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UN Special Report: Aymara leader Antonio Machaca

Editor's Note: At the second annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, held in May at the United Nations in New York, participants spoke with ICT about the relationship between language and health in Native communities. This multi-part series is a forum of their perspectives, reaching from the Americas to Australia.

UNITED NATIONS - The small woven bag around Antonio Machaca's neck is empty. It's a good thing, too. Back home in the Bolivian altiplano he stashes his coca leaves there, part of a daily routine he decided to leave behind during a recent trip to New York City.

Machaca visited the United Nations in May as a representative of CONAMAQ, the National Council of Ayllus and Marcas of Quollasuyo, a Native rights organization based in the Bolivian highlands. A resident of Oruro, famed for its folklore and spring carnival, Machaca is called an Apu Mallku or "father condor," the name of a traditional authority among the Native Aymara.

CONAMAQ works on behalf of Native ayllus, traditional community organizations that predate the Incan empire. Founded in 1997, the umbrella group advocates fair trade practices, local management of natural resources, and racial equality. Last year, members went on an extended hunger strike to press for reforms to the national constitution. Machaca came to the Forum on Indigenous Issues, as he puts it, "because we're practically forgotten by our government."

The neglect isn't for want of numbers. Machaca's mother tongue is Quechua, the language of the powerful ancient Incas. Spoken by 10 million people across several countries in the Andes cordillera, Quechua and its dialects may have more speakers than any Native language in the Americas. Together with Spanish and Aymara, an indigenous language that predates the Incas, it is one of Bolivia's three official idioms.

Despite its official standing, Quechua has long had second-class status in Bolivia, a poor nation of 8 million people. Though the national reform of 1994 has made progress in bilingual instruction, most schools are still run in Spanish. "We're demanding the government include our languages - Quechua, Aymara, and the languages of the lowlands," Machaca says. "We're going to continue fighting for this goal. It's necessary that, being a majority in the country, we decide our own fate for ourselves."

In fact, indigenous peoples make up anywhere from 55 to 70 percent of the population. Over half of Bolivians don't even speak Spanish as a mother tongue. Those who claim European descent, aside from a sizable mestizo contingent, make up fewer than one in five of the populace.

Culturally speaking, Bolivia is a democracy turned upside-down, a constitutional republic where a Native majority is managed by a powerful and well-educated elite.

"The educational system of Bolivia isn't adequate to our reality," Machaca asserts. "It's just a copy, an elaboration of something that's foreign to Bolivia. They teach us fantasies, they teach us the history of other cultures," like Spain and the rest of Europe. Far from opening horizons, Machaca affirms, this kind of pedagogy has ulterior motives. "The more we learn someone else's history, the easier we're manipulated by a small minority."

The official literacy rate is 80 percent. But the adult population, on average, has fewer than five years of schooling. And almost three-quarters of indigenous females never finish primary school. Due to their inferior social status, some Native parents have resisted bilingual programs for fear they will doom their children to poverty if they fail to develop a proper grasp of Spanish.

Coupled with cultural neglect in the altiplano is a lack of social services. The average Bolivian lives to be 63. Infant mortality, 6 percent, is among the highest in the western hemisphere. In the highlands, "there are no doctors, no health services, and worse, no hospitals," recounts Machaca. "Bolivia likes to tell the international community that our voices are heard, but it's not the case ? There's no help in the matter of health. That's why we've turned to our traditional medicine."

Since many highland people have no access to a hospital, knowledge of time-honored treatments is vital. To mend the bone fracture of an accident victim, for example, portions of a small iguana are ground into a fine powder and applied as a poultice to the wound. "Very effective," Machaca says, rubbing his palm in earnest, wrapped in his bright-colored poncho and Andean fedora. "It heals completely."

The staple of Quechua medicine - and life - is coca. The Incas considered coca a gift of the gods and confined its use to the highest castes. Made aware of its anesthetic properties, the Spanish encouraged weary silver miners to chew the leaf. By the 18th century, coca circulated among the middle classes, a remedy for asthma, toothache, diarrhea, hemorrhaging, and other maladies.

The coca plant is neither toxic nor addictive. But owing to its confusion with cocaine, one of 15 active chemical elements in the leaf that becomes addictive as a derivative, coca, in its natural form, has become a target of the war on drugs. Coca fields across the Andes are regularly slated for destruction, even while experts admit that the leaf itself has all the kick of a strong cup of coffee.

Most coca is grown in neighboring Peru and Colombia for illegal export. Cultivation is permitted in one region of Bolivia for traditional domestic use, but the U.S. has fought to eradicate fields elsewhere in the country as it has done all across the Andes.

"We don't produce coca, but we've consumed it for millennia," Machaca explains. Chewing it on a daily basis "relieves hunger. It drives away sleepiness. It makes a hard job bearable" for poor miners, herders, and farmers. "Before they turned our coca into a drug," he says of the profiteers and narcotics officers, "it was sacred, and it continues to be sacred. They're the ones who turned coca into a controlled substance - they're responsible, not us."

Tensions between Native peoples and the government have been complicated in recent decades by a third party. Evangelical Protestant churches - Mormon, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, and others have actively propagated the gospel in-country, changing patterns of community behavior, colonial and pre-colonial, that have endured for centuries in the Andes.

Language, as often is the case, has been the point of entry. The Catholic Church once used Quechua as a missionary tool for conversion, accounting for its spread beyond the boundaries of the original Inca empire.

Today, evangelical sects have translated the Bible into Quechua and Aymara to encourage "spiritual awareness." Gospel readings on tape prove especially popular in rural villages where few people are literate. Symbols of cultural respect in the schools, Native languages have also become a weapon in the ongoing struggle for souls.

For Machaca, the influence of hundreds of evangelical churches in Bolivia has been "completely negative." Competing with Catholic churches, the sects have divided native communities socially, politically, and spiritually.

"They say of our medicine that we practice witchcraft, that we take part in pacts with the devil," groans Machaca. "Some of my brothers believe this and lose touch with our culture." Even coca is condemned by the churches, he says, evidence that, no matter what language the missionaries may speak, they remain a foreign, if growing, presence in the land of the Inca.

Unlike North America, Bolivia labors to share power in a country where Native people dominate, in numbers if in no way else. In 2002, elections raised indigenous representation in the national parliament to as high as 20 percent - an unprecedented step forward, if still far from an equal voice.

Changes have only begun. Machaca grumbles, in a plaint that has rolled across the Andes for centuries, "it's surprising to be in the majority, and not be in a position to make decisions."