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After Morales: The Case for Indigenous Rights in Bolivia
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In the late 20th century, Latin America, including Bolivia, continued to be backwards in its handling of indigenous rights. There were inclusive social reforms that benefited indigenous populations, but the need for natives to be self-represented as ‘peasants’ and recognize themselves as ‘peasants’ to access these services underscored a social hierarchy created along class-based lines that undermined indigenous populations. Corporatist projects -- a form of institutions promoted by Latin American governments -- were able to advance needs of some indigenous material demands (Yashar 259). Under the import-substitution industrialization economic model, corporatism undermined the proper representation for indigenous populations and was a factor in creating a stigma for keeping indigenous groups out of political participation. Mobilization based on ethnicity to combat class perception by indigenous people was common from the 1970s through 1990s (Yashar; Contemporary Latin America In-Class lecture March 23, 2017).

Then came Evo Morales. He was an indigenous leader who represented the powerful cocalero movement, of which a large number were Quechua-speakers. Indigenous political campaigns in Latin America usually advocated for more political equality, inclusion, social services, and autonomy over land (Yashar). Morales was no exception. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) campaign used ethnopopulism to appeal to various ethnic groups under traditional populist appeals familiar elsewhere in Latin America (Madrid). Morales ran for the Bolivian presidency with the concept of a ‘plurinational nation’ -- the notion of various indigenous nations united under one Bolivian representation (Harten 188). MAS defined Bolivia as having a diversity of naciones originarias throughout the political campaign, creating a platform centered around a Bolivian identity of “diverse historical people” (Harten 188,190). Evo Morales has been president of Bolivia since January of 2006, and and is now in his eleventh in power (“The World Factbook: Bolivia”). After Evo Morales’ election to the presidency, indigenous rights have improved in Bolivia: civil and political rights have escalated in favor of the indigenous, but social and economic rights are still in need of systemic reform. This is an inherent part of the current Bolivian governmental system, founded under the exploitation of the neoliberal model as seen through the New Left.

There is textual evidence found in the preamble of the Bolivian Constitution affirming the accepted label that indigeneidad (indigenous identity) is passed on by colonial experience (Querejazu 165). Under Morales, Bolivia has increased indigenous political participation, including the making of indigenous law as a sector within the legal system (“The World Factbook: Bolivia”), a major increase in civil and political rights for Bolivia’s indigenous community relative to the late 20th century. According to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, indigenous people have the right to practice their traditions and customs, including medicinal practices, cultural heritage and expression. In 2007, Bolivia was the first country to mandate this resolution into its domestic legal system, adopted as Law No. 3760. This was further acted into Bolivia’s Constitution in 2009. In fact, this Declaration was easily manipulated to justify coca leaf chewing in Bolivia’s domestic laws as “cultural patrimony,” a critique the Bolivian government often receives from international law mechanisms (Kim).

The coca leaf has admittedly been used to manipulate politicians and Bolivian citizens to comply with the government by Morales, as admitted through an interview with American director, screenwriter, and producer Oliver Stone (Stone). Bolivia is still a long way from becoming a full representative democracy. From the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights through a 2007 report on Bolivia, it has been found that there are cases in which the indigenous are not represented as parties in proceedings when it comes to agrarian jurisdiction. Civil society gave evidence to the Organization of American States (OAS) that social protest is more effective than legal mechanisms in helping indigenous rights. The Jurisprudence of the National Agrarian Tribunal holds that the indigenous may participate in proceedings with agrarian jurisdiction, but only with the status of ‘interested persons’ (“Access to Justice and Social Inclusion: The Road Towards Strengthening Democracy in Bolivia” 76). The Inter-American Commission was also made aware of the Code of Criminal Procedure establishing means for indigenous people and peasant communities. These are ineffective, due in large part to lack of training of officials of the Prosecutors’ Office and the judiciary, and lack of will to implement such written guarantees. A mechanism within the systems that proved to be faltering was access to indigenous language translation; nor were there public defenders who spoke indigenous languages (“Access to Justice and Social Inclusion: The Road Towards Strengthening Democracy in Bolivia” 77). The OAS further elaborated that social rights such as health, education, and bilingual education are also areas of concern in Bolivia (“Access to Justice and Social Inclusion: The Road Towards Strengthening Democracy in Bolivia” 59-62). The right to health and education are addressed in the UN Human Rights International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Articles 7, 10, and 12 for health, and Articles 10, 13, and 14 for education, respectively (“International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”).

Clearly there has been much advancement to be applauded, as Bolivia has advanced from its rather unaccepting viewpoints of the 1990s. Nonetheless, such a perplexing progressive nature of indigenous politics begs an answer: to what extent was the MAS only a campaign seeking votes, and to what extent was this truly a grassroots movement for indigenous equality in Bolivia? Have some attempted policies failed for indigenous rights in Bolivia? Authoritarian governments do tend to invoke culture because they tend to be populist, looking to promote power (In-Class lecture, February 3, 2017). The MAS invoked indigenous rights, and there has been substantial reform towards indigenous rights. However, indigenous rights tend to be grouped by governments in a subset level under civil and political rights, similarly to women’s rights (In-Class lecture, February 3, 2017).

A critique of the human rights project is that it is a Western tradition of rights (In-class Lecture, February 3, 2017). It is possible that Morales’ neoliberal model is avoiding the ‘need to rely on Western tradition and Western powers.’ According to Mutua, human rights discourses can also create hierarchies of power. When a culture is being exposed to an audience as a problem, usually there are political reasons implied (In-class Lecture, February 3, 2017; Mutua).  For example, the cultivation of coca is done by indigenous people, but does not represent all indigenous people, yet has become justifiable under Bolivian government to have a cultural purpose, when in reality coca had been utilized as political manipulation (Stone). This would be an example of using ‘indigenous rights’ blatantly for political purposes.

Indigenous rights can be closely tied to environmental justice, which regards some of their social and economic rights. Bolivian indigenous populations have lost rights due to climate change. This is due to poverty, deteriorating ecosystems, and lack of adaptation (Akin 459). Morales is for climate change reform; yet in the UN Conference of the Parties in 2010, Bolivia opposed the Cancun Agreements. Morales stated developed nations should instead sign and act on this due to having more financial resources and greater accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere (Akin 466). This would be another example of the implied idea of breaking away from Western thought. Since climate change affects indigenous populations, Morales contradicts his platform by disregarding environmental justice. The exploitation of natural gas in Santa Cruz and Tarija is where indigenous groups are most affected (Perrault 148). Even though there was pro-indigenous rhetoric through the MAS party, gas production in Bolivia’s Chaco region has had negative effects on the indigenous, due to the extractive activities (Perreault 140). The “Gas Wars” of October 2003 had previously resulted in the abdication of the former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (Perreault 142). In 2005 before Morales’ term, the implementation of a Hydrocarbons law defended indigenous rights but was violated by REPSOL YPF oil company. The Convention of the Pueblo Guarani of Itika Guasu, a specific indigenous tribe, denounced this foreign company’s actions, seeking accountability (Perreault 155). Under Morales in 2007, a sign of hope was waved through attempted revision of the Hydrocarbon laws pertaining to indigenous rights, but the results were not concrete for implemented change (Perrault 156). In March of 2016, leaders of Amazonian Indigenous Peoples and the Centre for Documentation and Information of Bolivia (CEDIB) condemned failure to ask for consent for oil exploration projects taking place on indigenous land, as stated in the Amnesty International Report 2016/2017 on the State of the World’s Human Rights for Bolivia (“Bolivia 2016/2017”).

The indigenous’ right to land in Bolivia is still a current problem. Under Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous Community v. Paraguay, the Inter-American Commission Court of Human Rights ruled that communal property is attached to indigenous worldview and cultural identity as subjects of the law (de Oliveira Mazzuoli). The Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues provides a more detailed overview of the spiritual sensitivity associated with right to territory for the indigenous community:

“With unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Spread across the world from the Arctic to the Amazon, indigenous peoples are the descendants of those who already inhabited a country or geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. They live within or maintain close attachments to geographically distinct ancestral territories and self-identify as indigenous or tribal (Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues).”

Referring back to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, states are under the obligation to recompense indigenous people for “cultural, intellectual, religious, and spiritual property” taken away without their consent. Under this statement, the land of the indigenous as property is included (Kim). Constitutional reforms in Bolivia do recognize indigenous people’s rights to the demarcation of their territories, and rights to the natural resources existing within them (Aylwin).

The Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) area in Bolivia, covering more than one million hectares of forest, was given indigenous territorial status by the Morales government in 2009. The building of a highway through TIPNIS has been a controversial topic, due to the indigenous right to territory being violated (Fuentes). It is ironic that Bolivia, being the first country to place this resolution within its domestic legal system -- and eventually into its Constitution (Kim) -- violates these signed-upon principles through the issue of territory, highlighting an instance of using tactical concessions. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights states nations must act and follow the constitutional, legislative, and regulatory provisions of their law, which defends the rights of the indigenous and tribal groups, for the full practice of such rights (“Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Rights Over Their Ancestral Lands and Natural Resources: Norms and Jurisprudence of the Inter-American Human Rights System” 287). Indigenous people also have a right to be a part of the decision-making processes that affect their lands, resources, and final decisions, because these should be consistent with indigenous rights (Miranda 153).

The conflict between state policies recognizing indigenous land rights and policies promoting the expansion of the global economy into indigenous territories is a common phenomena in Latin America. Economic policies, prompted by free-market agreements, give rise to the spread of large-scale development projects on indigenous lands and territories. These projects are aimed at the exploitation and extraction of natural resources that have huge impacts on the lives, cultures, and environments of the people in these communities (Alywin). Morales in particular claims to be against neoliberalism, but is a proponent of neoliberalism itself through his government having characteristics of the Contestatory Left (the more radical left, and part of the New Left), relying heavily on nationalization through natural resources. The New Left does not represent a break with the neoliberal economic model because they both have continuity; the central concern in both models has been for citizens to be lifted out of poverty (Levitsky; Contemporary Latin America In-Class lecture April 6, 2017). The following are quotes from Morales from a 2008 Interview with Toronto Star:

"The indigenous communities have historically lived in community […] We have to recover that. If we think about our goals in life as equality and justice, if we think of humanity, then the model of the West, industrialization and neo- liberalism, is destroying the planet earth, which for me is the great Pachamama (the supreme goddess of the Aymara and Quechua religions). And it's heading towards destroying humanity[…] we can make a modest contribution to defend life, to save humanity. That's our responsibility (Rebick)."

Morales further elaborated that recuperating political power to recover territory, with a priority on fully recuperating all natural resources, was important. The most radical element of Morales’ land reform is that land is distributed to communities collectively, not to individuals (Rebick), reminiscent of the socialism aspect of the MAS.

Human rights reform can only come from internal politics that fight for the social and economic rights now undermined by the system. The UN High Commission on Human Rights has voiced concerns about Bolivian Law 351, and its threat to freedom of association, as well as hostility to non-governmental organizations (NGO). In 2013, Morales had made regulations allowing his administration to have more control over the mission and finances of NGOs. As stated by Human Rights Watch, Morales’ administration has formed a “hostile environment for human rights defenders that undermines their ability to work independently (“Bolivia”).” Recognizing that the West is not an evil, and that the voice of the NGOs is an important mechanism for the system (Ellerbeck), would help put trust in institutions to ameliorate environmental justice and land indigenous rights issues. Institutions for better education in Bolivia are needed as well, for education gives voice to the voiceless.

Ingrid Noriega pursued a bachelor's degree in International Affairs from the School of International Service while at American University. Ingrid is mainly interested in environmental justice, fine arts, life, health, & behavioral sciences topics.


Works Cited

“Access to Justice and Social Inclusion: The Road Towards Strengthening Democracy in

Bolivia.” Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States, 28 June 2007, www.cidh.oas.org/pdf%20files/BOLIVIA.07.ENG.pdf. Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Aylwin, José. "LAND AND RESOURCES." Cultural Survival Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 4, Winter, 2006, pp. 14-15, Ethnic NewsWatch, http://proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/197447800?accountid=8285.

“Bolivia 2016/2017.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International, n.d. Web. 23 April 2017.

De Oliveira Mazzuoli, Valerio, and Dilton Ribeiro. “Indigenous Rights Before the Inter-

American Court of Human Rights: A Call for Pro-Individual Interpretation.” The Indonesian Journal of International & Comparative Law: Socio-Political Perspectives, July 2015. P. 522+. LegalTrac, proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LT&sw=w&u=wash11212&v=2.1&it=r&idGALE%7CA440823277&asid=911d2b63206c33226676b44dbc83247e. Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

Ellerbeck, Alexandra. “Red Tape or Repression? NGOs Fight for a Place in the New Bolivia

They Helped Evo Morales Create.” Conservation News, Mongabay, 25 Aug. 2015, news.mongabay.com/2015/05/red-tape-or-repression-ngos-fight-for-a-place-in-the-new-bolivia-they-helped-evo-morales-create/. Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Fuentes, Federico. “Bolivia: NGOs Wrong on Morales and Amazon.” NGOWatch, NGOWatch,

29 Sept. 2011, thewrongkingofgreen.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/Bolivia-ngos-wrong-on-morales-and-amazon/. Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Harten, Sven. The Rise of Evo Morales and the MAS. Zed Books Ltd., 2011.

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Norms and Jurisprudence of the Inter-American Human Rights System.” American Indian Law Review 35.2 (2010): 263-496.

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OHCHR 1996-2017, www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Kim, Abraham. “The Plight of Bolivian Coca Leaves: Bolivia’s Quest for Decriminalization in

the Face of Inconsistent in the Face of Inconsistent International Legislation.” Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2014, pg. 559+. LegalTrac, proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LT&sw=w&u=wash11212&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA410506404&asid=31198e2955aa2076afee902b90e1fe52. Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

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Drinking Water.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2013, p. 469+. LegalTrac, proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LT&sw=w&u=wash11212&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA347294325&asid=166d8c34e77d2aa4d311abe3b8437470. Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

Perreault, Thomas. “Conflictos Del Gas Y Su Gobernanza: El Caso De Los Guaranies De Tarija,

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Works Cited

Rebick, Judy. "Peaceful Revolution is Taking Shape; A Rare Interview with Evo Morales as He Begins a Profound Transformation of His Country, by Judy Rebick." Toronto Star, Aug 08, 2006, pp. A17, ProQuest Central, http://proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/439043549?accountid=8285.

Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Partnering with Indigenous Peoples: Experiences and Practices.” United Nations for Indigenous Peoples. United Nations. Web. 23 Apr. 2017. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/LibraryDocuments/partnering-with-ips.pdf.

Stone, Oliver. South of the Border. 3 June 2010, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1337137/.

“The World Factbook: Bolivia.” Central Intelligence Agency. 12 Jan 2017.


 “United Nations: Part 1; Permanent Forum Experts Recount Recent Mission to Paraguay,

Bolivia, Urging End to ‘Semi-Slavery’ of Guarani and Other Indigenous Peoples of Chaco Region; Provisional Agenda for Next Session, on Culture, Identity, Challenged by Indigenous Groups Seeking Broader Space, Greater Involvement in Proceedings.” M2 Presswire, May 29, 2009, ProQuest Central, http://proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/446138616?accountid=8285.

Yashar, Deborah. “Indigenous Politics in the Andes: Changing Patterns of Recognition, Reform, and Representation.” The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Edited by Scott Mainwaring, Ana Maria Bejarano, and Eduardo Pizarro Leongomez. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. Print.


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