Cablegate: Introduction to Bolivian Indigenous Issues


DE RUEHLP #2104/01 2131921
R 011921Z AUG 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. LA PAZ 1981

B. LA PAZ 1877


1. Bolivia has the highest percentage (from 35 percent to as
high as 75 percent, depending on the survey) of indigenous
citizens in South America, and Evo Morales' near-iconic
status as the first indigenous president of Bolivia has made
indigenous issues both highly-visible and contentious. But
what does it mean to be indigenous in Bolivia? With
political and economic decisions riding on this question, it
is important to review the concept of 'indigenousness',
whether self-defined or imposed by others. What follows is a
generalized introduction to provide a base for more detailed
reporting in the future.

Statistics: Numbers Big, Small, and Changing

2. Although the standard estimate of the indigenous
population in Bolivia ranges from 60 to 80 percent, there are
significant differences over time and under different survey
methodology. The 2001 national census revealed that 62
percent of the population identified themselves as part of an
"indigenous or original people." However, the most recent
iteration of a biannual survey administered by U.S. professor
Mitchell Seligson revealed that 65 percent of the population
considered themselves of mestizo or mixed race. In this
survey the question was asked in two different ways, and the
question which exactly repeated the phrasing of the 2001
census received a response that 72 percent of the population
considered themselves indigenous (at the same time that many
of the same respondents also considered themselves mestizo.)
The biannual Seligson surveys also show a dramatic decrease
in self-identification as "white." In 1998, 23 percent of
respondents self-identified as white while in 2006 only 11
percent self-identified as white. During that same time
period, the percent of respondents self-identifying as
indigenous doubled, a mirror image of the trend for whites.

3. Significantly, the authors of the Seligson study conclude
that this self-identification varies according to whether a
person is asked about membership in a specific indigenous
group or a generalized "indigenous" identity. For example,
respondents were much more likely to identify themselves as
members of the Aymara, Quechua, or another specific
indigenous group, than to identify themselves as "indigenous"
in general. When talking to indigenous leaders, it is common
to hear comments about historic clashes between the Aymara
and Quechua for example, and indigenous groups of the
Altiplano often seem little inclined to join forces with
eastern, lowland indigenous groups. (Note: some observers
suggest that if a Quechua candidate were to run against
President Morales, who is Aymara, it would split the
"indigenous vote". President Morales' cabinet includes
Quechua ministers, however, and the president is popular in
non-Aymara indigenous strongholds, particularly in the
countryside. End note.)

4. Many observers have suggested that, in pure terms of
heritage, the vast majority of Bolivians (whether
self-identifying as white or indigenous) are actually of
mixed-heritage. Recent reporting suggests that there are 36
indigenous groups in Bolivia. The 2001 census tallied
individuals of 15 years of age or older who self-identified
as indigenous (total population count for 15-and-older was
5,064,992). The largest groups in 2001 were the Quechuas
(population 1,555,641), Aymaras (1,277,881), Chiquitanos
(112,216), and Guaranis (78,359). A number of indigenous
groups have fewer than 200 members, and one group is said to
consist of only two families.

Defining Indigenousness

5. When asked to list the attributes that contribute to
indigenous identity, most Bolivians start with language. The
ability to speak one's native language is generally highly
prized within local indigenous communities, although some
communities report that parents encourage their children to
use only Spanish in an attempt to avoid the economic and
social stigma still attached to imperfect Spanish. A recent
study, "Ethnic and Linguistic Range of the Bolivian
Population," indicated that half of the Bolivian population
speaks only Spanish, while 33 percent is bilingual in Spanish
and an indigenous language, and 12 percent speaks only an
indigenous language. The vast majority of Bolivians who
speak an indigenous language speak either Quechua or Aymara.
Less than one percent of the population speaks an indigenous
language other than Quechua, Aymara or Guarani. The survey
identified 34 indigenous languages in Bolivia (including
Quechua, Aymara and Guarani) and found that in the small
communities, only 14 percent of members speak their
indigenous languages. The official treatment of indigenous
languages is being debated in the Constituent Assembly as
part of the draft constitution. The Movement Toward
Socialism (MAS) party has proposed that Spanish be the
official language, Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani have status
as "principal languages" and that all indigenous languages be
protected and encouraged.

6. Traditions and customs are another strong source of
indigenous identity. In the countryside, the tradition of
community justice has survived in many communities (often
because the law of the cities didn't reach them.) Since the
2004 elections, reportedly 18 town councils have formalized
the use of indigenous customs in local governance. The
customs in question differ from council to council, but
generally include enhanced community involvement such as
monthly "elders" meetings or collective decision making. The
concept of community justice is hotly debated, partially due
to confusion over its definition (ref A). In the cities, it
has become a code word for vigilante justice, including
lynching. In the countryside, it refers more to traditional
judgments and punishments, generally excluding the death
penalty (in many groups traditionally the most severe
punishment was banishment from the community.)

7. Land has been and is becoming an even more important part
of indigenous identification. Indigenous autonomy, although
poorly defined at present, would presumably include some sort
of indigenous control over traditionally indigenous
territories (ref B describes the various autonomy proposals.)
Currently, the MAS party has also proposed that indigenous
groups have full rights over natural resources in their
autonomous territories (ref A.)

8. Traditional dress can also be an indicator of
indigenousness. The classic image of "indigenous Bolivia" is
an altiplano woman in her traditional outfit consisting of
long, full skirts, a shawl, and bowler hat. Although the
male counterpart of this outfit (poncho and knit cap with
ear-flaps) can still be seen in the countryside, it is
extremely rare in the cities, where generally only women
still wear traditional garb. Emboff recently attended a
meeting of indigenous youth leaders whose participants
stressed the importance of traditional dress as a way of
maintaining their culture (note: of the 96 participants, only
one male student wore indigenous garb, while roughly 20
female students wore at least the full skirts and shawls.)

Indigenous Cities?

9. In addition to the occasional conflicts between different
indigenous groups, there is ongoing tension surrounding the
idea of indigenous city-dwellers. In their 2006 study,
investigators Luis Verdesoto and Moira Zuazo suggest that the
continued migration from the countryside to the "mestizo"
strongholds of the large cities will weaken ties to
indigenous culture and lessen self-identification as
indigenous. The sprawling city of El Alto is often cited as
the largest indigenous community in Bolivia, but it is hard
to see how El Alto could be given any sort of indigenous
autonomy, since El Alto residents come from many different
indigenous backgrounds (although the majority are Aymara.)

Campesino Versus Indigenous

10. In an example of unintended consequences, the push for
indigenous rights has occasionally pitted indigenous groups
against campesinos (peasant farmers who are often ethnically
or culturally indigenous also). Emboffs have been approached
recently by Rufo Calle, head of the Confederation of
Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), for help in a
situation where a local indigenous group has claimed land
currently farmed by campesino members of CSUTCB. According
to Mr. Calle (himself indigenous) "our campesino families
have farmed this land for hundreds of years," and therefore
they should have just as strong a claim as the small local
indigenous group. The campesinos in this case are
themselves, in fact, indigenous, but are not members of the
local indigenous group that has claimed ancestral rights to
the land. A key element of this conflict is the decades-old
migration of the Aymara and Quechua from their Altiplano
homelands--where they self-identify as "indigenous"--to the
media-luna lowlands, where they instantly become "campesinos".


11. Currently Bolivian Law 1257, ratified in July 1991,
bases the definition of indigenousness on the Organization
for International Migration's convention which includes both
a heredity component and the idea of conservation of some or
all of the group's original social, cultural and political
institutions. Indigenous groups in Bolivia may wish to
modify or strengthen that definition in order to concentrate
benefits within their communities, or the definition of
indigenousness may have to be more clearly codified at a
national level. After centuries of stigmatization,
indigenousness may become a political and economic advantage
at times, in which case we may see an even greater increase
in the number of Bolivians who self-identify as indigenous.

© Scoop Media

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