets of biscuits and other things for the Mojos.”[2] Beginning in 1766, a number of expeditions taking this route as a reference were carried out from Tarata, Colomi in the lowlands and from San Ignacio in the plains of Moxos. In 1781 a secure and stable transit route was established between the regions, which functioned for a little less than a decade until it was gradually abandoned on the ground that it lessened trade between Santa Cruz and Moxos and reduced the spiritual attention provided to Moxos by the Bishop of Santa Cruz.[3]

The strictly geopolitical arguments both for the construction of this road and for its rejection call for the closest attention. On the one hand there were those who favoured a road to join the central Andean region with the immense and unreachable Amazon region (and precisely for that reason the object of external ambition); and on the other hand there were those who opposed the road in order to defend the economic and political-spiritual power that the established elites in Santa Cruz exercised over Moxos. These two counterposed readings have returned 250 years later in the debate over the highway through the TIPNIS, but with new actors.

Between 1790 and 1825, when the independent Republic was established, there were various attempts to find new lines of communication between the two regions, although none were successful in obtaining the necessary funds. In 1825 the Liberator [Antonio José de] Sucre ordered that the settlers in Cochabamba be consulted about the most important measures that the Liberator [Simón] Bolívar could implement in the region’s interest. The response was the linking of Cochabamba with Moxos.[4] The result of these decisions is not known, but all indications are that lack of resources and political instability stifled the strategic outlook for the territorial cohesion of Bolivia. Years later, Bolivia lost about 191,000 km2 of the Amazon (War of Acre) from what had been initially part of the independent Republic.

In 1832, the French explorer Alcide D’Orbigny returned to travel these routes from Moxos, passing between the Isiboro and Sécure rivers, that is, the present National Park in the lands of the Yuracarés, to arrive at Cochabamba, leaving some detailed accounts of the geography and inhabitants of the region.[5] In 1915, settlers in Beni, in a letter to the President of the Republic with an extensive argument against the abandonment of the region, again posed the need for construction of the road between Cochabamba and Trinidad. Starting in Colomi, they argued, “there is an old road from there to the confluence of Sesarsisama with the Isiboro, port Sucre, 160 km approximately, or 210 km from Cochabamba. In Moleto a wide path has been opened for 25 to 30 km [and] from there to San Lorenzo, a mission town on the Sécure, there is no road or path, for a distance of about 125 km, and from Sécure to Trinidad [there is] meadowland with a road that is passable in the dry season.”[6]

In 1920, under Decreto Supremo of 2 October 1920, Bautista Saavedra announced the opening of the “Cochabamba to Moxos” road under the Regiment of Zapadores.[7] This regiment was under the command of the then Colonel Federico Román, and at the end of 1920 left Todos Santos in the Chapare, heading for Moleto. Initially they were to cruise along the Eteremasama river, later the Isiboro river, and then, 35 kms north of the river, arrive at Moleto. This part of the journey was not difficult because “there was a path” that was widened. From there they had to travel along the Ichoa river and later walk “approximately 14 leagues through the midst of the forest” to arrive at the Sécure river, in a journey that took 49 days. Later they set off toward the north-east and after 20 days “it was as if a large window had suddenly opened to let the light come pouring in on the tired soldiers”; they had arrived at the meadowlands of Moxos. From there they headed to San Lorenzo and later to Trinidad.[8] Notwithstanding the efforts made, the route did not go further and Román and his Zapadores were later assigned to work on the route that would unite Cochabamba with Santa Cruz.

In 1928, a member of parliament from Beni, in a memorable speech, stated: “Bolivia has been given the harshest lesson with the lack of attention to the eastern region…. The disaster of Acre, this loss of 191,000 km2, is a severe blow to Bolivia, and the greatest offense to the invitations to create works that would bind the nation….” The deputy then raised the need not only for a road between Cochabamba and Beni, but also that the railroad that was to connect Cochabamba with Santa Cruz should also follow a route from the Chapare to Beni.[9]

When the Chaco War erupted, the country as a whole was called on to defend this territory. In one of the most self-sacrificing mobilizations, troops of young soldiers recruited in Guayaramerín, Riberalta, Cobija and Rurrenabaque were initially deployed to Trinidad and from there, going up the Ichilo river, they reached the Chapare, in the port of Gretel, and later Yapacaní and Santa Cruz. This column of about 7,000 Beni soldiers, under the command of the then general Federico Román, which was to defend the country in late 1933 and early 1934, used rivers and routes previously travelled between Beni and the Chapare to reach San Carlos, Santa Cruz and later the Chaco.[10] Years later, in 1998, the Yucumo-San Borja-San Ignacio-Trinidad section was declared fundamental route 602 (D.S. 25134); in 2003, the National Highway Service incorporated the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway as a route complementary to the Fundamental System of highways (D.S. 26996); and on 24 October 2003 President Mesa enacted Law No. 2530, which established authorization for the Executive Power to seek funding for the construction and paving of the Cochabamba-Trinidad highway. Finally, in 2006, a Law of the Republic again established the construction of this road as a priority.[11]

IIRSA: The farce of empty chatter

I have mentioned some of the numerous antecedents of this highway in order to refute the fallacy that its construction is intended as part of the IIRSA plan to “subject our peoples.” This highway was proposed as a strategic necessity to unite the altiplano and the Amazon centuries before the existence of the “geopolitics of the IIRSA”; and if one has the courage and intellectual honesty to take a careful look at a map of Bolivia, he or she will realize that if indeed there is some measure that disrupts the present geopolitics of foreign occupation of the Amazon, it is precisely the construction of this road.

The IIRSA Plan was designed to create inter-oceanic corridors linking eastern Brazil with the Pacific Ocean and the markets of Asia. The Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway does NOT link the main trunk road of the country (La Paz-Cochabamba-Santa Cruz) with any Brazilian highway or motorway. Trinidad is 338.6 km from the Brazilian border — yes, 338.6 kms from the highway closest to Brazil! No shipment of Brazilian soy or lumber will reach any port with this highway, the only things that will reach Trinidad or Cochabamba are Bolivian persons and products, which at present take two or three days to go from one place to the other, but with the new road will do this in four hours.

It has been said that the IIRSA Plan subjects entire regions to the expansionist plans of the Brazilian economy. What the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway will do is establish the presence of the Bolivian state in the Amazon where, in its absence, what predominates are the existing powers, the landlords and lumber companies (many of them foreigners). Up to now, in fact, in the Amazon border regions the children attend classes and listen to the radio in the Portuguese language.

The highway will be like a staple force uniting two regions of the country separated from each other for centuries; their dissociation allowed the loss of territories a century ago and more recently the substitution for the state of illegal actors, hacendados and foreigners. So it involves a mechanism for achieving territorial control of the geography by the state and the establishment of sovereignty.

If there is any danger of submission to external powers, it is precisely the absence of a state in the Amazon. In the highlands, the substitute for this absence was the communal-state or trade union-state; that is, by the communal self-organization of society that took on the management of local community issues, internal political affairs and the social protection of their members. But in the lowlands, in general, and in the Amazon region in particular, this absence of the state in terms of rights and protection has resulted in the formation of the landowner-despotic power over the communities and the indigenous peoples and the subsequent penetration of foreign powers which, on the pretext of “protecting the Amazon,” the “lungs of the world,” etc., have extended an extraterritorial control — via some environmentalist NGOs — over the continental Amazon, considered the largest reservoir of water and biodiversity in the world.

The major enemy of the presence of the protector state in the Amazon region at present is the international imperial-corporate structure, which has converted environmental management in the world into the most lucrative deal in favour of the industrialized countries of the North and the biotechnology companies. Today not even the Latin American states have as great a presence in the Amazon as these companies, research institutes of European and North American universities, and NGOs funded by other governments and by those same foreign enterprises.[12]

map 10
map 11

What is paradoxical and shameful is that some “environmentalist leftists” mouth off about the famous IIRSA Plan without understanding that behind their furious rejection of the state presence they cover for the now unobjectionable presence of foreign governments and companies in control of the Amazon. In fact, the real danger in the Bolivian Amazon regions is not the IIRSA — that exists only in the fevered imagination of the environmentalists — but the actually existing rule of the industrialized capitalist countries over the Amazon resources as an environmental reserve purchased to compensate for the destruction of the environment in the North. The camouflaged threat is that USAID and the U.S. State Department will make us think that the Amazon belongs to “everyone,” when in reality what they are saying is that it belongs to their government and their companies. The danger is that state sovereignty will be replaced by the foreign alienation of territorial control in the Amazon, and that the right-wing environmentalist discourse will legitimate the absence of the state using the argument of environmental protection.

The accusations that the famous Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway is supposedly part of the IIRSA Plan are ridiculous and intellectually decadent. It was not and never will be! The existing official documentation for this Integration Plan, published from 2005 to 2010, makes no reference to this highway.[13] It refers to sections to complete the highway from Puerto Suárez to La Paz, but in no document is there any mention of entry to Moxos. The map available from the IIRSA is really quite eloquent about the highways that are of interest to the organizers of that project, and one will not find there any route from Villa Tunari to Moxos.

Where is the famous highway that is going to subject us to the geopolitics of the IIRSA? Where is the highway that “is intended to hand over the Amazon to foreign agro-export businesses”? The Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos route is not in the IIRSA Plan. Those who disparage this revolutionary government, as well as the officials of the NGOs opposed to its construction, are well aware of this. They are all equipped with offices with internet connections, they know how to read and to interpret maps. However, they all yell in unison, on all sides, “IIRSA,” “IIRSA,” “IIRSA.”[14]

Why are they lying to the people? Why are they misleading society with their insults and falsehoods? Why are they resorting to such deceptive means to make their case? What class of writers are these people, who for months have been sounding off and spilling so much ink with the phantom of the “geopolitics of the IIRSA”[15] or of the “IIRSA highway,” when they know that it has never been incorporated in that project? What lies behind this hysterical discourse based on a lie? At what point does reason go missing and give way to insults and deliberately misleading statements?

A farce of empty chatter. That is the naked truth about the infamous campaign that seeks to associate the Villa Tunari-Moxos highway with the IIRSA. And falling for it are many gullible people in various parts of the world who, more on the alert for the disqualifying adjective than for the truth, have been caught up in a dark scheme of tricks and camouflage. Sun Tzu[16] recommended that we “beat the drums to the left” in order to “attack on the right”; and here, concerning the highway to Moxos, a whole rightist coalition has accused the Government of “submitting” to corporate and foreign requirements when in reality they are the ones who, with their lies, end up being the most servile defenders of the business, hacendado and imperial interests — precisely the ones opposed to nationalization of the Amazon territory.

Very well, but does that mean we do not need to protect the environment? Of course we need to do that! Our Constitution says so and we have enacted extraordinarily advanced laws along those lines. The Government as a whole is concerned with balancing the need for generation of wealth in order to redistribute it, with the obligation to preserve the procreative nucleus of the natural basis of the planet. But that is a decision and a task of OUR state, of our legislation, of our Government and of our public state policies. The Amazon is ours, it belongs to Bolivians, not to North Americans or Europeans, nor to the companies or NGOs that claim to be “teaching us to protect it.” If they want to protect the environment, let them do so with THEIR forests, rivers and hills, and not meddle in how we decide to care for our own natural surroundings.

After all, if the European companies and the U.S. government are so concerned about the environment and the conservation of the world’s forests, why do they not stop consuming wood and drastically reduce their auto industry and all types of production that emit CO2 into the environment? Why not stop importing minerals whose production contaminates the natural environment? Why not stop importing foods whose production promotes deforestation of millions of hectares of jungle? If they were to close those markets we would drastically reduce deforestation and global warming, and there would be no need to blame the poor countries, as they are now doing, to make them shoulder the burden.

Are we Bolivians having problems with the protection of Mother Earth? Probably. But those are difficulties that we ourselves will know how to resolve; we will never accept the principle of shared sovereignty in any piece of Bolivian territory. Whoever at this point is opposed to the presence of the state in the Amazon is in fact defending the presence in it of the United States. There is no in-between position: that is the dilemma in which the fate of control over the Amazon region is being played out in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil.

Characteristics of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway

Now let us look at the characteristics of this highway. First, it is 306 km long, and will allow the area’s inhabitants to reduce the travel time from the plains to the Andean valleys by 90%. The existing southern end, 103 km, is unpaved. The existing northern section, 143 km, is also unpaved. This means that only 60 of the 306 km, less than 19% of the total, does not yet exist as a highway section.

But we should add that 116 km of the highway would have to cross through the Isiboro Sécure park,[17] 56.6 km of which now exist as a passable road, and 42.6 km as a passage for cattle; that is, within the TIPNIS there now exists as an unpaved road 85% of the total length that is to be constructed. So we are talking about an extension through the forest that requires opening barely 16.7 km to unite the Amazon with the valley.

As the reader will appreciate, the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway is not going to destroy a “virgin forest,” because within the Parque Nacional 85% of this stretch of highway already exists; and if we take into account the width of the highway, the total number of hectares of forest that would be affected is 200. Also, in order not to affect the core of the Park and the mobility of the living creatures within it, the plan is to build an ecological highway in this 16.7 km section (the gradient could be raised or in some cases the highway could run underground).

map 12

In President Evo’s recent trips with reporters from various media, they have verified that to go from the Chapare to Moxos the only viable route is the one that goes through the centre of the Parque Isiboro-Sécure, since on the right side and beyond it we have countless lakes, bogs, permanently flooded areas, ravines and rivers that continually change their course, which makes a stable route for travel technically impossible. And on the left side, there is a steep mountainous area, equally or more unstable than what there is in the stony area in the present Cochabamba-Santa Cruz highway.[18] The natural setting is such that the only viable and natural route for travel between the valleys and the Amazon plains is the one that crosses through the TIPNIS. And in fact that is the route that was used by the Yuracaré indigenous nation, the Jesuits and all the settlers who over the last 400 years sought to unite the two regions.

Of course we all want to protect the environment, and there are numerous examples in the world of highways that cross through natural parks without destroying the habitat: the Parque Braulio Carrillo in Costa Rica, the Parque de Protección Alto Mayo in Peru, the Parque Nacional Los Cuchumatanes in Guatemala, Tahoe National Forest and Yellowstone National Park in the United States, the Naturpark Homert in Germany, the Parque Naturel Régional du Vercors in France, and many more.

map 13
map 14

Some people, resorting to the classic racist and criminalizing arguments, point out that the damage to the TIPNIS is not the physical construction itself, but the use that the highlands Quechua-Aymara indigenous-peasants are going to make of the highway. They argue that the park will be invaded by peasants who “will clear the forest and grow coca for narcotrafficking.” We have been hearing those prejudices voiced by the U.S. government and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], in order to expel peasants in years gone by, as well as by the landholding elites of the lowlands as a means of discourse of cohesion and conservative regional legitimation in opposition to the presence of indigenous peoples from the highlands. But that the same arguments are used by some environmentalists or pseudo-leftists denotes an irreparable intellectual poverty. Three linked fallacies can be distinguished in this prejudice, and we will now list them.

[To be continued]

[1] This can be gathered, for example, in the following quotations:
“Since 2003, the highway has been part of the IIRSA corridor from sea to sea linking Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, parallel to the Secure Petroleum Bloc, on which the petroleum firm Repsol signed a contract with the government of Bolivia in 1994, purchasing the rights of exploitation for 30 years. Awarding continuity to the IIRSA plan, the Morales government enacted Law No. 34777 of 22 September 2006, which provided: ‘A national and departmental priority is declared to be the development, from the Study to the Final Design and construction, of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos section, accompanying the Cochabamba-Beni highway of the Fundamental Road System….’; “Costos sociales y ambientales de la Carretera Villa Tunari - San Ignacio de Moxos,” Anuario del Servicio de Noticias Ambientales SENA-Fobomade, 2010.
“Inasmuch as the mega-initiative of the IIRSA has been clearly and repeatedly rejected by the Indigenous peoples and social organizations in both its spirit and the form in which it is being developed, the ABC [Administradora Boliviana de Carretereas, the highways department] and the Ministry of Public Works continue to promote the inter-ocean corridors with few or no measures of social and environmental protection…. Among the highways packages is the construction of the San Ignacio de Moxos-Villa Tunari highway, which crosses the Parque Nacional y TCO Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS), which is the subject of a recently enacted law endorsing the contract for the completion of its construction by OAS, a Brazilian company….”; Marco Octavio Ribera Arismendi, “Crónica ambiental 2007-2011: Retrospectiva y actualización de problemáticas priorizadas”. LIDEMA, La Paz, 2011, pp. 141-142.

[2] Testimony of Father Felipe de Rojas, Cochabamba, 14 April 1765, in Hans van den Berg, En Busca de una Senda Segura. La Comunicación Terrestre y Fluvial entre Cochabamba y Mojos (1765-1825), PLURAL/Universidad Católica de Bolivia, La Paz, 2008.

[3] “En busca de una senda segura...”, op. cit.

[4] “In July, Sucre made the same request to the commune of Cochabamba, seeking information on the measures that Bolívar could implement to the benefit of the region, especially the steps to be taken to remove the obstacles to the progress of agriculture, industry, trade and the arts. Three days later, the cabildo replied with a petition asking that the system of potable water be improved, that taxes on urban and rural property be lowered, and that the businessmen in the city be allowed to deal directly with the region of Moxos instead of channelling all legal trade through the city of Santa Cruz” – William Lee Lofstrom, La Presidencia de Sucre en Bolivia, Caracas, 1987. Also, in 1826, the Liberator Sucre approved the Law of 13 October, which word for word established, in its first article, that it authorized “the executive power, through adjudication of lands, concession of privileges to the settlers now under its protection, and other appropriate means, to promote the opening of the road from Cochabamba to Yuracarés and Mojos.”

[5] “Viaje a la América Meridional,” op. cit.

[6] Propuesta para Apertura, Arreglo y Conservación del Camino de Cochabamba a Trinidad por Corina, Isiboro, Moleto, Sécure y San Lorenzo: El Heraldo, Cochabamba 1915.

[7] The Supreme Decree of 2 October 1920, of the Bautista Saavedra government, establishes in article 1 that “all the Yuracaréz families living in the forests of the region of that name and those who, having fled the missions and industrialists, remain in the forests, should form village nuclei on the road that the Zapadores Regiment is opening from Mojos to Cochabamba.”

[8] Rodolfo Pinto Parada, Rumbo al Beni, Proyecto de Pavimentación Carretera Santa Cruz Trinidad [Proposed paving of a road from Santa Cruz to Trinidad], La Paz, 2001.

[9] M.E. Saucedo Sevilla, member of parliament for Trinidad, Cercado e Iténez, La Vialidad Chapare-Beni, Páginas parlamentarias [parliamentary record], La Paz, Bolivia, 1928.

[10] Rumbo al Beni…, op. cit.

[11] Law No. 3477, of 22 September 2006. Art. 1, “The development of the study and final design and construction of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos section, accompanying the Cochabamba-Beni highway, is declared a national and departmental priority of the Fundamental Road System.” Gaceta de Bolivia.

[12] Thus, some NGOs have become the means for the developed capitalist countries to attain territories and resources which otherwise could not be attained without negotiations or agreements with other national states. Those resources are biodiversity, genetic matter, minerals, oil, gas and strategic territories. It is easier to negotiate with an indigenous people through a local NGO, funded by another country, than to establish a state-to-state relationship. That is why the NGOs finance projects. Or does anyone think that cooperation by Europeans or, worse, USAID, is intended to provide resources for a “civilizing alternative to capital,” for “another possible world,” for “post-capitalism” or the specter of “communism”? Of course not! On the contrary, those capitalist countries and their agencies reveal an imperialist attitude; suffice it to look at the focus of the projects of USAID and the U.S. State Department in reference to the indigenous peoples. Their documents show the intention of purchasing the loyalty and defence of the latter in the news media. Also manifest is their objective of turning the indigenous peoples against the Revolutionary Government of Evo Morales: “La Embajada de los Estados Unidos: Canapés y Territorios Indígenas,” Periódico Plurinacional Nº 6, Vicepresidencia del Estado, La Paz, August, 2011.


[14] As can be appreciated in the following quotations:
“The history of the highway has to do with the project of the South American Regional Initiative (IIRSA); the IIRSA has its origin in the first summit of the Presidents of South America held August 30-September 1, 2000 in Brasilia…. The IIRSA contemplates inter-oceanic corridors linking the Atlantic with the Pacific, making possible the transportation of merchandise between the two oceans. While the argumentation explaining the IIRSA project speaks of integration between the countries involved, voices have been heard from the beginning charging that the project is part of the strategy for domination by the United States of America, and there have also been criticisms of the project as part of the expansion of the emerging power of Brazil. The highway that crosses the TIPNIS forms part of the inter-oceanic corridors, and accordingly of the IIRSA project as well….” (Raúl Prada, “La defensa de los derechos de la Madre Tierra en el TIPNIS”. 15/08/2011.)

“This megaproject is beneficial above all to the big Chinese, U.S. and now Brazilian companies, so this highway is part of the IIRSA. There are other things too that are being violated, in relation to the environmental issues and biodiversity, now that we know there is an exquisite biodiversity in this sector, but it is important that citizens begin to realize that we have to defend places like that.” (Ajax Sangüeza, President of Fobomade, in an article, “Fobomade se une a defensa del Tipnis y rechaza la construcción de la carretera”, published in La Patria, 9 August 2011.

[15] Phrase of Pablo Dávalos in the comments on “Debates que tejen emancipaciones”, by Ana Esther Ceceña, published in Rebelión (26/05/2012). Available at:

[16] Referring to the Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tsu, who wrote “The art of war.”

[17] The Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (PNIS) was created under Decreto Ley (DL) No. 07401 of 22 November 1965. Later, under Decreto Supremo 22610 of 24 September 1990, the PNIS was recognized “as indigenous territory of the Moxeño, Yuracaré and Chimán peoples, who have inhabited it since ancient times, constituting the necessary socio-economic space for its development” and from then on its name changed to that of Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS).

[18] Informe Técnico; reconnaissance of the area of construction of Section II of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos Highway, by Gabriel Durán, Eng., 2012.

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