Evo Morales champions indigenous rights abroad, but in Bolivia it’s a different story

Affection for Bolivia’s president depends very much on who you are. Alain Bachellier, CC BY-SA

Now that the dust has settled on Evo Morales’ election to a third term as president of Bolivia, it is time to wonder what he is going to do with it. He certainly couldn’t ask for more power. Last October’s landslide election victory for his MAS (Movement to Socialism) party means that he once again has enough votes in congress to override the opposition parties.

At last month’s inauguration, which included a spectacle of indigenous power at the ancient archaeological site of Tiwanaku, Morales used his speech to emphasise indigenous resistance, anti-capitalism and the environment.

Coming from an indigenous background himself, he rejected colonial notions that insist that, “to modernise and civilise us, indigenous peoples had to disappear from the Earth”. He added: “We must defend life, save planet earth and finish off capitalism and imperialism.”

The domestic contrast

Those were words primarily for an international audience, however. At home, Morales’ popularity is based less on things like indigenous resistance or environmentalism than on his commitment to social welfare and infrastructure spending.

The benefits of these policies, financed by hydrocarbon revenues, primarily from natural gas, have been distributed throughout broad sectors of the population. Morales’ economic stewardship of Bolivia has also earned him praise from the likes of the IMF and the World Bank.

Yet this has come at significant cost to Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, particularly in the Amazonian lowlands in the north and east of the country. The government has repeatedly stalled on land-titling for indigenous territories; created bureaucratic obstacles to the implementation of promised indigenous self-determination; and continues to pursue environmentally destructive projects on indigenous lands. In the most recent example, the Bolivian government is keeping its options open regarding fracking of shale gas and oil.

Moxos rising

I am currently undertaking fieldwork in the northern town of San Ignacio de Moxos, which has a population of around 15,000 and is one of the principal battlegrounds for indigenous rights in the lowlands. For most of Bolivian history, municipal politics in San Ignacio have been dominated by a handful of families. Though the population is overwhelmingly indigenous, with a majority of people identifying as Moxeños, a number of white families own the vast majority of private land.

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Those in inherited positions of power are known as “patrón”, or “master”. Cowhands are referred to as “mozos”, roughly translated as “boys”, and they spend months at a time living on their patrones’ ranches. This mutual dependence results in a multi-generational, racially marked system of labour exploitation in which entire families of indigenous peasants are tied to particular patrones.

Over the past three decades, Moxeños have made concerted efforts to overturn this system through political mobilisation. In the 1980s they were among the first indigenous groups to form organisations to represent their interests, playing a key role in bringing indigenous rights to a national stage. Their efforts were fundamental to the rise of Morales and his MAS party.

The parting of the ways

Within the past ten years, that mobilisation has gained momentum in San Ignacio itself. Indigenous leaders allied with MAS have achieved unprecedented political representation, winning the mayor’s office twice, as well as several departmental and national legislative offices.

In the current municipal elections, though, the alliance between MAS and the organisations representing Moxeños seems to have encountered difficulties. I witnessed meetings in which these indigenous organisations negotiated a consensus for candidates for MAS with the party’s national representatives.

These were then rejected days later in favour of members of the cattle-ranching elites, who have long dominated local politics through other parties. In other municipalities, similar top-down approaches to naming candidates have alienated local activists.

The direct cause of this estrangement between MAS and the indigenous organisations of Moxos was a conflict over the planned construction of a major road through the Isiboró-Securé Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS).

TIPNIS demonstrators in La Paz in 2011. Szymon Kochański, CC BY-SA

The 2025 Patriotic Agenda

The TIPNIS conflict was widely reported in the international press and sparked a public rupture when Bolivian police violently suppressed indigenous marchers. But anti-indigenous tendencies in Morales’ government began much earlier than that.

In 2007 and 2008 I carried out research with another anthropologist in the Amazonian foothills in the north of La Paz department in western Bolivia. This region is home to the Mosetén indigenous people and their ancestral lands, as well as large numbers of Aymara and Quechua migrants from the highlands. In its population and history it is similar to the Chapare region, where Morales moved as a young adult and rose through the ranks of the of colonist unions.

In La Paz department, colonists and indigenous people have competed for access to land and natural resources for decades. Moseténes argue that their future depends on continued access to their ancestral land. Colonists argue that their future depends on their ability to extract wealth from the land and invest it in other productive activities.

Some observers linked the Moseténes’ lower level of social development with their continued dependence on forest resources and unwillingness to engage in market investments. Many environmentalists and indigenous activists see such attitudes as crucial to efforts to preserve large tracts of forested land. Others see them as an obstacle to development and national progress.

The government’s ambitious agricultural plans indicate that it shares the latter view. In 2013 Morales presented the “2025 Patriotic Agenda”, a blueprint for development of the country tied to its 200th anniversary. The plan calls for nearly quadrupling the area of agricultural production in the country over the next ten years, from 3.5m to 13m hectares.

Such massive expansion will require a mechanised and industrial approach to agricultural production, involving the agro-industrial elites of Santa Cruz department in the east, home to Bolivia’s biggest city. Several years ago the country’s vice-president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, publicly promised that the state would invest $6bn per year in agricultural production.

Morales’ back is turned

The conclusion? While MAS’s rise to power depended on the participation and support of indigenous organisations in the lowlands, it has since shifted allegiances. Now it measures its success in terms of national production.

Morales’ natural allies in this effort are the “productive sectors”, including traditional land-owning and cattle-ranching elites. Indigenous people who don’t live up to this standard are unlikely to see the same favoured treatment.

The irony is this. While Morales proclaims himself a champion of indigenous resistance on an international stage, at home his government is avidly applying the very measures of progress and advancement that have been used against indigenous people throughout the history of colonial encounters.

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