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Building of Amazon highway suspended following protests

The Bolivian government has suspended the building of the road following a month-long protest in which police were deployed and used tear gas against demonstrators.

A demonstrator confronts riot police in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, yesterday
A demonstrator confronts riot police in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, yesterday
Image: AP Photo/Juan Karita

WORK ON A highway that runs through part of the Amazon has been temporarily halted by Bolivian president, Evo Morales.

Morales announced yesterday that he was suspending the highway project and would let the two affected regions, Cochabamba and Beni, decide whether to proceed with the Brazil-financed road.

The contentious decision to build the highway has sparked clashes between police and Indians who say the road – which is being built by a Brazilian company – would spoil a nature preserve that is home to thousands of natives.

President Evo Morales made the announcement hours after police released hundreds of activists who had been protesting for the past month.

“We repudiate the excesses yesterday at the march,” Morales said, adding that a high-level commission should be formed to investigate the situation.

Police used tear gas and truncheons to break up a march on Sunday by around 1,000 protesters who were marching to La Paz, the national capital Bolivia’s highlands.

Officers detained the protesters and then loaded them onto buses planning to drive them back to the eastern lowlands provincial capital of Trinidad, where they had left from last month.

However, bonfires lit on the roadway forced authorities to detour to the airport in the Amazontown of Rurrenabaque.

Residents of the town had blocked the runway with barricades, forcing authorities to let the detainees go.

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, were missing.

Hours earlier, Defence Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest over the police action against opponents of the highway.

The proposed 300km highway would connect Brazil with Pacific ports in Chile and Peru, and if it goes to plan will cross Bolivia’s 12,000-square-km Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park.

It is home to 15,000 indigenous people who fear an influx of settlers would destroy their habitat and pollute rivers.

Environmentalists say the road would mostly benefit Brazilian commercial interests while endangering a nature preserve.

Morales is the country’s first indigenous president and his support for the highway has alienated many of the indigenous Bolivians whose support was crucial to his re-election in 2009.

His popularity fell to 37 percent this month, its second-lowest level since he was first elected in 2006.

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Associated Press

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