Bolivian President Evo Morales on Friday inaugurated construction on a highway planned to pass through a nature reserve over the objections of Indian groups that fear it will damage their lands.
No protesters appeared at the ceremony, and the leftist leader was surrounded by hundreds of coca growers who support building the 192-mile (309-kilometer) road from the town of Villa Tunari in the west to San Ignacio de Moxos in the east.
The planned route passes through a national park and territory that is home to three indigenous groups, the Yuracare, Chiman and Trinitaria. Their 15,000 members live by hunting, fishing, collecting fruits and farming.
Morales, who is Bolivia's first president from indigenous group, has said the highway is needed to open economic opportunities for isolated villages in Bolivia's east.
Adolfo Moye, an indigenous leader, previously told The Associated Press that the Indian communities would resist the road when it enters their land.
In recent years, the region has been the scene of disputes between the indigenous communities and coca growers who have begun growing their plants there. The national park is adjacent to the Chapare region in central Bolivia, which is home to the largest union of coca growers, led by Morales.
Speaking at the town of Eterazama, the president did not mention the Indian opposition to the highway, but he noted it will pass through indigenous reserves and promised to protect the environment.
"There is always the possibility of conflicts between development and Mother Earth, but we will be careful to respect nature," Morales said.