Notes from the XI Indigenous March in Bolivia

I was able to spend part of the last week visiting with the XI Indigenous March for the Defense of the Territory, Identity and Culture of the Indigenous Peoples of the Lowlands in the city of Santa Cruz. The following text and photos are some of my initial impressions of the gathering of Indigenous peoples in Bolivia.

The XI Indigenous March is the largest gathering of Bolivia’s diverse lowland Indigenous peoples and nations since the 2011 “TIPNIS” Indigenous March, and as such, is an important historical marker in the experience of the Indigenous movement and ongoing struggle for self-determination in Bolivia.

The march originates in response to the renewed push to colonize Indigenous territory with settlers, agri-business, mining and hydrocarbon resource extraction projects since the election of Luis Arce’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) government in 2020. The march was also organized in reaction to the attempt to coercively install a MAS aligned parallel leadership on the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS).

During the 31 year anniversary commemoration on August 15th for the historic 1st Indigenous March for Territory and Dignity in 1990 at the Cabildo Indigenal in Trinidad, elder veterans of the 1st march proposed leading a new march in order to halt new invasions of their territories, initiating the XI Indigenous March.

The XI Indigenous March left Trinidad on the 25th of August with only a few dozen marchers, gathering strength along the 37 day march, arriving in Santa Cruz, September 30th, with 700. The principal role of the march was rearticulating the Indigenous movement after a decade of division and cooptation by the MAS party.

Rather than starting with a set number of demands like previous marches, the marchers chose to have an open convocation for Indigenous participants to join and discuss their final list of demands throughout the course of the march, ultimately arriving a 16 points.

The open assembly to debate demands originated another proposal of the XI March, the convocation of an “Indigenous Parlament”, independent of political parties and based in Indigenous norms and practices.

The formation of the Indigenous Parlament is a response to the failure of the “Plurinational State” to include Indigenous structures and realize the promise Indigenous self-determination, autonomous self-government, more than 10 years following approval of the Plurinacional Constitution in 2009.

Formation of the Indigenous Parlament had to overcome internal disputes and mistrust following 10 years of divisions that forced Indigenous leaders to take sides between competing political parties, however, the assembly ultimately achieved a basic structure in order to present their demands “face to face” with the government.

The government has so far ignored their request to debate their list of demands “on the same level” with President Arce and Vice-President Choquehuanca, only sending ministers as well as asking that the march subordinate itself to the state-sponsored parallel Indigenous organization in order to be heard.

The march views the principal obstacles to having their demands heard fairly in public debate as coming from disinformation and defamation by the MAS party and state media, as well as cooptation and confusion with the rightwing political opposition. They consider their struggle as independent of party politics.

The strategy of the march in response to attempts to divert attention from their demands through ideological and political polarization is to reiterate principals, that what they fundamentally want is the full application of their rights, as recognized and consecrated in the Plurinational Constitution and international conventions.

A rights-based strategy is not simply a response to political polarization under the current MAS government, but a longterm strategy, because they know from past experience that under any government (be it Left or Right) their demands are treated as an “inconvenience” by those in State power.

Currently, the march sees no serious effort on the part of Arce’s government to engage in dialogue with the Indigenous Parlament and instead has solicited the international community (UN, EU, IACHR, IWGIA) to recognize their demands. They are waiting.

Beyond the limited recognition they hope to gain of their demands for the respect of their ancestral territories, the Indigenous march is an exercise in educating new generations in the heritage of their struggle for self-determination and ideals of justice.

Devin Beaulieu

Devin Beaulieu

Antropólogo y candidato a PhD de UCSD.

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