Who represents Bolivia's highland indigenous peoples?

May 23, 2014
March in Cochabamba against water privatisation in 2000.

Bolivian indigenous group the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ) made headlines this year with its threats to blockade the Dakar rally when it passed through Bolivia's highlands region.

This was not the first time that the group caught the attention of the world’s media. Leaders of CONAMAQ have been regularly quoted in the media due to their outspoken criticism of the government of president Evo Morales ― Bolivia's first indigenous head of state.

The articles frequently describe CONAMAQ as “the main indigenous organisation in Bolivia's highlands”.

The two main indigenous groups in the highlands are the Aymara, and to a lesser extent the Quechua. They are also the two largest of the 36 indigenous peoples that inhabit Bolivia.

CONAMAQ’s radical, anti-government discourse, and its claims to represent highland indigenous peoples, have also endeared the group to many activists outside Bolivia.

However, this newfound image sits awkwardly with the group’s history.

Unions or ayllus?

CONAMAQ traces its roots back to pre-colonial times, when traditional forms of community organisation such as ayllus predominated.

Ayllus represent a form of indigenous self-government within a communally owned territory. They usually comprise a small number of families that work the land in a collective fashion and make decisions by consensus over issues affecting their community.

However, CONAMAQ's contemporary history begins with the attempts made to build local federations of ayllus in the early 1980s. The push to promote such organisational forms was motivated by several local factors.

One was the role played by indigenous intellectuals operating as the Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA). Their aim was to recover and reinvigorate traditional indigenous practices in rural highland communities.

Their interest in promoting the ayllu was aided by the existence of some communities that felt marginalised by the Sole Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB). This was the main group to which rural indigenous communities were affiliated in the highlands.

One point of contention was whether to organise as unions or ayllus. However, at the grassroots level, both forms of organisation have much in common. This includes memberships made up of indigenous campesinos

In some cases, local communities simply rebadged the local union as an ayllu while maintaining the same structures.

The local push to promote ayllus received a boost from outside as a result of the boom in funding of “ethno-development” or “identity with development” projects.

Growing international concerns over the environment led several foreign governments and international institutions to fund local development projects in indigenous communities.

Communities in the Amazon received the bulk of the attention, but a number of NGOs began to pay attention to the renewed focus among some highland indigenous communities on reviving traditional practices.

The European Community and NGOs such as Oxfam and IBIS saw an opportunity to promote projects in these communities. They financed the creation of regional ayllu federations that later became willing partners in local development projects.

This was not the only factor that enticed outside financers. Many were also supportive of the moderate and ethnic-focused discourse of these groups.

They saw in the ayllus a potential alternative to the more radical, class-based CSUTCB. Under a new radical Indigenista leadership, the CSUTCB had broken its pact with the military regime and begun to make links with the militant Bolivian workers' federation.

Moulded by neoliberalism

Ayllu groups received a further boost during the 1990s, as neoliberal governments sought to shed responsibility for maintaining and administering social programs. Instead, they sought to devolve this to local and regional communities.

Successive governments embraced the idea of “multicultural neoliberalism” as the World Bank began to make loans to Bolivia conditional on some funding going to projects in indigenous communities.

Two laws in particular were introduced to aid this process. The Law for Popular Participation allowed communities organised as ayllus to be legally recognised as “indigenous” communities, as opposed to union-organised “campesino” communities.

The Law for Agrarian Reform granted indigenous communities the chance to claim ownership over Original Community Lands (TCOs).

Together, they provided incentives for indigenous communities to shed their union organisation and adopt an ayllu identity.

The result was a deepening of tensions between “campesinos” and “indigenous” groups and the fragmenting of the Aymara and Quechua identity into dozens of “reconstituted nations”.

By the time CONAMAQ was officially created in 1997 to unite different regional federations of ayllus, this new indigenous movement had become heavily dependent on foreign funding. It had developed close relationships with neoliberal governments.

CONAMAQ’s development also shaped its strategic outlook, which focused on seeking state recognition for the right of ayllu self-government within defined local areas. On the other hand, the CSUTCB sought to wage an all-out struggle for indigenous power at the national level.

These differences were brought into sharp relief three years later, when a wave of indigenous protests swept through Bolivia.

With the people in the city of Cochabamba rising up against water privatisation and coca-growers in the Chapare blockading roads, the CSUTCB unleashed a wave of struggle that threatened to bring down the government of Hugo Banzer.

CONAMAQ leaders chose this moment to go to the presidential palace and shake hands with Banzer. They publicly stated that the ayllus were not like the unions, as they preferred dialogue to confrontation.

CONAMAQ’s credibility took a beating as a result. Even some of its funders saidthey would reevaluate their support.

The election of a new CONAMAQ leadership soon after led the group to become more vocal in opposing neoliberal governments. In 2002, it joined with the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian East (CIDOB) to organise an important march in support of convening a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.

However, during the uprisings that overthrew the governments of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005, CONAMAQ played a secondary role to groups such as the CSUTCB, the largely Quechua coca-growers, and the federation of neighbourhood committees in the overwhelmingly Aymara city of El Alto.

From unity to division

At the end of 2005, these diverse indigenous and social movement groups united to support Morales' successful campaign for president.

As part of this process of unity, forged through struggle, the powerful CSUTCB and other campesino groups began strengthening links with the smaller indigenous groups such as CONAMAQ and CIDOB.

This led to the creation of the Unity Pact, which went on to play an important role in drafting Bolivia’s new constitution. The new constitution incorporated the concept of “original, indigenous, campesino peoples” as a reflection of the growing unity among these groups.

The Unity Pact was the bedrock of support for the Morales government, particularly when it came under attack from right-wing forces.

Unfortunately, ongoing differences over issues such as land reform, indigenous representation in parliament and ownership over natural resources have fractured the Unity Pact. There were important clashes over particular government projects, such as the proposed roadway through Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS).

Once again, the divisions took place along campesino/indigenous lines.

Disagreements over CONAMAQ’s hostile stance towards the government have also led to internal rifts. Some local affiliates have chosen to set up a rival CONAMAQ and rejoin the Unity Pact.

Some claim these divisions reflect differences between CONAMAQ’s communal indigenous ideology and the pro-development outlook of campesino groups. However, there is little evidence to back this claim.

A good example is the debate over land reform. Many CSUTCB-aligned communities continue to work the land communally. But some CONAMAQ affiliates have begun demanding the right to individual titles.

Strategic debates

If anything, differences can be more readily explained by ongoing strategic debates over whether to pursue local self-government or struggle for indigenous state power.

Ultimately, CONAMAQ had to abandon its planned blockade of the Dakar rally due to lack of support even from among its own affiliates.

CONAMAQ leaders have signed an agreement with the newly formed Green party. However, polls indicate that highland indigenous communities, which continue to be predominantly affiliated to the CSUTCB, will once again turn out in large numbers to support Morales in the October presidential elections.

Add to this the fact that most of Bolivia’s indigenous population live in cities and it is clear that CONAMAQ does not represent the views of most highland indigenous peoples.

Attempts to portray CONAMAQ as such generally hide ulterior agendas. These can range from seeking to discredit the indigenous credentials of the Morales government, to bolstering chances of receiving international funding for certain projects, or imposing fictional stereotypes on what it means to be truly indigenous.

[Federico Fuentes edits the Bolivia Rising blog and is co-author, with Roger Burbach and Michael Fox, of Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of 21st Century Socialism.]

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