Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos (Cochabamba–Beni) Highway Consultation (Bolivia)

Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos (Cochabamba–Beni) Highway Consultation (Bolivia)


Problems and Purpose

The public consultation on the proposed highway was called by the Bolivian government then under control by the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). The consultation was in line with the party's goals including defending natural resources, decentralizing governance, and including Indigenous peoples in decision-making. 

This case study is instructive because it is one of the first public consultations organized by the left-wing Bolivian government since Evo Morales’s election and since the newly Plurinational Constitution of 2009. Indeed, before coming to power the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) Party constructed its legitimacy around the issue of the exploitation of natural resources[1] and advocating for a more decentralized and respectful decision-making process, especially in relation to indigenous people.

Background History and Context

Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure or 'TIPNIS') is a national park and an indigenous territory situated in the central valleys of Bolivia, on the borders of the departments of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

This territory has two statuses. It has been a protected area since the law decree # 07401 of 1965, under the government of René Barrientos Ortuño. The TIPNIS has also been recognized as an indigenous territory since 1990, which came about as a result of the lowland indigenous peoples’ March for Territory and Dignity in August and September of that year[2]. In 1996, this indigenous territory was named a TCO (Tierra Comunitaria de Origen). This status gives collective ownership to three indigenous populations from the amazon: Yuracares, Chimanes and Mojeños-Trinitarios.

Two kinds of populations live in this territory, not without tensions. On the one hand, the three lowlands populations mentioned above, which represent between 7.000 and 12.000 people. They principally make their living from agroforestry activities (hunting, fishing, farming, picking etc…) and have their own form of social organization based on collective property. On the other hand, approximately 15.000 Quechuas and Aymaras settlers live in the southern part of the territory, named polígono 7, which is delimited by a highly porous and ambiguous border[3]. Settlers migrated into the region in the 1960s in order to  expand their agricultural activities. They mostly cultivate coca in this area[4] and are organized into unions. Tensions are quite palpable in this region between highland (Quechuas and Aymaras) and lowland (Yuracares, Chimanes and Mojeños-Trinitarios) indigenous peoples and the balance of power is usually in favor of the settlers.

Leadup to the Consultation

The epicenter of the conflict in the TIPNIS is about the construction of a highway that would cross the indigenous territory (TCO), linking Villa Tunari (Cochambamba Department) with San Ignacio de los Moxos (Beni Department).

In 2007, Evo Morales, newly-elected president of the Republic of Bolivia decided to build the highway in question without consulting the indigenous populations of the region. The construction of the highway was next approved by the plurinational legislative assembly in April 2011, in spite of the fact that the 2009 constitution requires prior consultation with indigenous representatives[5].  On August 15, lowland indigenous peoples began a protest march of 1.000 people from TIPNIS to La Paz. They were concerned that the highway into TIPNIS would increase the process of colonization and give opportunities for industrialization and exploitation of natural resources[6].  On September 24, demonstrators were blocked in Yucumo by highway advocates and were injured by policemen. The walk continued, however, and protestors arrived in La Paz on October 19th[7].

In the face of this opposition, the government changed its position and on October 24th, 2001, declared TIPNIS an intangible territory [8] with the passing of law 180. This new status is not without ambiguity because not only does it impede the construction of the highway, it prohibits any kind of exploitation of natural resources in the TIPNIS, for settlers as much as for native populations. Those who refuse the highway still live in the park and need to exploit its resources. The intangibility of the territory therefore places lowlands indigenous peoples in a delicate position[9].

In 2012, a second protest march, this time in favor of the highway pushed the government to promulgate the Consultation Law 222. The government argued this change by the fact there had not yet been any consultation regarding the highway construction[10].

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

The public consultations were organized by the left-wing Bolivian government and would be the first such engagements since Evo Morales’s election and the passing of a Plurinational Constitution of 2009. Before coming to power the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) Party constructed its legitimacy around the issue of the exploitation of natural resources[1] and advocating for a more decentralized and respectful decision-making process, especially in relation to indigenous people - something that had clearly been overlooked in 2007 when the highway was announced. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

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Methods and Tools Used

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Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The process of consultation involved open meetings with indigenous stakeholders and residents in the area. According to a representative of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia, "there was only a small meeting of 3 hours, without any real convening, sometimes with only a few elders as participants and no government authorities."[11]  

According to the government, from the 69 communities in park, 11 rejected the process of consultation and 58 accepted. From those that were consulted, 57 rejected the intangibility of the territory and 55 accepted the highway construction[11].

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The consultation was highly controverted. After the consultation, an inter-institutional commission, composed of the Catholic Church and the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia, organized a counter-expertise to the consultation. The commission questioned the government data, claiming that 30 of the 36 communities they visited in December 2012 had rejected the highway project. In a few communities, indigenous people were in favor of the highway if it was on the border of TIPNIS, but disagreed with the idea of partitioning the territory in two. The commission mentions some cases where gifts were proposed by authorities, others where indigenous people complained about pressure and intimidation from officials, some where consultation meetings merely weren’t organized[12]. Moreover, the selection of the consulted communities is also disputed because from the 58, 17 are part of colonized areas and are not considered indigenous to the territory[13].

After being suspended, the highway construction began again in June 2015[14].

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Public consultations are institutional mechanisms that are supposed to increase the local population’s’s ability to respond to those projects that might affect their environment. However, the case of TIPNIS shows the limits of this instrument and opens up some interesting points for reflection.

First, the case of TIPNIS shows the diversity of indigenous identities involved in the participatory process. Lowland and highland indigenous peoples have different interests in this project and the State can play with these ambiguities and/or pluralities   for example by including or excluding non-natives people from the process.

More broadly speaking, this case exposes the contradictions of the Bolivian left when it comes to decentralization. Promoting decentralization in the discourse and in the Plurinational Constitution doesn’t necessarily mean that such declarations translate into practice. The Bolivian government was at first very reticent to consult with indigenous peoples and organized a consultation only to turn it to its advantage, not without serious doubts in the way of leading the process.

See Also


[1] See the case "Water Service Co-Management in Cochabamba, Bolivia".

[2] Sarela Paz, “La Marcha Indígena Del TIPNIS En Bolivia Y Su Relación Con Los Modelos Extractivos de América Del Sur,” accessed June 2, 2016,

[3] To step the progression of settlers in the protected area, a red line was delimited in 1994 in the south part of TIPNIS. Beyond this border, any colonization is ilegal (see map). Laetitia Perrier-Bruslé, “Le conflit du Tipnis et la Bolivie d’Evo Morales face à ses contradictions : analyse d’un conflit socio-environnemental,” EchoGéo, January 26, 2012, doi:10.4000/echogeo.12972.

[4] In his study, Carlos Hoffman shows that 95% of income families in Polígono 7 come from coca. Carlos Hoffman, “Diagnóstico Socioeconómico Del Área Colonizada Del Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure.” (Cochabamba: Unidad del Trópico., 1994).

[5] See article 30, paragraph 15 of the Constitution and article 343 which affirms populations are entitled to participate to the environmental management and to be informed and consulted when decision taken might affect their environment. However, vice-president defended the legality of the process by arguing highway construction didn’t involve exploitation of natural resources (press conference of October, 3rd).


[6] Sarela Paz,“La Marcha Indígena Del TIPNIS En Bolivia Y Su Relación Con Los Modelos Extractivos de América Del Sur.”

[7] Perrier-Bruslé, “Le conflit du Tipnis et la Bolivie d’Evo Morales face à ses contradictions.”

[8] “Bolivia: Caso TIPNIS,”, accessed May 24, 2016,

[9] Perrier-Bruslé, “Le conflit du Tipnis et la Bolivie d’Evo Morales face à ses contradictions.”

[10] “Conflicto Y Consulta En El TIPNIS, El Antecedente - La Razón,” accessed May 24, 2016,

[11] “Bolivie : Evo Morales S’engage En Faveur Du Tipnis Après La Validation de La Route,” Actu Latino, February 1, 2013,

[12] “Informe de La Comisión Interinstitucional Iglesia Católica Y Asamblea Permanente de DDHH Sobre La Consulta En El TIPNIS,” CEDIB, accessed June 2, 2016,

[13] “BOLIVIE - « La Consultation Sur Le TIPNIS N’en Était Pas Une » - AlterInfos - América Latina,” accessed May 24, 2016,

[14] “Tipnis. Gobierno de Evo Acelera Construcción de Carretera Por Territorio Indígena,”, June 29, 2015,

External Links

The TIPNIS Conflict in Bolivia


Lead image: Carwil Bjork-James/Carwill Without Borders



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TIPNIS From Villa Tunari to San Antonio de los Moxos


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