Bolivia’s indigenous want a share of the oil and gas wealth
Bolivia, South America's poorest country, is caught up in a period of social unrest, with indigenous communities from
the tropical eastern part of the country and the western highlands fighting for government policies that respect
their cultures, languages and mineral-rich territories.
Nearly 3 mm voters came out to help decide in a referendum how best to develop and exploit the country's natural gas reserves. According to the preliminary results -- the final tally is not yet in -- a majority backed President Carlos Mesa's plans to achieve more state control over oil and gas reserves, which have been in the hands of foreign oil companies since the partial privatisation of the sector in the 1990s.
But the referendum, which was held at the behest of indigenous, labour and social activists, was just the start of
the exercise of the direct democracy demanded by the country's indigenous majority and other popular sectors. The
next step in the plans of indigenous groups and trade unions is the convocation of a constituent assembly in 2005 to
rewrite the constitution and, in Mesa's words, "re-found" Bolivia.
"The constituent assembly must not exclude any sectors, and must recognize the country's cultural diversity and multi-ethnic character," Javier Paredes, an adviser to the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), told.
In the last census, carried out in 2001 by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), 62 % of Bolivians over 15
identified with one of the country's indigenous communities: 31 % considered themselves Quechua, 25 % Aymara, and 6 %
said they belonged to various smaller ethnic groups.
In Bolivia, a country of 9 mm, 71 % of the population is poor and 40 % extremely poor, according to the latest INE statistics, from June. CIDOB, which represents 34 indigenous groups from seven of the country's nine departments (provinces), is one of the organizers of the Second Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala (America), which began in Quito, Ecuador, prior to the First Social Forum of the Americas. Under the slogan “Building Plurinational States”, the indigenous summit is organized around seven main thematic areas: land, territory and natural resources; autonomy and self-determination; diversity and pluriculturalism; indigenous knowledge and intellectual property; the rights of native peoples and multilateral bodies; aboriginal nations and peoples; and social movements and the World Social Forum.
Similar struggles for land, cultural rights, education and participation in governments are being waged by indigenous
communities all over Latin America. CIDOB, based in the eastern region of Bolivia, has focused its attention on a
national social pact on what kind of changes are needed in Bolivia.
During the October 2003 social uprising in western Bolivia, when at least 70 were killed after the security forces were called out to quash protests against the government's natural gas policy, CIDOB asked then-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (2002-2003) "to perfect the democratic system, through peaceful means."
The indigenous umbrella organisation was also one of the groups demanding a referendum on the country's natural gas
policy and the convocation of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. But the demonstrators' calls fell
on deaf ears, and Sanchez de Lozada was forced to resign after a month of protests, and replaced by Mesa, his
vice-president, who promised to organise both a referendum and a constituent assembly.
The social pact proposed by the indigenous peoples from eastern Bolivia is based on a decentralisation of power to the provinces, municipalities and communally owned lands known as Native Communal Territories (TCOs), Paredes explained.
That initiative contrasts with the position taken by the business community, civic leaders and political parties in
the prosperous east-central part of the country, which want autonomy from the central government and have even
threatened to secede and create their own republic.
"CIDOB believes it is important to maintain the unity of the country" because of the possibilities of becoming competitive in the region and of fomenting regional integration, said Paredes.
The demands of indigenous communities focus on recognition of a set of norms, cultural practices, habits, customs and
intercultural relations, Juan Carlos Rojas, a researcher and educator at CIPCA (Centre for Research and Promotion of
Campesinos or peasant farmers), commented. In Bolivia's western Andean highlands region, an Aymara leader has gained
significant influence: Felipe Quispe, who wants to recreate the “Kollasuyo”, an old administrative
division in territories that belonged to the Inca empire, under the “Ayllu” system of community
But Rojas said the ancient indigenous forms of territorial organisation "clash" with the political structure of the state. Meanwhile, the self-government and land rights demanded by indigenous communities in the eastern lowlands have brought them into conflict with logging companies, oil firms, and large landowners and ranchers, while in the altiplano disputes have cropped up between indigenous campesinos and mining companies over water usage.
Rojas pointed out that indigenous peoples in the eastern jungle region did not obtain official identity documents and
the status of citizens until they staged two long marches, in 1990 and 1996, that covered the 1,000 km separating
Trinidad, the capital of the department of Beni, and La Paz, the country's administrative capital.
Through the two marches, they finally gained recognition as official Bolivian citizens, leaving behind the condition of "primitive jungle-inhabiting barbarians" to which they were condemned, said Rojas. In addition, the government granted them control over their communally-owned territories (TCOs). By means of that mechanism, 6 mm of the 24 mm hectares claimed by indigenous communities in eastern Bolivia have officially become their communal property, said Paredes.
But the demands for title deeds have also extended to the western highlands, and the Aymara and Quechua Indians are
demanding to be recognised as the official communal owners of 2 mm hectares of land for farming and other
In addition, a Movement of Landless Campesinos has emerged -- proof that the agrarian reform efforts carried out since the 1953 revolution that nationalised the country's tin mines and established universal suffrage have failed to resolve the question of rural property ownership, said Rojas. The country's 54 tcf of natural gas -- the second-largest reserves in South America after Venezuela -- have given rise to other concerns among indigenous communities in eastern Bolivia.
After negotiations with the government in 1996, the communities were successful in limiting the operations of foreign
oil companies on their ancestral lands. Now they are demanding 2 % royalties on natural gas revenues, to channel
towards the development of their communities. Paredes said the next step in the struggle will involve the nomination
of representatives to the constituent assembly.
CIDOB is demanding one delegate for each ethnic community, regardless of the size of each group. That will lie at the core of the next battle to be waged by CIDOB -- announced even before the final results of the natural gas referendum came in.