Soccer, mobile workshops and struggle: how change happens in Bolivia

November 25, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

From Poverty to Power, but it bears repeating, so I recycled it this week. I’ll intersperse the narrative with some of the points it raises on how change happens. On 3 July 2007, after twelve years of unremitting and often frustrating struggle, the Chiquitano people of Bolivia – numbering some 120,000 people – won legal title to the 1m-hectare indigenous territory of Monteverde in the eastern department of Santa Cruz. Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, and several ministers attended the ceremony. 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 even a generation ago. Until the 1980s, the Chiquitanos lived in near-feudal conditions, required to work unpaid for local authorities, landowners, and the Church, and prevented from owning land. The Chiquitanos are best known outside Bolivia as an indigenous group that survived some of the worst impacts of colonisation on Jesuitchiquitano church reducciones (missions), where they became adept baroque musicians and built extraordinary churches that still attract tourists to the region (see pic). Their story was told in the 1986 film The Mission. But the Jesuits were driven out, and the Chiquitanos enslaved. Despite the radical revolution that swept the highlands in 1952, in the isolated East, indigenous families continued to be bought and sold along with the estates where they worked. Change began to stir through the unlikely vehicle of sport: the Chiquitanos were allowed off the farm to play soccer against other farm labourers (presumably because their ‘owners’ wanted to keep them fit). On the margins of the games, they started to compare notes on their situations, and a common sense of grievance began to emerge. In the 1980s, indigenous identity slowly began to replace the class-based peasant identity promoted by the nationalism of the 1952 revolution. For the first time, the Chiquitanos began to identify themselves as indigenous people, with their own particular demands, and rapidly built their own Chiquitano Indigenous Organization (OICH), representing more than 450 communities. The continent-wide upsurge in indigenous identity around the 1992 quincentenary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas was a contributory factor. [Lesson: shifting notions of identity and culture can be a crucial driver of change] This process was unexpectedly boosted by the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s, which boosted migration and increased contacts between the Chiquitanos and other indigenous groups, and saw unemployed and highly politicised mineworkers move to the lowlands, where in many cases they started to organize locally. [Lesson: unintended consequences are often important] 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. [Lesson: acquiring ‘power within’ – a sense of rights – is often the first step towards ‘power with’- collective action] 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. [Lesson: unintended consequences again] 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. However, by the time of the third march of indigenous peoples from the East in 2000, ferment was growing across the country. Privatisation of water services in the city of Cochabamba led to a fully-fledged uprising, which chased the water company from the city and triggered a wave of protest nationwide. chiquitano kidsAt another march in 2003, the Chiquitanos put forth national demands and established national alliances. ‘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.’ [Lesson: coalitions and alliances are often essential to get national change] 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. In December of that year, Bolivia elected Evo Morales as its president. People who had never before dreamed of serving in high-level posts became ministers. The election marked a sea-change in the fortunes of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, including the Chiquitanos. [Lesson: even an apparently long-term change process of incremental progress will be punctuated, and often accelerated by, shocks and discontinuities, such as a radical change of government, financial crisis, natural disaster etc] The discovery of large reserves of natural gas contributed to a general perception that the country was on the threshold of a historic opportunity. [Lesson: economic context matters. Sometimes change is easier in a boom – easier to redistribute wealth from a growing pie] Political strategy was also essential. Aware of Bolivia’s history of military coups followed by violent repression, Chiquitano leaders sought to emphasise the country’s equally strong tradition of negotiation. Their main intent was to pressure the national government to fulfil its role as the duty-bearer of rights, and they insisted on legal procedures despite the tricks of adversaries and delays of judges. The challenges now are to implement the indigenous rights framed in the new constitution, to manage indigenous territory sustainably, and to prepare a new generation of men and women leaders. Oxfam played a bit part in all this, working with and supporting indigenous organizations, including the Chiquitanos. This included support for what were termed ‘mobile workshops’ (presumably to stay within funding guidelines), which on subsequent inspection by baffled evaluators turned out to be the long distance marches of the Chiquitanos to La Paz, later seen as turning points in the rise of the movement. [Lesson: give thanks for maverick staff prepared to bend (sorry, I mean ‘interpret’) the rules] After the Chiquitanos won their land rights, and in view of the increased flow of resources from other sources, Oxfam closed the Chiquitano programme. [Lesson: no wonder NGOs moan all the time. Whenever a country or community does well, we leave.] One final vignette: it’s not often you are sitting in a bar with an indigenous activist who leans over and animatedly declares ‘the indigenous part of me woke up when I read ILO Convention 169’ [on indigenous and tribal peoples]. [Lesson: change springs from some pretty unlikely sources] Particular thanks to Eduardo Caceres for his paper on the Chiquitanos and other help with this study.]]>