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Bolivian natives reach La Paz after march from Amazon

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-10-19

Bolivian President Evo Morales has offered to hold talks with indigenous protesters after they completed a grueling march from the Amazon to the capital city of La Paz in protest at plans to build a highway through their ancestral homeland.

AFP - Nearly 2,000 indigenous people made a triumphal entry into La Paz Wednesday at the end of a two-month march from the Amazon against a government plan to build a highway through their ancestral homeland.

The marchers, who set out in August and trekked 600 kilometers (370 miles) from the lowlands high into the Andes, were greeted as heroes as they entered the city accompanied by groups of workers and students.

Tens of thousands of people lining the steep streets waved Bolivian flags and white handkerchiefs to the sounds of firecrackers and patriotic songs, and cheered and applauded as the Indians passed.

Police and a riot control vehicle were withdrawn from the plaza outside the presidential palace as a gesture of goodwill, and President Evo Morales's information minister extended an official welcome to the protesters.

The marchers, including women, children and elderly people, have endured heavy rains, low temperatures, mountainous terrain and police brutality during their journey.

They are protesting plans to build a road through the pristine Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory that would level an ancestral homeland inhabited by 50,000 native people from three different native groups.

Although the project has been suspended, the marchers want it killed for good.

Facing the biggest challenge yet from fellow Indians in his five years in office, Morales offered late Tuesday to meet with them for talks upon their arrival.

"This dialogue would aim to iron out and build consensus on their demands in the framework of broader political action," Morales's spokesman Carlos Romero said in a statement.

Government officials said the talks could take place Wednesday or Thursday.

Morales, the first democratically elected indigenous president of this South American nation, finds his leadership challenged by a thorny national political debate over juggling native peoples' rights and economic development.

A police crackdown on the marchers that left 74 people injured in late September triggered a wave of indignation, a general strike and several resignations of top government officials, including two ministers.

Work on the highway, which was supposed to be operational in 2014, began in June, although not on the segment running through the protected park.

The isolated peoples from the humid lowlands are not from the main indigenous groups that make up most of majority-indigenous Bolivia's population, the highland Andean Aymara and Quechua.

The lowland people fear their traditional lands may be overrun by landless highland farmers.

Earlier this month, Morales agreed to postpone construction of the roadway, a delay that was later approved by Bolivia's legislature. But the protesters are seeking assurances that the project -- or at least the Amazon portion of it -- will be scuttled for good.

"If work begins, we will fight in the forest until death," said indigenous leader Adolfo Chavez.

Date created : 2011-10-19


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