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Indigenous autonomies

The Indigenous movements of Bolivia have been central protagonists in the shaping of agrarian and land policy for many decades. In the 1990s, Indigenous peoples marched from the lowlands of the east to the capital at La Paz, not once, but several times, demanding territorial rights. While peasant farmers and migrants from the Andes to the lowlands have generally organized around peasant unions - and often demanded familial or individual titles - one of the central demands of Indigenous peoples has been the demarcation of collective territories. Unlike the North American context, the vocabularies of “self-determination” and “sovereignty” are not as familiar in Bolivian Indigenous languages of struggle. However, in the early 2000s, the word “autonomy” was increasingly taken up as a goal of these territorial demands (Gustafson 2009b). The ongoing struggle over land and Indigenous rights is centered around this unfinished process of territorial recovery and consolidation, as well as the configuration of some form of political self-determination that might represent a form of political, economic, and cultural autonomy within the Bolivian state.

Across Latin America autonomy has increasingly been deployed by social movements as a language for contesting various forms of power - the state, capital, large landowners, political parties - and demanding control over bodies and territories free from the exercise of multiple forms of violence, extraction, or exploitation. In Bolivia, right-wing elites have also tried to appropriate the discourse of autonomy, applying it to their demands for more regional power (Gustafson 2006, 2020b). Furthermore, the term autonomy, as elsewhere in

Latin America, also refers to institutional autonomy of certain public entities - like municipal governments or universities, who demand “autonomy” over their own budgets free from the intervention of the political party that happens to be in the seat of national power. As such, the term is laden with conflicting meanings in Bolivia, such that “Indigenous Autonomy” and what it might mean is an ongoing debate that is only slowly emerging in practice.

As pointed out above, what started as a demand for more political control over demarcated territories (the TCOs) was gradually watered down and transformed into a very limited notion of autonomy in the new constitution of 2009 (Garcés 2011). The TCOs were demarcated in ways that often cross-cut municipal boundaries, although they were not allowed to disrupt departmental boundaries. As such, TCOs were already dictated in some ways by the existing territorial order, whereas a more radical and decolonizing approach would have privileged Indigenous territorialities over existing jurisdictions. In addition, the TCOs were not given any particular economic or political powers of their own, and they remained subject to the authorities (and the budgets) of the municipalities where they happened to overlap. In some cases, the TCOs and the Indigenous population made up a large portion of the municipal space and population, such as the Guarani TCO of Charagua and Isoso. In other cases, TCOs were rural spaces minoritized within larger municipal or departmental populations. A radical approach to Indigenous autonomy might have imagined transforming all TCOs into jurisdictions of their own, but the 2009 constitution set out a series of legal hurdles that reconfirmed the existing municipal structure. Furthermore, Indigenous autonomy was only possible where a referendum vote could be had (and won) at the municipal level, such that Indigenous peoples (or rare as they might be, pro-autonomy non-indigenous allies) had to vote to transform a municipality into an “Autonomous Indigenous Territorial Entity”. Wherever this happened, Indigenous peoples had the right to rewrite the municipal statutes in a way that theoretically reflected their own concepts of political order, doing away, if they desired, with mayors and councils, and implementing new forms of government, within limits. All of this had to be approved by the national constitution, setting another limit on its decolonizing potential.

While many municipalities in the Andes are largely Indigenous and could have easily voted to transform themselves into autonomous Indigenous entities, there was no great rush to change the legal structure or status. In some cases, Indigenous authorities were already in control of the municipality and many supported the MAS party. Here there emerged splits between those who wanted to pursue “autonomy” and

Bolivian land politics and policy 93 those who sought to defend the status quo, or felt that the municipal structure was serving their needs well (Tockman 2017). In a few cases in the Andes, autonomy processes were successfully pursued, but by and large, the Indigenous Autonomous Entity is rare. In the lowlands, the situation was different. While most Indigenous organizations might have desired some form of territorial autonomy, the demographic conditions were such that winning a referendum was virtually impossible in most areas where TCOs were found. The notable exceptions were in the Guarani region, where the Guarani make up a majority in the municipality of Charagua. Charagua successfully transformed itself into an Indigenous Autonomous Entity in 2018 (Morell i Torra 2018). It remains to be seen what the longer-term impacts of this transformation might be. Of the 300-odd municipalities in the country, with around half of those potentially “Indigenous” - only about 24 municipalities are in the process of transformation. Tockman (2017) suggests that there is a kind of hybridity - with some autonomy processes closely mimicking the liberal model of existing municipal governments and others taking a more culturally varied or “communitarian” form (see also Inturias, et al., eds. 2018). For the moment, an optimistic read suggests that these municipal-level autonomies might grant more power to Indigenous peoples to determine the direction of local public investment. A warier approach might point out that this merely allows new people to access an existing system of rent-seeking - and the state budgets and revenues that that brings with it - but may not bring radical changes in daily life.

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