Five years into indigenous-led government, what is the most tangible change for the country’s indigenous majority? Despite the many possible examples in the the symbols of government, the clauses of the 2009 Constitution, and the rhetoric of leaders like Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera, I think there is one thing that stands out as the most concrete advance: awarding collective titles over land to self-governing regional indigenous organizations.
Bolivia is not alone in recognizing dramatically larger indigenous land claims as legitimate in the past two decades. Other large examples stretch from the reorganization of a large swath of Canada’s Northwest Territories as Nunavut to constitutional recognition of indigenous self-governance in long-standing Reserves (many of which were originally territories for Church-controlled “civilization” of native peoples) in Colombia and southward through most of South America.
Indigenous land rights have come at the initiative of the hemisphere’s active and intensely networked indigenous peoples’ movement, which has turned a long-repeated call into action over the past four decades. In Bolivia, this goal reached center-stage in national politics long before the rise of Evo Morales and the dramatic revolts of the 2000s. Its leading proponent has been the lowland indigenous confederation CIDOB. CIDOB was founded in 1982 as the Indigenous Confederation of the Bolivian East, and grew to include lowland groups in the Amazon and Chaco in a Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia. In 1990, CIDOB brought the demand for territorial rights to the capital La Paz on the March for Territory and Dignity, the first of many trans-Bolivia marches it would lead. The embrace of CIDOB marchers by tens of thousands of highland peasants was legendary: it marked a coming of age for both CIDOB and the Katarista movement’s call for an ethnically conscious, self-organized peasantry, and the beginning of government recognition of indigenous rights.
In concrete terms, however, the 1990s only yielded a small start to the recovery of indigenous territory. Four so-called Native Community Lands (TCOs) were recognized by decree in 1992, and a formal mechanism for titling the land in such territories was created in the 1996 Agrarian Reform Law. But the “clearing” of land titles (or ”saneamiento”) was a long process, involved extensive bureaucracy and the recognition of titles for third party residents of these lands. Despite promising flourishes of rhetoric, the entire process limped along under the neoliberal governments that ruled Bolivia through 2005: just 2.8 million hectares as of 2000, and a total of 5.7 million by 2005. (data on titling comes from Fundación Tierra‘s recent comprehensive report on Native Community Lands, which are in the process of renaming as Indigenous Originary Campesino Territories).
Following the December 2005 election of Evo Morales, things genuinely changed. With the help of Danish development aid and technical assistance, a massive effort to generate secure titles for hundreds of TCOs advanced. In its first year, the Morales administration titled over 1.9 million hectares, but much more was to come. By February 2011, the Morales administration had nearly tripled the previous decades’ titling work in six years. The total area of Native Community Lands reached 20.7 million hectares, nearly 19% of the entire country.
Why does this matter? In the lowlands, native title has been a revolutionary shift in power. The most dramatic stories come from the Chaco, where the pre-2008 situation was the unpaid servitude of local indigenous peoples on massive ranches. Bolivia’s agrarian reform law allows the full reversion ranches that use forced labor to their liberated workers. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights confirmed this situation:
the Commission finds the existence of debt bondage and forced labor, which are practices that constitute contemporary forms of slavery. Guaraní families and communities clearly are subjected to a labor regime in which they do not have the right to define the conditions of employment, such as the working hours and wages; they work excessive hours for meager pay, in violation of the domestic labor laws; and they live under the threat of violence, which also leads to a situation of fear and absolute dependency on the employer. (report, at paragraph 166)
Caraparicito became the flashpoint of Bolivian agrarian reform in April 2008, when governmental land reform officials were greeted by American ranch owner Ronald Larsen with shotguns in February and April 2008. Speaking of the Vice-Minister of Lands, Alejandro Almaraz, Larsen told La Razón, “I didn’t want this guy making any trouble, so I shut him up with a shot at one of his tires.”
In December 2010, five such ranches (El Recreo, San Isidro, Huaraca-Itacay, Buena Vista-Isiporenda, and Caraparicito I and II) were declared the property of the Alto Parapetí Native Community Lands. While appeals continue at the other five ranches, Larsen’s Caraparicito was turned over. Despite Larsen’s promise to relinquish his land “over my dead body,” he and his family moved out and local Guaraní leader José Yamangay Robles reports its residents have begun planting corn in their free life. The Guaranís’ new school in Caraparicito has been named Yeyora, or freedom. (For multiple reports on the land handover at Caraparicito and Alto Parapetí see CEJIS’ Bolivia Plurinacional of May 2011.)
While this dramatic reversal is hard to equal, the meaning of indigenous access to land has been vital to many agricultural communities. One example is in the lands of the Chiquitano people, as described in this Oxfam report on the significance of their 2007 recovery of lands. Collective ownership through Native Community Lands has spread far beyond the lowlands, largely through the reorganization of many Altiplano communities through the restoration of ayllu-based organizations. Fully 42.3% of titled TCO lands are in the Altiplano or central valleys, organized in 135 separate entities. Collectively governed agricultural communities have been given a big boost across the country. However, title to lands is not everything. For farmers, the materials to make their land productive are just as important, and this process has been slower.
Critical limitations on the territorial rights offered by Native Community Lands throw the value of these titles into question: a TCO can be overlaid by government-authorized concessions of logging rights, oil and gas exploration and extraction zones, and mining concessions. The Seventh CIDOB march’s demand “that forest, mining, and other concessions that affect indigenous peoples and their territories be annulled” was not heeded. TCOs can also come diced up by official recognition of third parties’ de facto control over longstanding indigenous territories, such as cocaleros’ encroachment into the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory and large-scale agribusiness in the Chiquitanía and Gran Chaco.
Finally, the presumed right of indigenous communities to control their own territories is a subject of national political debate in today’s politics. Three simultaneous national debates put this issue front and center. First, the widely discussed Law on the Rights of Mother Earth remains stuck in the Bolivian legislature (a non-operative declaratory “short law” was passed last December). A major point of contention is the right of indigenous people’s to freely consent to or reject megaprojects on their lands. Senator Julio Salazar (MAS) who is in charge of the law’s progress, declared in April that “Our indigenous brothers cannot block taking advantage of natural resources.” An indigenous proposal for a general law on consultation and consent have recently been presented by CONAMAQ to the government. And the conflict over the highway planned through Isiboro Sécure has elicited numerous Morales government statements suggesting that indigenous communities have no right to veto what goes on in their lands.
Will the massive recognition of indigenous land rights result in a massive change in indigenous lives? Will former servants who acquired land title escape from poverty? Can defined boundaries turn back the tide of agricultural colonization and deforestation? Will these territories be vehicles for self-determination or will the use of the lands continue to be decided in La Paz, and in the interest of increasing extraction for the benefit of the national treasury? It’s too early to tell, but lowland and highland indigenous peoples, CIDOB and CONAMAQ, will soon be on the march again: On August 15, the Eighth National March begins. The march’s agenda (full text in Spanish) begins with defending TIPNIS and includes all of the issues discussed here, and many more.