Bolivia’s indigenous women walk unrelenting path of rebel dignity

Female leaders from northern Potosí, Bolivia.
Female leaders from northern Potosí, Bolivia. Autor/a: Soraya Aguilar Huarachi
“The predatory capitalist system is putting at risk the lives not only of our communities, but of the entire planet. In the face of this, it is important to take into account that women are the caretakers of life, and this puts us in the front line in the struggle for the defence of collective rights.”

Bertha Bejarano, indigenous leader.
She led the 9th March in Defence of the Isiboro-Sécure
National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) 2012

Bolivia is a South American country with three geographical areas that are rich in natural resources: the Altiplano, or plateau, amounting to 28% of the territory; the valleys, 13%; and the plains —the eastern regions—, 59%. It is considered one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world.

Bolivia has the second largest indigenous population in all of South America, only after Peru. It is known as an eminently Andean and highland country, Quechua- and Aymara-populated, but even so, most of its territory lies in the lowlands, particularly those comprising the macro-regions of the Amazonia, the Chiquitania, and the Chaco, where 34 of Bolivia’s 36 constitutionally recognised indigenous peoples coexist.

Ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity makes Bolivia a plurinational country: what is now constitutionally called the “Plurinational State” is the result of a process of historical accumulation and social, political, cultural, and territorial struggles dating back to colonial times and reaching our days, in which several moments in history are significantly marked by the permanent resistance of the indigenous peoples, both in the highlands (Altiplano, valleys) and the lowlands (eastern plains).

The indigenous movements’ permanent resistance will not be understood if their historical milestones are not recalled. The great Sisa-Katarist Rebellion —an anti-colonial indigenous revolt— took place in 1781 in the Altiplano. In it, Bartolina Sisa and her husband Tupac Katari symbolised the complementarity of the dual concept chacha/warmi (“man/woman”, in Aymara) in jointly taking on the responsibilities of the uprising and leading those joining it. They advocated self-government and the right to land and territory.

Among the indigenous peoples of the lowlands (southern Amazonia), the Mojeño people brings to our minds their 1810 rebellion against the abuses of colonists. The rebellious Mojeños managed to bring about the first indigenous autonomy in the region, led by Pedro Ignacio Muiba. They came to implement self-determination based on their own government. However, with the foundation of the Republic, community rights were annulled, the criollo and mestizo population usurped indigenous lands, and a forced system of re-engagement of the indigenous labour force was established by opening up population centres to commerce.

It is important to recall as well the golden age of indigenous education (1931-1940). The Ayllu School of Warisata is the most transcendent episode of the indigenous struggles of the 20th century. Its history is a libertarian call to national consciousness, to the affirmation of will, to the creation of a national character, and to its possibilities of economic development. The Ayllu School surprised with a life-based pedagogy, creative work, and the reclamation of ancestral culture.

The school was founded on 2 August 1931 by Elizardo Pérez and Avelino Siñani, as a nucleus for 33 schools of the Altiplano. In less than a decade it became the model for the foundation of another 15 indigenous and forestry education centres in Bolivia. Philosopher Yvette Mejía Vera, an expert in indigenous schools and author of Sistematización Warisata Escuela Ayllu (1931-1940), states in that book: “The Ayllu’s model is based on universal values or principles, liberation, communal organisation, communal production, revaluation of cultural identity, solidarity, and reciprocity.” In the face of this, “the mining-feudal clique attacked the indigenous nuclei —their principals were dismissed, the schools looted, and the students persecuted. The most atrocious act happened in the lowlands of the nucleus of Casarabe, where 300 students were killed under the pretext that the schools were in fact communist cells,” Mejía Vera writes.

Permanent demands and struggles of indigenous peoples

In a cyclical conception of Bolivian history, it is important to look to the past in order to be able to move forward. The revolts during the colony and after independence, the popular struggles for liberation, and the indigenous, social and union marches, all three are both a long and short memory of Bolivian historiography.

Particularly from the late 1970s onward, the indigenous movement in the highlands began to play a leading role in the long process of demands that the indigenous peoples in Bolivia had already launched. Under a permanent struggle, a strong social movement became visible in the 1980s and 1990s. It was made up of the Unified Syndical Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, CSUTCB), the Bartolina Sisa National Confederation of Indigenous Peasant Women of Bolivia (Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Indígenas Originarias de Bolivia “Bartolina Sisa”, CNMCIOB-BS) and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu, CONAMAQ) in the highlands and valleys (west), as well as the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia, CIDOB) and the National Confederation of Indigenous Women of Bolivia (Confederación Nacional de Mujeres indígenas de Bolivia, CNAMIB) in the lowlands (east).

Within this framework, it is worth highlighting some moments of historical transformation of the indigenous movement. The political thesis of the CSUTCB in 1983, unveiled at its second National Congress, directed the struggle towards a “final liberation” and the construction of a plurinational society, which can respect the various forms of self-government.

The 1990 March for Territory and Dignity of the indigenous peoples of the lowlands, led by the Centre of Indigenous Peoples of Beni, achieved transcendental changes such as the recognition of indigenous territories with their own worldviews, identities and diverse social horizons, which had not previously been provided for in the Bolivian constitutional order.

Sarela Paz, a sociologist and anthropologist specialising in indigenous territories, natural resources and interculturality, says: “The mobilisations of indigenous peoples in the lowlands were essential to lead to a series of constitutional reforms during the 1990s. They achieved the recognition of the right to own and administer ancestral territories, through a major reform that took place in the territorial structure, with the recognition of the Communal Lands of Origin (Tierras Comunitarias de Origen, TCO) as a form of collective land ownership.” The ratification of ILO Convention 169, through Law 1257 of 11 July 1991, rendered possible important progress in Bolivian policies and legislation.

The reform of the 1994 Political Constitution of the State is also noteworthy. The amendments changed the nature of the Bolivian nation, which became “multiethnic and multicultural.” As a result, important regulations were enacted that included, albeit partially, the rights of indigenous peoples, such as the collective right to territory, which was called the TCO. This advance came as a result of the March for Territory and Dignity of the indigenous peoples of the lowlands aforementioned.

Furthermore, sociologist, anthropologist and researcher on indigenous issues Gabriela Canedo states in La reivindicación territorial de los indígenas de la Amazonia boliviana: “The defence of the territory and the claim to an indigenous identity have led organisations not only to ask for recognition and protection from the State, but also to insert themselves in it through political participation.”

The Assembly of Nationalities and the Political Instrument

The Unified Syndical Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) convened its first Extraordinary Congress in July 1988. Political discussion and analysis were focused on two streams. One, the organisation of the so-called “Assembly of Nationalities,” as a political scenario based on the indigenous institutions, in a system of government —of self-government— that could strengthen the traditional structures of the nationalities and allow to project the political struggle towards the destabilisation of a system of colonial domination that imposed its own authorities and legal structures. And two, the construction of the so-called “Political Instrument,” a proposal that would allow participation in the State’s institutional structures, becoming part of all levels of representation and taking on electoral processes.

Sarela Paz highlights the participation of Juan de la Cruz Villca, leader of the peasant movement and member of the Eje Comunero, who had a strong influence on the Extraordinary Congress because of his proposals: “He stated that it was more important to think about building something outside the State, something that he imagined as an Assembly of Nationalities that could undermine the colonial[-inherited] State. Several currents of thought supported him. But the option presented by the other sectors —creating the Political Instrument— won the discussion, which meant that they should run for national and local elections, in order to gain access to power.”

The sociologist adds: “A review to the documentation of the [subsequent] 1995 Congress of the CSUTCB called ‘Land, territory and political instrument’ makes it clear that the Political Instrument emerged as a strategic electoral wing of the CSUTCB.” This electoral tool, as decided by that Congress, was called the Political Instrument-Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (Instrumento Político-Asamblea para la Soberanía de los Pueblos, IP-ASP), with Alejo Véliz as its leader. The same year, it took part in the municipal elections under the name ASP-IU —using the acronym of the Izquierda Unida (IU) party—, and managed to win 15 mayor’s offices.

Paz further says that “in the 1997 national election, Alejo Véliz, a peasant leader and founder of the Political Instrument, ran for president under the banner of the Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (ASP). He was not successful. However, in the same year, Evo Morales ran for Congress, representing the Federation of the Tropics of Cochabamba under the banner of Izquierda Unida. And he won the seat.”

The emergence of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS)

In 1998 a definitive break took place between Alejo Véliz and Evo Morales, the leader of the coca leaf growers of the Cochabamba tropics: one faction remained loyal to Véliz, another was capitalised on by the future Bolivian president. A year later, under Morales’s leadership, the Movement Toward Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (Movimiento al Socialismo-Instrumento Político para la Soberanía de los Pueblos, MAS-IPSP) was born.

In this historical and political context, it is worth mentioning the important ideological contribution of trade union leader and founder of MAS-IPSP Filemón Escobar, who from 1987 to 2001 organised political training seminars and workshops in the Cochabamba tropics, and became a mentor to Evo Morales and the cocalero movement.

Filemón Escobar, Filipo, with his trademark lucidity, came to understand the importance of approaching the indigenous movement, having been himself one of the founders of the Revolutionary Liberation Movement Túpac Katari party (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Katari de Liberación, MRTKL), under whose banner he —unsuccessfully— ran for vice-president in the 1985 national election, in a joint ticket with great Aymara leader Genaro Flores Santos. In the 1989 election, Escobar won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies under IU. In 2002, he was elected a member of the Senate under the Movement Toward Socialism banner.

Unlike other leaders in the Marxist movement, Escobar —a Trotskyist— understood the role of the indigenous sector in the history of Bolivia and the enormous political potential of the cocalero movement. His participation was decisive in leading the indigenous peasant movement to the elections. In 2002, under the leadership of Morales, the movement ran under the banner of the MAS-IPSP in the national election, and managed to become Bolivia’s second largest party. In the 2005 election, the MAS-IPSP obtained 53.7% of the votes and became the largest party in 5 of the 9 departments of Bolivia. Morales was elected the first indigenous president in the country’s history.

Indigenous women’s movements for collective rights

Many milestones can be considered as part of the indigenous mobilisations in Bolivia. Thanks to the indigenous marches that took place from the 1990s onwards, several successes were achieved, such as the legal and constitutional recognition of lands as a collective property, or the birth of a plurinational state with semi-autonomous territories. The indigenous marches are a strategic legacy which still remain in force, strengthened by new forms of resistance such as the indigenous cabildos —forums of participation and decision-making, where mandates are given to leaders (both women and men) to realise their demands for territorial claims, among many others.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning the contribution and presence of indigenous women in the whole process of historical accumulation, and of social, political, cultural, and territorial struggles, which took place from colonial times to the present day.

Female leaders of the Torotoro municipality. / Photo: Soraya Aguilar Huarachi.

Audiovisual documentary-maker and activist in defence of Mother Earth Yomar Ferino argues: “Despite having been rendered invisible throughout history, indigenous women have been present and have been players in the birth and consolidation of the indigenous movement. Let’s remember, for example, the great indigenous leader Bartolina Sisa, who led the anti-colonial indigenous revolt together with Túpac Katari, and was a reference point for indigenous women, mainly in the highlands.”

In 1980, the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia (Federación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas de Bolivia, FNMCB) was created, which in homage to Bartolina Sisa adopted her name. The organisation was born as a representative of peasant and indigenous women of the Andean region and some areas of the Bolivian tropics, as a sister organisation of male-dominated CSUTCB.

During its first period (1980-1993), the Bartolina Sisa Federation was mostly focused on the defence of class and identity. The second period began in 1994 and lasts until today. During it, the Bartolina Sisa Federation was part of the creation of the Political Instrument that opened the way for the indigenous movement to run in elections. In 1999, the political participation of rural women in local elections was encouraged, since the Quota Law, enacted in 1997, stipulated that at least 30% of the candidate lists needed to be made up of women.

Indigenous leader, former authority of the Marka Comanche of the Bartolina Sisa Women’s Federation, and Jiliri Mama T’alla (a title of female Aymara leadership) of 13 communities Maclovia García emphasises that the Bartolina Sisa National Federation sought to recover and reaffirm its cultural ethnic identity. That research was reflected in the change of name of the organisation: in 2008, it became the Bartolina Sisa National Confederation of Indigenous Peasant Women. According to its main leaders, that change met the need to acquire autonomy from the CSUTCB.

The indigenous peoples of the lowlands began to make themselves visible starting from the 1990 March for Territory and Dignity, where women’s participation became important but was still invisible. Throughout the 1990s, indigenous marches projected a lively discussion on issues such as the defence of territory, its use and sustainable development, the administration of natural resources, autonomy, and the right to prior consultation.

Wilma Mendoza, president of the National Confederation of Indigenous Women of Bolivia (CNAMIB), says: “Since the consolidation of the indigenous movement in the lowlands, we have continued to fight against discrimination, and we demand respect for our territories and the defence of individual and collective rights, and permanent resistance to all policies and models of extractive development.”

After a quarter of a century of permanent prominence in the ranks of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) —a mostly male-dominated organisation—, the lowlands’ indigenous women decided to create their own organisation bringing together indigenous women, because of constant marginalisation underwent by them.

Indigenous leader Mendoza goes on: “We women are the ones who put our bodies and are in the front line in mobilisations, even risking our lives. And that was not recognised by our CIDOB leadership. As a result, in 2007, in the midst of the Constituent Assembly, the CNAMIB was created, which contributed to the process by the means of women’s representation and political discourses. It brought about the political reinforcement of the CIDOB, which at one time opposed the CNAMIB’s creation, but later realised that it was a great strength.”

In 1997, the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ) was established. It was made up of Aymara and Quechua people, with the stated mission of reconstructing the ancient ayllus, markas and suyus (pre-colonial indigenous territories, with their own traditional political and economic institutions). From the beginning of the organisation, the dual chacha/warmi authority was established, where each spouse takes office and responsibility with his or her partner, which means that the tatas (male authorities) carry out their duties accompanied by mama t’allas (female authorities).

Although the concept of “gender complementarity” was strengthened, over the years women realised that they were not exercising political authority on an equal footing with men, began to express their willingness to stop being merely symbolic authorities, and asked to participate on equal terms. In 2004 CONAMAQ created a gender commission, which gave room for strengthening the leading presence of women.

The three organisations therefore have structures where women organise themselves and function simultaneously: Bartolina Sisa (in the CSUTCB), the mama t’allas (in the CONAMAQ) and the National Confederation of Indigenous Women of Bolivia (in the CIDOB). These organisational structures were the basis and foundation of the Unity Pact —a political alliance between peasants and indigenous people during the Constituent Assembly (2007-2009)— as well as being the architects of strong contents on indigenous rights —including the Plurinational State in the current Bolivian Constitution.

The indigenous women’s movement in the Constituent Assembly

The pre-constituent process in Bolivia was the result of the historical accumulation sustained by the struggles of indigenous movements and social organisations. In 2002 the 4th indigenous march of the East, the Chaco and the Amazonia took place. The CONAMAQ members, which had come from the departments of Potosi and Oruro, joined in. The mobilisation called for the convening of a Constituent Assembly to change the Political Constitution of the State.

Sociologist Sarela Paz explains: “On 16 March 2006 the Law for the Convening of the Constituent Assembly (LECAC) was approved, which among its main provisions dictated an overall reform of the Political Constitution of the Bolivian State. To this end, a broad, pluralistic process of deliberation was established, building a path towards inclusion, equity, redistribution, and justice.”

The constituent process triggered a new historical cycle in women’s struggle, posing new challenges, new partnerships and political roles. In shaping the constituent process, women’s organisations —both indigenous and urban— mobilised such a political action that placed them on the stage and in deliberative spaces.

Wilma Mendoza explains: “We women took up the challenge and were part of the constituent process. Indigenous and urban women jointly organised ourselves, recognised our differences, shared our dreams and struggles, and built a proposal that expressed our diversity.”

Mendoza also argues that the Constituent Assembly installed spaces of deliberation where important levels of feedback and knowledge were given. By proposing a State with equality between women and men, female constituent delegates opened up fundamental challenges, such as eliminating situations of inequality, discrimination and subordination, defending the rights of women and girls by guiding public policies and resources to resolve gender gaps... proposals that were incorporated into several articles of the Political Constitution.

On the other hand, indigenous leader Bertha Bejarano, who led the 9th March in Defence of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, explains: “In 2009, through the promulgation of the Constitution, an important progress was made in the recognition of the right to self-determination and the establishment of indigenous autonomies and self-government”.

The Constituent Assembly was presided over by Silvia Lazarte, of Quechua origin, former executive secretary of the Bartolina Sisa National Confederation of Peasant Women. In the constituent process, women came to play roles of political decision-making, with the quality of accumulated political capital that gave them recognition and positioning within their organisations, parties and spaces for defining national policies.

The autonomous indigenous peasant communities

The 2009 Bolivian Political Constitution (Constitución Política del Estado, CPE) was a historic milestone and marked important progress, such as the recognition of the rights of indigenous peasant nations and peoples. We will therefore highlight the right to titles and ownership of their territories, to their own practices and worldviews, to traditional indigenous medicine and its inclusion in the national health system, or to the establishment of multilingualism in national education at all levels, among many others.

One of the permanent demands of the indigenous movement is the right to self-determination, which was enshrined in the CPE. This right has led to the establishment of autonomous indigenous peasant communities. Wilma Mendoza explains that these autonomies are “self-government as an exercise of the self-determination of indigenous nations and peoples where they share their own territory, culture, history, languages, and legal, political, social, and economic organisations or bodies.”

Preparing a ritual for Mother Earth (Pachamama). / Photo: Soraya Aguilar Huarachi.

However, Mendoza points out that, despite transformative steps such as the recognition of self-determination in the CPE or the approval, in 2010, of the Andrés Ibáñez Framework Law on Autonomies and Decentralisation (LMAD), no progress is being made in their application. Mendoza agrees with what leaders of other indigenous peoples say: “Excessive requirements, political interests, and a lack of consensus are preventing the progress of indigenous autonomies in Bolivia” (statement reproduced by El Día newspaper, 14 October 2018).

In about one decade, only 3 of 20 territorial entities that gained access to indigenous peasant autonomy have managed to establish their self-government on the ground: these are Charagua Iyambae (Guarani), Uru Chipaya (Uru) and Raqaypampa (Quechua). The 2009 Constitution opens the way for the recovery of the ancestral forms of government of the indigenous peoples, but its implementation is marred by bureaucracy and obstacles in the requirements imposed by the central state for the establishment of autonomies.

On the other hand, Bertha Bejarano states: “Women’s presence in the process of building indigenous autonomies makes it possible to deepen our community experiences in education and health, and to discuss family and political violence. Now, our word is heard and taken into account.”

Extractivism and the rights of indigenous peasant peoples

Indigenous autonomy in Bolivia did not come overnight, but was a historical construction: In the 1990 march, the main slogans were for the recognition and respect for indigenous peoples, while in 2002, it was no longer a question of state recognition or the incorporation of the indigenous into the state, but rather the possibility of building a different state. This led to a new constitutional framework in 2009 under the Plurinational State concept and the philosophical principles of suma qamaña (living well), nandereko (harmonious life), teko kavi (good life), ivi marae (land without evil), and qhapaj nan (noble path or life).

In this framework, Bejarano underlines the concept of “living well”, in complementarity, harmony and balance with Mother Earth, and that we all live in equity, solidarity and eliminating inequalities. “Living well” with each other, “living well” with what surrounds us, and “living well” with oneself. “To have ‘living well’ in the Constitution is a great progress, but it is good to reflect and ask ourselves: is ‘living well’ materialising in our policies? I believe that these challenges of materialisation have been in contradiction, during the second term of government of Evo Morales, with an economic line based on extractivism, implementing policies that violate the rights of Mother Earth and the collective rights of indigenous peoples.”

In 2014, the Mining Law was approved, which modified the rules for land use in nature reserves, protected areas and indigenous territories, as well as on bodies of water. With this regulation, companies can now use not only the area of exploitation, but also the adjacent area (such as the use of nearby water resources). It also establishes that the corporate mining sector will receive direct incentives from the State. One of them is the Fund to Support the Reactivation of Small-scale Mining (FAREMIN), the other is the Fund for Cooperative Mining (FOFIM). In this context, Giorgina Jiménez, a researcher with the Bolivia-CEDIB Documentation and Information Centre, wrote in Geografia del Extractivismo en Bolivia (2015): “The law criminalises citizen protest and immediately establishes mechanisms for the protection of mining actors, who receive immediate safeguard from the State through the use of public force in the event of any action by society that creates an inconvenient environment for them.”

On the other hand, the Supreme Decree 2366 was passed in 2015. It allowed the development of hydrocarbon activities within natural protected areas —a huge contradiction with the discourse of protection of Mother Earth. Sociologist Gabriela Canado wrote in Los Tiempos in 2019: “Little by little, protection laws have been transgressed, [and] the rights of indigenous communities and to prior consultation have been violated. Protected areas such as the TIPNIS (Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park), the Qhara Qhara nation and Tariquía, among many other indigenous territories, are being seriously affected every day.”

Constitutional lawyer Jorge Bacotich Oliva wrote in 2017: “Decree 2366 does not provide for what is established in Article 403 of the Political Constitution of the State. This decree is not giving [indigenous peoples] prior consultation, it does not give them the right to decide whether or not they want exploration. For the sake of ‘national interest’ we can build a road and split the TIPNIS (Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park) in half, or drill a well in Tariquía. The rule is to authorise the exploitation of hydrocarbons in protected areas, without the need for prior consultation.”

Sarela Paz points out that rules on mining have been negotiated with the companies in the sector. Prior consultation with indigenous peoples has been undermined, and has become a simple administrative procedure: “When Evo Morales took over the government, and in the context of a permanent struggle by the indigenous peoples, demands were materialised with the Constituent Assembly and the establishment of a new Plurinational State. However, when we look at the data, we find that already in 2008 indigenous rights were starting to be curtailed by some decrees. We can now see that there has been a setback in the exercise of and compliance with the rights of the indigenous populations.”

8th and 9th indigenous marches for the defence of the territory

The 8th and 9th Indigenous March for the Defence of the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) against the project to build the San Ignacio de Moxos-Villa Tunari road, which divides the heart of this indigenous territory, and against other mega-project initiatives, were among the most important events of 2011 and 2012, and set a new milestone in the relationship between the government of Evo Morales and indigenous peoples.

In structural terms, the indigenous marches put exhaustively into question the prevailing development model in Bolivia, based on the extraction of natural resources and the resulting environmental degradation. Bertha Bejarano recalls: “Despite all the government’s attempts to stop the march —even resorting to persuasion and threats, and using the repressive apparatus of the State and violently intervening in the march in the town of Chaparina— we resisted and went on until we reached the seat of government.”

The TIPNIS march arrives in La Paz, 2011. / Photo: Szymon Kochański @ Flickr

Bejarano explains: “The TIPNIS is the Big House and belongs to no one, it is part of everyone, it has no owners and we are part of it. Resistance is a way of life, and life is the territory itself. We must defend it from this predatory capitalist system that is putting at risk the lives not only of our communities, but of the entire planet. In the face of this, it is important to take into account that women are the caretakers of life, and this puts us in the front line in the struggle for the defence of collective rights.”

“The 8th and 9th indigenous marches demanded respect for life, for land, and for decisions made by the indigenous peoples of the TIPNIS so that the road that crosses the protected area is not built. The struggle cost us dearly: many of our leaders were persecuted by the government, our education and health are neglected by the state, but beyond that, we will continue to resist with dignity,” says Wilma Mendoza.

The turning point and the redirection of new paths

For more than a decade, the Morales’s government has only registered a discursive effervescence, based on a political calculation of defending Mother Earth and the indigenous peoples while avoiding touching on the core of the matter. “The construction of plurinationality cannot be understood if we attack nature and the self-determination of those who protect it —the indigenous peoples, nodal actors in the construction of the Plurinational State,” wrote Gabriela Canedo in Los Tiempos in 2019.

Canedo also pointed out some of the reasons why Morales’s party has lost support even among its indigenous bases, leading to the breakdown of the “unity pact” made up by indigenous organisations from both the lowlands and highlands. The fundamental sticking point is the state’s extractivist policy, which runs counter to the initial policy of “living well” and of defending territorial rights of indigenous peoples. Two examples: the 2011 and 2012 protests against the construction of a motorway in the TIPNIS, or the 2019 protests against the extension of agricultural lands and the controlled burns that caused fires in the Chiquitania.

On the other hand, Canedo argues: “The October and November 2019 mobilisations,” which led to Morales’s resignation, “must not be closed with the idea of an ethnic confrontation, of a polarisation between ‘Indians’ and ‘K’aras’ (whites). The Bolivian population had opted for democracy since the results of the 2016 referendum, which denied Morales the option of a fourth term, later flouted by a ruling of the Constitutional Court authorising Morales to stand for election in 2019. This is the origin of the crisis —and, in between, an electoral fraud that led to Morales’s resignation.”

In this context, it is important to recall the manifesto of the Qhara Qhara nation, an important sector of the indigenous movement that joined the protests against the electoral fraud. The manifesto is one of the toughest appeals against Evo Morales, and we reproduce part of it:

“Mr. President, from the bottom of our hearts and with great sorrow we tell you: where did you get lost? Because you do not live anymore within the ancestral precepts that say that we have to respect the muyu (circle), only once we have to govern. Why have you prostituted our Pachamama? Why did you have the Chiquitania burned? Why did you mistreat our indigenous brothers in Chaparina and Tariquía? Respect our cultures, don’t sow more hatred between our brothers in the countryside and in the city, stop dividing peoples, you have violated their self-determination. Stop sending indigenous people as cannon fodder to support your interests and of those around you, which are no longer ours; stop sending thugs who mistreat our people; let us live by our law; stop talking on behalf of the indigenous people, for you have already lost your identity.”

In this context, indigenous leader Wilma Mendoza recalls the words of Cecilia Mayorivi, a great leader and part of the 1st march for Territory and Dignity: “The principles of our ancestors have been very valuable, because they have sought the ‘Loma Santa’, that is to say a sacred place in the forest solely intended for us to live freely; for centuries they fought so that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have a place to live, and for that reason we will continue to sow an ancestral conviction for the defence and struggle of the indigenous peoples. And yesterday, today and tomorrow we will continue to resist.”

“As defenders of our territory and of life, we are constantly experiencing persecution, intimidation, disqualification, and attempts to silence our voices of resistance. To continue, not to lower our guard, to be encouraged among comrades, and to continue in the struggle. We have a Political Constitution that recognises the rights of indigenous peoples, and we will demand that it is respected,” says Bertha Bejarano.

Economist and researcher José Luis Eyzaguirre wrote in 2014: “Many indigenous peoples are fighting in their territories to defend themselves from the growing presence of mining and oil concessions and the advance of globalised agribusiness.” In this line, sociologist Sarela Paz states that “the resistance of indigenous peoples is permanent against any government that attacks Mother Earth and the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Bolivia has to be rethought after the events of October and November 2019, two months that mean a break and a redirection of new paths. Beyond the hypotheses of whether or not there was a coup d’état and the allegations of electoral fraud, I recall a phrase that carries commitments that go beyond life itself: “Living with the Earth, living for and with the land” are principles of life that strengthen the demands and resistance of indigenous peoples. Keeping the historical memory in mind makes it possible to build new paths, managing to strengthen ancestral knowledge and know-how. Beyond any government based on ideological tendencies of an indigenous nature, left-wing or right-wing, the indigenous peoples must be in permanent struggle for the defence of their collective rights and of Mother Earth.

With the support from:

With the support from the Agència Catalana
de Cooperació al Desenvolupament
and the Departament de Treball,
Afers Socials i Famílies