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Indigenous Government on a National Scale: Remapping Bolivia, Transforming a Nation

Remapping Bolivia collects disparate voices in discussing the paradigm-shifting changes taking place in Bolivia today.

Bolivians made some radical changes over the past decade. They protested and died to prevent the government from exporting cheap natural gas. They elected Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in the Americas. And they wrote a new constitution calling for major changes in the Andean nation. During that time, racism and how it is used against the country’s indigenous majority, land use, and the environment became driving political themes that altered the landscape.

In Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Territory, and Indigeneity in a Plurinational State (School for Advanced Research Press, 2011), Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson bring together essays by North and South American intellectuals from diverse backgrounds to look at what they call the “shifting terrain of Bolivian politics.” Fabricant is an assistant professor of anthropology at Towson University in Towson, Maryland, and Gustafson is an associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. With more than 30 years of studying Bolivia between them, they set out to create an innovative collection.

Remapping Bolivia is more accessible than many academic texts, though it is still fairly dense and filled with terminology that will require anyone who is not a sociologist or anthropologist to invest some time to navigate. That said, the book is varied and thought-provoking, full of differing and sometimes challenging perspectives. It is a valuable resource for anyone with a keen interest in how Bolivia got to where it is and where the dramatic changes of the past decade may lead. It also affords a rare chance for people who don’t speak Spanish to access unique Bolivian voices.

Themes include reorganizing Bolivia according to indigenous perspectives; ownership and exploitation of natural resources; land redistribution, and deadly conflicts between social movements and governments. All engender tremendous debate and upheaval, and together they contribute to “remapping” a country that is searching to redefine itself.

In one essay, Fernando Garcés argues that even as indigenous organizations pushed Bolivia to refound the country with a constitution that broke with the past, their ideas were watered down and co-opted by a government that limited the extent of reform.

“The process and the outcome illustrate the ways through which indigenous demands were negotiated—and sacrificed—to favor a more conservative defense of existing state forms,” Garcés writes. His essay provides a clear look at the complex power relations of the tumultuous period leading up to approval of Bolivia’s new constitution in 2009.

Ximena Soruco Sologuren examines the murder of indigenous leaders by armed groups backed by the right-wing elite of the north Bolivian Amazon, exploring the economic and social environment of this isolated region and how its bid to separate from the central Bolivian state to protect its economic elite led to acts of intimidation and violence.

Woven throughout are photos and interviews of everyone from Evo Morales to leaders of poor urban neighborhoods. Remapping Bolivia takes a positive attitude toward the unfolding changes while recognizing the challenges therein.


Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network via e-mail about Remapping Bolivia.

Why did you choose Bolivia?

Fabricant: I have always been interested, since my days as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, in the ways that community organizations use/mobilize- culture to create structural change. My work in Bolivia has evolved from initially looking at how community organizations addressed issues of urban poverty in Santa Cruz to rural social movements, resource politics and new forms of state-making. Yet at the center is my interest in the use, mobility and elasticity of culture (indigeneity) to implement change.

Gustafson: Bolivia is unique in Latin America because of its Indigenous Peoples, of course, but also because of its long tradition of political struggle against colonialism, against imperialism and now—at least for the movements—against a certain kind of rapacious globalization.

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What readers and new perspectives did you have in mind?

Fabricant: We wanted to appeal to movements, grassroots organizers, city planners, anthropologists, sociologists, politicians, students, indigenous activists, etc. We hope to open up areas of debate and spaces for creative thinking.

Gustafson: We also wanted to make it readable and accessible. Too much academic work is written in incomprehensible jargon that excludes the very people and communities we work with and limits widespread readership.

The book brings together academics from the U.S. and Bolivia, plus slices of Bolivian life, in a way I haven’t seen before. How did you choose the writers?

Fabricant: The intention was to break the mold on several grounds. We wanted to put voices next to one another that often are not in conversation. We wanted to include voices sometimes left out or excluded from our texts. For instance we place vignettes and op-ed pieces alongside testimonials from the gas war (the 2003 indigenous protests against laying pipelines through Chile from landlocked Bolivia to the Pacific to enable gas export) in order to really illustrate the diversity of voices, styles, opinions and backgrounds.

Gustafson: There were so many more activists, Bolivian scholars and North American scholars we would have liked to include, but there was limited space.

In Remapping Bolivia you talk about a "critical and historic moment of transformation." Why are we seeing this in Bolivia at this moment in time?

Fabricant: In part, this has to do with people’s frustrations about the very limited impact of the “multicultural” political reforms of the 1990s. These policies did open space for bilingual education in indigenous languages and made some changes to laws of political participation. Symbolically, these policies recognized indigenous peoples as part of the nation. However, they did little to impact deeper issues like poverty, land inequality and indigenous territorial rights. So, indigenous peoples were supportive of a more significant change, one that promised both recognition and redistribution of sorts.

Gustafson: While racism is intense in Bolivia—perhaps more now than before the election of Morales—Evo Morales represented both indigeneity and a broader popular Bolivian-ness that appealed to people of all kinds. He also responded to issues that were not just indigenous issues—especially the national demand to reassert control over natural resources. This position had broad political support, across racial and class lines.

The book discusses the idea that Bolivian government operations might be weaned off the U.S./European concept of government and toward an indigenous form of government. How is that different?

Fabricant: In some ways, Bolivian political forms are already shaped by indigeneity—for example, local town councils in much of the country are subject to the guiding authority of elders or local indigenous organizations.

Gustafson: In January 2011, Morales signed laws that would protect Pachamama from corporate, international, domestic, and individual degradation and harm. Some of this gave actual inalienable rights to Mother Earth including the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration.

While Morales has publicly used and mobilized indigenous culture as a way to reshape laws and the constitution, he has also been criticized for not following through on many promises. At the same time, there are interesting debates emerging around the power of laws/nation-states to protect indigenous peoples in an era of cannibalistic capitalism. For instance, while Morales passed this law, private corporations continue to invest in Bolivia and extract resource wealth, destroying eco-systems, ways of life and livelihoods. So while it seems quite radical to pass the rights of mother earth bill, national laws also hold very little power against transnational interests, wealth and power.