• Indigenous peoples in Bolivia

    Indigenous peoples in Bolivia

    There are 36 recognized peoples in Bolivia. With the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples and a new Constitution, Bolivia took the name of plurinational state.

Indigenous World 2020: Bolivia

According to the 2012 National Census, 41% of Bolivians over the age of 15 are of Indigenous origin although the 2017 projections from the National Statistics Institute (INE) indicate that this may now have increased to 48%.1 Of the 36 peoples recognised in the country, most Quechua (49.5%) and Aymara (40.6%) speakers live in the Andean region where they self-identify as one of 16 nationalities.

The Chiquitano (3.6%), Guaraní (2.5%) and Moxeño (14%) peoples live in the Lowlands where, together with the remaining 2.4%, they make up the other 20 recognised Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous Peoples have thus far consolidated 23 million hectares of collectively owned land as Native Community Lands (Tierras Comunitarias de Origen/TCO), representing 21% of the country’s total area. Following the approval of Decree No. 727/10, the TCOs changed their official name to Peasant Native Indigenous Territories (Territorio Indígena Originario Campesino/TIOC). Bolivia has ratified the main international human rights conventions and has been a signatory to ILO Convention 169 since 1991, with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in full effect since the approval of Law No. 3760 of 7 November 2007. With the new 2009 Political State Constitution, Bolivia adopted the status of Plurinational State.

Political crisis and forced departure of Evo Morales

One event leading up to the elections on 20 October 2019 and which influenced the ensuing conflict was the environmental disaster caused by forest fires, primarily in the Chiquitanía region, and Evo Morales’ handling of this crisis. These fires are a cyclical event directly connected to structural factors for which environmentalists have constantly criticised Evo Morales: the consolidation of an extractivist development model that involves expanding the agricultural frontier and replacing forest with agroindustrial crops.2 According to data from various sources, between August and October some 4.5 to 5 million hectares of forest were burned,3 i.e. half the forest lost in Bolivia since records began. Of the areas affected, 35% were located on 22 Indigenous territories.4

The rise of environmentalism as a social actor is key to understanding the ease with which the protests arose in late October/early November following the elections. This sector is a loose grouping of many different platforms of demands ranging from feminist organisations to those fighting GM crops, transgender groups, animal welfare, biking and motorcycling organisations and other urban groups now alert to environmental issues, human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, groups that do not necessarily fit into the traditional organised structures. They managed, at their own initiative, to get a structural issue onto the agenda that for many years had been expressly marginalised.5

Social mobilisation and the OAS report

To understand the outcome of the 20 October 2019 election, we actually need to go back to 21 February 2016, the date on which a Constitutional Referendum was held, a referendum that was lost by Evo Morales with 48.7% of the vote and which thus should have prevented him from changing the Constitution. This has relevance for this electoral process because Evo Morales ignored the defeat and chose to have the Plurinational Constitutional Court (TCP) declare that his further re-election – renamed re-application – was a “human right”, supposedly on the basis of Article 23 of the American Convention of Human Rights (Pact of San José).

The trigger that led to the fall of the Morales government was undoubtedly the OAS Audit Report, published by Evo Morales himself on the morning of Sunday 9 November and which advised holding new elections given the serious irregularities committed prior to, during and after the 20 October election.6

The so-called “Analysis of Electoral Integrity, General Elections in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Preliminary Findings7 identified serious irregularities with regard to the four aspects reviewed, namely: technology, chain of custody, documentary integrity and statistical projections. The systems observed were the Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Data (TREP)8 and the Final Declaration.

In political terms, the Morales government was unaware of the cost of having been in power for so many years. This loss of legitimacy, which subsequently resulted in a loss of authority and a power vacuum, was also due to the way in which this power had been handled: unsparingly and in a clearly authoritarian manner, on the margins of democratic values. And Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the largest conservative enclave in the country, cost the government dear with its prolonged and sustained strike. The government’s alliance with the business sector served it little, and nor did the easing of environmental standards to help agribusiness and the livestock farmers sell meat in China. A monumental amount of resources was invested in public works in Santa Cruz, publicised daily through previously unseen levels of propaganda. And yet this only hardened the people’s position, who went onto social media to denounce each and every investment, turning them into factors justifying their action and pressure.

MAS-related social movement weakened

The Indigenous organisations of the Highlands and Lowlands,9 which once enjoyed great social and political legitimacy nationally, were notable in their absence from the popular protests and offered no political solution to the crisis. Their inaction was likely due to their extreme weakening in recent years, worn down by division, co-optation, a loss of agency and political perspective, as well as a total lack of economic and decision-making autonomy. The peasant farmers, too, were neutralised and subservient to leaders who had for years held power on the basis of projects that completely side-lined them from the main social and political discussions. This was all due to the direct actions of Evo Morales’ government, who wanted to eliminate all trace of dissent from the social movement.

The role of the security forces in the conflict

Internationally, the Bolivian Police and Armed Forces were generally considered responsible for the “coup”, particularly following the police riots and the now famous “suggestion” of then Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, William Kalimán. This nonetheless needs to be seen in context if we are to avoid falling into cheap deterministic analyses. The social/ethnic composition of the Bolivian Police and Armed Forces – more than 90% of whom are of Indigenous origin – means that their relationship with urban society is a rather special one depending on their social class or the region in which they are serving. In fact, the particular composition and formation of  the  country’  security  forces means that their involvement in the conflict was rather different to the picture painted internationally. In addition, and given the tradition of Bolivian conflict and protest, it is difficult to imagine that anything other than the social conditions, generally imposed via street protest and more recently social media, would be able to influence the most significant political events in Bolivia.

The suggestion of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces that Morales should “step aside”, framed within the Organic Law of the Armed Forces,10 thus seemed little more than that to most people, a recommendation rather than a breakdown in the chain of command or a deliberate move by the military, as people outside of the country would have us believe. Up to that point, the armed forces had not been publicly involved in the crisis, at least not visibly, despite constant calls from the opposition for them to join their struggle. In contrast, the call made by the Coordinating Body of Bolivian Workers (COB) for Morales to resign carried far greater weight. Their Executive Secretary had accompanied the president to his press conference only hours earlier. One thing to bear in mind is that, in his resignation letter, Evo uses the phrase “political/civil/police coup d’état”,11 at no point referring to the army. But the die was already cast, suggested or not, the public perception was now that resignation was the most logical and necessary way out of a crisis that could otherwise end in civil war.

Violence as a means of pacification

Once Evo Morales was gone and the resignations began to roll in, in many cases due to the harassment unleashed against those in the most high-profile positions, cabinet members and chamber presidents, etc., it was logical that the presidency should fall to a parliamentary representative from the opposition benches. Individuals such as former presidents Carlos Mesa and Jorge Quiroga wanted to ensure the process was as legal and constitutional as possible given the context, and they used their good offices to ensure that the Constitutional Court ruled on the succession using procedures established during Quiroga’s time in office.12

Against a tumultuous backdrop bordering on civil war, Jeanine Añez took up the position of president. The resignation of former President Morales did nothing to calm things and, instead, unleashed a reaction from among his most hardened supporters who launched a series of reckless actions and harassment of the capital and other cities, wreaking vengeance for their leader’s resignation. The security forces were called on by the government and now did indeed play a more active role, not only in restoring calm in areas suffering constant looting, arson and attacks on public security but also as a mechanism for intimidating supporters of the deposed President.

In fact, one of the police force’s first missions was to restore public order, a task it completed alongside the armed forces, now without the contested Commander W. Kalimán, who had clearly been part of the ex-President’s political scheme.13 These forces took control particularly of the more affluent neighbourhoods to the south of La Paz, given the radical and violent protests that were descending from El Alto and Cochabamba, with the much-publicised coca farmer protests, which used Sacaba – where the main market for coca leaf sales is located – as the base from where the marches to Cochabamba departed.

It was precisely on the road from Sacaba to Cochabamba that, on 15 November, one of the most violent clashes took place between the coca farmers and the security forces, later described by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as a “massacre”.14 Nine people were killed, 115 wounded and more than 140 arrested.15 One of their most emblematic leaders, Leonilda Zurita, announced that there would be no elections in Chapare until the police got down on their knees and apologised.16

The most difficult place to pacify, however, was the district of El Alto in La Paz, inhabited by a largely migrant Aymara population who voted for Evo Morales for president but who entrusted the running of their local municipal council to a “neoliberal” mayor by the name of Soledad Chapetón, from the National Unity party.17 With Evo now out of power, his supporters began to surround the city of La Paz.18 As happened in 2003 when President Sánchez de Lozada left office, the protestors once again closed in on the Senkata plant, the only factory producing liquid fuel and gas bottle refills, essential for the whole population to be able to cook. At this point, the die was cast and, following several days of blockade and with virtually all food products running low in the markets, the situation in La Paz was unsustainable in humanitarian terms. The government had to establish an air bridge from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to supply La Paz with food and launch a combined security forces operation.

Protestors in power? Yes and no

So the question remains as to what happened to that broad and plural social movement of protest within the new government’s scheme of things? President Jeanine Añez’s political party, Democratic Unity, now holds all positions of public office and acts as the representatives of the Civic Committees in Santa Cruz and Beni.

Those same environmental groups, anti-GM platforms, feminists, student organisations of the left, and human rights defenders, are now challenging the current government for the serious human rights violations it committed when pacifying the conflict, particularly in Sacaba and Senkata. All these sectors now clearly lack electoral/political leadership.

Far removed from all of this are the Indigenous organisations. They were a part of the deposed government’s social movement and have been vilified on a public stage they no longer control. They do, however, still enjoy a level of support that would absolutely enable them to be a viable electoral option. Evo is now in Argentina rebuilding his image and organising his forces for further elections to be held on 3 May 2020. A number of new leaders are emerging as possible candidates from within his party, although they do not seem to enjoy the blessing of Morales himself, who prefers to look to his close colleagues for a possible future president. The opposition appears to be far more divided than in the previous election, and the slogan of the “useful vote” that Carlos Mesa drew on to challenge the MAS at that time will no longer work.


Notes and references

  1. INE 2017, following a consultation for the Indigenous Navigator – Bolivia
  2. Particularly oilseeds and, in recent times and under the influence of fire reparations, the previous government proposed the “reforestation” of agroforestry plantations with African palm, eucalyptus, associated with cellulose industry.
  3. FCBC (2019) Diagnóstico por teledirección áreas quemadas en la Chiquitanía. https://www.fcbc.org.bo/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/DiagnosticoIncendios. pdf
  4. CEJIS-CPTA (2019) Cicatrices de quemas en Territorios Indígenas
  5. The Forests and Lands Supervision and Social Control Authority (ABT) has the budgetary capacity to monitor less than 7% of the forest operations it authorises. (ABT, 2013)
  6. Bolivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ”OEA Y Bolivia firman acuerdo para la realización de una Auditoría Integral a elecciones generales”. 30 October 2019: http://www.cancilleria.gob.bo/webmre/noticia/3716
  7. Organization of American States (OAS). Análisis de Integridad Electoral Elecciones Generales en el Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia 20 octubre 2019: http://www.oas.org/documents/spa/press/Informe-Auditoria-Bolivia-2019.pdf
  8. Which was interrupted for several hours, unleashing the protests from 2223 October, and then when counting was resumed the electoral trend was reversed, now favouring Evo Morales over Carlos Mesa, even though it was evident that given the missing reports and the percentage accumulated by previously that a second round was likely, since Evo could not beat his opponent by more than a 10% margin.
  9. Represented by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the East, Chaco and Amazon (CIDOB) representing the 34 Indigenous Peoples of the Lowlands, and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyo (CONAMAQ) representing the 16 original nations of the Andean zone.
  10. “ARTICLE The fundamental powers and responsibilities of the Military High Command are b. To analyse internal and external situations of conflict and suggest appropriate solutions to the relevant person.” Organic Law on the Armed Forces of the Nation “Comandantes de la Independencia” No. 1405/92 of 30 December.
  11. Bolivia Tv Oficial in Twitter, 5:43 PM. 11 November 2019: https://twitter.com/Canal_BoliviaTV/status/1193932163739267092/photo/1
  12. Explicación jurídica sobre la sucesión constitucional en Bolivia”. tv, 15 November 2019: https://eju.tv/2019/11/explicacion-juridica-sobre-la-sucesion- constitucional-en-bolivia/
  13. One of the president’s first actions was precisely to replace the military high command, starting with Kalimán. Dominguez, Raul “Añez renueva el Alto Mando Militar: Orellana reemplaza a Kaliman”. Energy Press, 13 November 2019: https://energypress.com.bo/2019/11/13/anez-renueva-el-alto-mando-militar- orellana-reemplaza-a-kaliman/
  14. “In the IACHR’s view, it is appropriate to describe these events as massacres, given the number of people who lost their lives in the same way and at the same time and place, and because the acts in question were committed against a specific group of people. Furthermore, the patterns of injuries that have been recorded point strongly to extrajudicial killing practices.” Press release: The IACHR presents its preliminary observations following its visit to Bolivia and requests an urgent international investigation take place into the serious human rights violations that have occurred in the country since the October 2019 elections. Organization of American States (OAS). “The IACHR presents its preliminary observations following its visit to Bolivia and requests an urgent international investigation take place into the serious human rights violations that have occurred in the country since the October 2019 elections”. 10 December 2019: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/ PReleases/2019/321.asp
  15. Including, according to the Cochabamba Ombudsman, four women and a number of children. People were also arrested, although journalists from the alternative media were later released.
  16. Guarachi, Ángel “Dirigente de las Bartolinas dice que permitirán ingreso de la Policía al Chapare si piden ‘perdón de rodillas’”. La Razón, 12 December 2019: https://www.la-razon.com/nacional/Polemica-bartolinas-policia-chapare- elecciones-perdon-rodillas_0_3273872641.html
  17. Party of the cement magnate, Samuel Doria Medina, centrist social democrat.
  18. That is, the one that involved the brothers Túpac and Tomás Katari and Bartolina Sisa in 1781, when for six months they closed all food supplies to the capital, while the highland agricultural production had to go down through El Alto, the only means of entry from that area.

Leonardo Tamburini is an Argentine lawyer from the Università degli Studi di Macerata (Italy) and a specialist in Indigenous rights. Executive Director of ORÉ-Legal and Social Support Organisation (Bolivia).


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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