One of my favourite stories of change: how an indigenous group won the rights to 1m hectares of land – and a new interview with an NGO person who supported them at the time

October 26, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

If you repeat the same story often enough, at some point you start to wonder if you’ve really just made it up, or at least embellished it beyond recognition. One such story, which I often tell at the start of a How Change Happens presentation, is about the Chiquitano Indians of Bolivia and their successful struggle for land. So I got very excited when I bumped into Simon Ticehurst, Oxfam’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, who told me he had been there for much of the Chiquitano story (also relieved to have my story confirmed as roughly true). I sat him down in front of the phone for a short (13m) catch up on the story.

Obviously the best thing would be to go back to the Chiquitanos, who I visited around 2006, and find out what’s happened since. But until I can find time and budget to do that, I will just have to rely on talking to people like Simon. Any other updates/sources very welcome.

And here’s my original write up:

‘On 3 July 2007, after twelve years of unremitting and often frustrating struggle, the Chiquitano people of Bolivia—a group numbering some 9,000 people—won legal title to the 1 million hectare (2.4 million acres) indigenous territory of Monteverde in the eastern department of Santa Cruz. Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president attended the ceremony with several of his ministers. So did three elected mayors, ten local councillors (six women, four men), a senator, a congressman and two members of the Constituent Assembly—all of them Chiquitanos.

Such an event would have been unthinkable a generation before. Until the 1980s, the Chiquitanos lived in near-feudal conditions, required to work without pay for local authorities, landowners and the Church, and prevented from owning land. In the words of Chiquitano activist Jeronima Quiviquivi, ‘My father never realised about our rights. We just did what the white people told us; only they could be in power, be president. We couldn’t even go into the town centre, people swore at us. But then we got our own organisation and elected our own leaders and that’s when we realised we had rights.’

To test the power and systems approach, let’s explore how this change happened.

Systems, Power and Norms: The change took place as part of wider evolution of indigenous identity and of Bolivian politics and

economy. In the 1980s, inspired in part by Chiquitano language radio programmes, for the first time, the Chiquitanos began to identify themselves as indigenous people. Indigenous identity began to replace the class-based peasant identity promoted by the nationalism of the 1952 revolution.

The dawn of ‘power within’ rapidly led to ‘power with’ in the form of cultural associations which rapidly acquired an explicitly political nature. The Chiquitano Indigenous Organization (OICH), represented more than 450 communities. As one elderly woman explained, ‘Only a short while ago did we begin calling ourselves Chiquitano Indians… We look alike, we were all handed over to the bosses… they called us cambas or peasants until not long ago.’

The Chiquitano movement was unexpectedly boosted by the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s, which dramatically reversed three decades of state intervention and improvements in social rights, and galvanised protest movements across Bolivia. Sacked miners from the highlands spread out across the country, setting up new organizations and spreading their traditions of activism and protest. The 1990s saw some unorthodox measures within the hard-line Washington Consensus policies, including a new law that greatly facilitated participation in local government, and an acceleration of agrarian reform, all of which helped boost indigenous movements.

The Chiquitanos’ recovery and celebration of indigenous identity led them to join in continent-wide alliances to protest the 500th anniversary (and celebration) of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The rise in indigenous consciousness was reflected in Bolivia’s constitutional reform of 1994, which redefined the state as ‘pluri-ethnic and multicultural’.

The tipping point came in 2005, with the election of Evo Morales as Bolivia’s first ever indigenous president. It marked a sea change in the fortunes of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, including the Chiquitanos. Many smaller ‘critical junctures’ helped galvanize the movement, including a succession of long marches to the capital La Paz. At one point protestors broke into the local mayor’s office and found documents showing that forced labour had been banned in Bolivia, even though the Chiquitanos were still being obliged to perform it. Their conclusion? We need our own mayor.

Two further factors eased the path to change. The discovery of large reserves of natural gas from the late 1980s onwards contributed to a general perception that the country was on the threshold of a historic opportunity. Second, the historical memory of the country’s indigenous peoples allowed them to draw strength from deep traditions of identity and resistance.

Formal Politics: After protests toppled President Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, identity documents became easier to obtain and candidates were allowed to run independently of traditional political parties, which led to major gains for indigenous peoples in the 2005 municipal elections. Because Evo Morales’ MAS party was unpopular locally (it was seen as being dominated by the more numerous indigenous highland peoples), activists stood as OICh (Chiquitano Indigenous Organization) candidates.

The Law: In addition to marches and protests, the Chiquitanos  tried to work within the system, insisting on legal procedures despite the tricks of adversaries and delays of judges.  In January 1995, the Chiquitanos presented their first legal demand for title to Monteverde under a new concept, ‘Original Community Territory’. A year and a half later, a second indigenous march won parliamentary recognition for the concept. Years of tedious legal procedures followed, with small gains and reversals, but they paved the way for eventual legal recognition for their territorial claim.

The International System:  The International Labour Organization (ILO) played a role in the rise of indigenous identity and was also a channel for legal appeals from the Chiquitano movement.

The Private Sector: The local private sector, especially landowners and forestry companies, were the main opponent of the land reform, but in the end were unable to stop the momentum of the Chiquitano movement.

Change Agents: The main actors in the drama were of course, the Chiquitanos themselves. Following the lead of other social movements, lowland peoples organised a march to the capital La Paz in 1990, which, as one participant put it, ‘demonstrated that the indigenous peoples of the East exist’. Literally and politically, indigenous people were on the move.

Alliances: A turning point came when the Chiquitanos decided to join up with Bolivia’s far more numerous highland Indians. ‘We met with one of the highlands leaders,’ recalls Chiquitano leader, now Senator, Carlos Cuasase, ‘and we said, “Look brother, you have the same problems that we do, the same needs.” We agreed not only on [the law to nationalise] hydrocarbons but also to defend the rights of indigenous people of both highlands and lowlands.’ The Roman Catholic Church was divided on social justice issues between traditionalists (‘blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God), and more radical liberation theologians among the local priests who were important allies for the Chiquitanos.

P.S. on Oxfam’s Role: The Chiquitano movement was highly ‘endogenous’, with only a minor role for outside supporters such as NGOs. One of these was Oxfam, which provided small amounts of funding, thanks to the imaginative ways local staff came up with to get round Oxfam’s internal bureaucracy. When one evaluation asked about the ‘mobile workshops’ we were funding, a sheepish programme officer confessed that this was funding for the long marches to the capital, which did indeed act as mobile workshops.’

Eduardo Caceres’ longer paper on the Chiquitano story is here