Morales Gets Boost from UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights

LA PAZ, Sep 19 (IPS) – President Evo Morales’ dream of creating a "plurinational" state in Bolivia, with territorial and administrative autonomy for indigenous peoples, has just received an international boost that is as welcome as it is unexpected, arising as it did from what seemed like a never-ending debate.

The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, approved by the United Nations after two decades of to-ing and fro-ing, came just as the Aymara indigenous president is seeing his legitimacy questioned by a new rightwing opposition movement, led by civilian groups backed by members of the business community and large landowners.

The main targets of the opposition movement’s complaints are the reforms that the left-wing Morales describes as a "cultural and democratic revolution."

These groups, which were partially displaced from power when Morales took office, have derived new strength and vitality through organisations known as civic committees, which oppose the political progress of Bolivia’s 36 native ethnic groups, who are struggling to achieve autonomous governments, land and financial resources.

The scene of the conflict is the Constituent Assembly, which began to rewrite the constitution in Sucre in August 2006, but whose work has been brought to a halt by a deep crisis. It has fallen hostage to pressure exerted by the residents of Sucre, who want the executive and legislative branches of government, which moved to La Paz in 1899, to return to the city.

In this context, the U.N. declaration approved on Sept. 13 has in fact brought international support to indigenous peoples’ centuries-long struggle to recover their forms of government, their lands, their rights, and their own development capability.

Until last week, indigenous peoples’ demands were seen by many as an isolated aspiration, and they were criticised by the influential business sectors and landowners with vast properties in the eastern regions of Bolivia, where agribusiness thrives on non-traditional exports.

The most pessimistic observers feared a violent outcome to the conflict, but the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will no doubt cool things down, and may oblige the opposition sectors and rightwing parties to a greater degree of openness to discussing the complex demands of communities that are impoverished, isolated and largely excluded from political decision-making.

In the latest national census, carried out in 2001, which included a question on whether respondents identified themselves as indigenous, 60 percent of Bolivia’s 9.3 million people declared that they were members of an indigenous culture.

But the opposition movement questions that figure and says a majority of Bolivians are "mestizos" or of mixed-race heritage, in order to downplay the numerical strength of indigenous people in this country.

The conditions faced by indigenous people in rural areas of Bolivia stand in sharp contrast to the human rights and principles enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In the Amazon jungle region in northern Bolivia, along the Brazilian border, and in the Chaco, southeast of La Paz, many indigenous people still live in conditions of slavery. They do not own any land and they are not paid for their work. It is in these areas where the worst poverty in this country, South America’s poorest, is concentrated.

As intense debates are waged in the Constituent Assembly about the viability of autonomous indigenous territories, Article 4 of the Declaration affirms their "right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions."

Original peoples’ claims, now supported by an international resolution, face resistance because 36 autonomous patches of territory would not fit in with the provincial autonomy sought by four of the country’s nine departments (provinces), which voted in a referendum for autonomy.

The wealthy, fertile natural gas-rich departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, keen on gaining greater local control over the administration of natural resources and the taxies levied on them, are demanding a form of autonomy that would exclude indigenous governments.

The tension in the debate between autonomous provinces or autonomous indigenous territories rises when indigenous people demand political power and control over the natural resources in their territories, as supported by Article 26 of the Declaration.

"Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired," the text says.

Conservative sectors claim that this would mean dividing the country into 36 segments, while indigenous peoples’ representatives favour a combination of indigenous autonomy and departmental autonomy.

The "plurinational state," understood as a united federation of nations which would each have land, territory and self-government, proposed by President Morales, is opposed by the supporters of provincial autonomy, who want the Constituent Assembly to describe Bolivia as a "democratic and intercultural state."

The latter definition only recognises traditions and culture, but would deny indigenous peoples self-government.

But self-government is the end that indigenous people have been pursuing with increasing vigour ever since the September-October 2003 popular uprisings against the administration of rightwing president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Sánchez de Lozada called out the army to clamp down on the demonstrations, which left at least 60 protesters dead and dozens wounded, before stepping down and fleeing to the United States.

Although the U.N. declaration appears tailor-made to Morales’ aspirations, and overall implicitly backs a government fighting for a package of social and political reforms, Article 34 could be difficult for the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party to fulfil.

It says "Indigenous peoples have the right to promote, develop and maintain their institutional structures and their distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures, practices and, in the cases where they exist, juridical systems or customs, in accordance with international human rights standards."

Taken to extremes, an indigenous point of view might call for the reorganisation of the Bolivian state and a reversion to the scheme of self-governing productive communities ("ayllus") and regions, which was in operation before the arrival of the Spaniards.

This form of government only remains today among newly strengthened groups of Aymara and Quechua Indians. The model is not fully supported by the MAS, which is instead inclined towards adapting indigenous autonomy to the present subdivision of the country into departments, cantons and municipalities.

The U.N. Declaration will be on trial in Bolivia and its Constituent Assembly, to find out whether its goals are realistic and viable in practice. Meanwhile, the country’s social unrest is a sign that cultural diversity is the one constant, as Bolivia tries to reinvent itself in something closer to its own image. (END/2007)  

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