LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — More than 1,000 Indians opposing a jungle highway that they say will spoil their lands in Bolivia's Amazon drew cheers Wednesday when they paraded into the world's highest capital after a 63-day protest march.
Their trek, including a failed attempt by baton-swinging police to break up the march two weeks ago, has won widespread sympathy and fueled charges that leftist President Evo Morales discriminates against Bolivia's Amazon-based indigenous groups in favor 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, march 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.
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 190-mile (300-kilometer) highway would despoil the Isiboro-Secure preserve, a park that is home to 15,000 indigenous people.
Frictions among indigenous communities have been a problem in Bolivia. About 62 percent 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.
"The president doesn't respect the 'Plurinational State' that he himself promoted, and he wants to impose on lowlands Indians the culture and customs of the Aymara and Quechua," said Pedro Moye, leaders of CIDOB, Bolivia's main lowlands indigenous federation.
Bolivia's new constitution, which Morales championed and voters approved, declares its 36 native groups semiautonomous. In practice, his government has struggled to honor that mandate.
Some critics accuse Morales of ignoring it altogether, of turning his back on indigenous peoples who, accounting more than three in five Bolivians, gave him their votes as he promised to empower its long-suppressed natives.
"He's not even favoring the Aymaras and the Quechuas," said Fernando Vargas, one of the protest leaders. "He's only favoring coca growers and colonizers."
As the struggle over the Brazilian-funded highway through the nature preserve became heated, Morales accused lowlands Indians of being tools of U.S. provocateurs.
"They are trying to divide us so that the colonial state returns," he said last week.
By that time, the failed police crackdown had prompted many highlands Indians and educated Bolivians to rally 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 tens of thousands of highlands Indians, coca growers and union members marched in support of Morales in the dispute.