A Short History of Bolivian Indigenous Communities

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It’s pretty easy to throw around words like “indigenous community” without having really any idea what that really means. Here’s my attempt to explain their history here in Bolivia.

Indigenous communities refer to settlements of indigenous people that reside on land they have historically controlled. Pretty much this means any group of people who remain on land they held prior to the Spanish invasion are considered indigenous communities. The new Constitution defines an indigenous community as one whose “cultural identity, language, tradition, institutions, land and world view predate the Spanish colonial invasion.” For all intents and purposes, what today are called indigenous communities started to gain official legal recognition with the implementation of the 1953 agrarian reform, and several modifications have followed of indigenous land status since then, including the adoption of the new Constitution.

The End of the Haciendas

The 1953 land reform was, by any measure, a radical reformation of rural land ownership. Essentially the law seized haciendas from the hacendado class. The haciendas had been the primary rural land holding structure from the colonial period. The decline in Indian populations during the initial period of Spanish colonization opened land for private exploitation. During this period wealthy Spaniards came to control large estates and the hacendado class was born. Labor for these large estates came from yanaconas, migrant Indians without land during the Inca period or connections to the Ayllu Inca society society structure, as well as ex-originarios (the Indigenous people whose land it was prior) who worked the land in a usufruct arrangement.

The reforms destroyed the hacienda class in a straightforward manner: the haciendas were seized and the hacendados given indemnification bonds as compensation. These bonds were later deemed worthless. The reform decree excluded capital intensive farms. Theoretically this meant that nearly all the highlands haciendas were seized while the large farms with modern capital improvements in the Santa Cruz area were excluded. In practice, this reform got bogged down in the accompanying deluge of paperwork. Nominally most of the indigenous people in the highlands and altiplano region had gained control of their land. Legally, however, their ownership rights were a mess. The return of military control of the government essentially halted any efforts at reform of land titles and the process was completely dead by the 1970s. Moreover, the entire process (and the possibility of dispersing free land) was marred by corruption and the typical patronage politics of the Bolivian elites.

Tierra Comunitaria de Origen

In 1992 the government of Jaime Paz Zamora, and, later, the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1993 to 1997), waded into the administrative chaos and corruption and attempted to modernize the land reform law. This resulted in the promulgation, four years later, of the Ley INRA by the National Congress. This law created a new administrative organization, el Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA)(the National Institute of Agrarian Reform.) Funded primarily through international development aid, INRA principally oversaw processes of saneamiento (rough translation: getting legal papers in order) and subsequently giving title of the land to indigenous groups. These lands are called Tierras Comunitarias de Origen or TCOs. This process is lengthy and involved various studies of the indigenous communities. The purpose of the TCO designation was not just to give land to the indigenous people as in the 1953 reform, but to provide recognition of the community along with some collective legal rights. The main criticism of the TCO saneamiento process is that it assumes that the earlier agrarian reform was successful and indigenous communities need only legal recognition of their claims to land, when in practice, many large landholders retain de facto economic power over indigenous community lands.

The New Constitution

The new Constitution provides an array of constitutional protections to indigenous groups and is a large departure from the previous framework. In essence, it aims to allow indigenous communities enough autonomy to successfully self-govern. Disposiciones Transitorias 7 of the new Constitution states that per Article 293 I all TCOs should go through an administrative process to become Territorio Indígena Originario Campesino, the official title for indigenous land under the Constitution. The administrative process involves creating a charter that establishes the basic laws and structure of the indigenous community’s political institutions, and putting this charter up for a vote in the community. The work is complicated by the usual linguistic, education, and information barriers in Bolivia. There is supposedly a law in the works that will create a process for non-TCO land to become incorporated as an indigenous community as well, but this is law will be slow in coming as the presidential elections are coming up in December.

The new Constitution is big step forward in terms of clarity, as well as, substantive rights for indigenous communities. The question, as always, will be if Bolivia’s political institutions can properly execute it. Right now, the current government and the people are excited about the possibilities of this new legal structure, and there’s a great deal energy invested in seeing the creation of the new constitutional order, including the incorporation of indigenous communities. I’m not so sure if this enthusiasm is sustainable or what will happen if a conservative governing coalition gains power.

(Photo Credit: Flickr.com)

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A Short History of Bolivian Indigenous Communities

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