Maria Pomés Lorencés: Lowland Bolivia

Indigeneity and Mobilization in Lowland Bolivia: Identity, self-determination and political demands
by  Maria Pomés Lorencés; Tinker Grantee; Master’s candidate,
Department of International Studies

In 2005, after continued unrest and social mobilizations, the Bolivian people elected their first indigenous president: Evo Morales. Since then, indigeneity has become an integral part of how the Bolivian state defines itself and explains its policies and objectives. Bolivia passed its new Constitution in 2009, with the stated goals of building a plurinational, communitarian state that recognized indigenous people’s cultural and economic rights, their right to self-determination and their capacity to control and achieve legal autonomy in their territories.

The Monkoxt nation of Lomerío, in lowland Bolivia, were the first indigenous group to pursue the creation of their own autonomous government, following their customs, governing their territory, constituted as an autonomous region. Their experience negotiating with the state and the bureaucratic hurdles encountered have been paradigmatic of the contradictions the Bolivian state has faced in the process of administrative decentralization. 

Collecting wood for firing clay pots / photo by Rhiana Jones. 

I traveled to Bolivia to learn more about indigenous autonomy and to understand how the Monkoxt have organized as a group to pressure the state and work towards building their own government. I also wanted to understand how they defined their collective identity, which connections existed between their collective identity and self-determination rights, and which policies beyond self-determination they wanted to see implemented.

I spent eight weeks in Bolivia, both in the regional capital of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and in Lomerío, particularly in the community of San Lorenzo de Lomerío.

The first four weeks I participated in a research project, “Dialogue Between Knowledge Systems,” run by Dr. Wendy Townsend. My main role was enabling the interaction, as a translator, between indigenous Bolivians from Lomerío and three native American women who participated in the research project with the goal of conducting research and engaging in cultural exchange.

This experience enabled me to build a relationship with the communities and connections with several community members, both with people involved in political projects and achieving autonomy and with people who had never participated in what they considered political activities.

I participated in important community celebrations and in weekly events. I attended, for example, a few games of a local soccer tournament and talked to many people about their culture and autonomy while commenting on the game and drinking chicha. I helped women pick up wood from the forest to fire their clay pots, and talked to them about their artisanry and daily lives. I organized a workshop to help women work with a sewing machine they didn’t know how to use. It was an exciting experience for all of us, and it allowed me to connect with women in the community in a more relaxed, direct way.

I also talked to the general cacique and the gender cacique of the main indigenous organization of the territory, CICOL. I discussed the questions I had planned on asking before my trip, and got suggestions and guidance over who to interview. 

Through these conversations and through the informal talks I was having with other community members, I refined my questions and focused on asking about personal history and experiences, the perceptions of gender equality and transformation of gender roles, and the perceptions about what autonomy meant and what it should become. I asked open questions and allowed the interviewee to guide the conversation.

I conducted 11 long interviews (six men and five women, of different ages), around an hour long each. They were all individual interviews, except for one with a woman in San Lorenzo’s artisanry center that started as an individual interview, but two other women joined the conversation. Because it made the interview more lively and interactive, I adapted the questions and continued with the interview.

The people interviewed were all people that trusted me and got to know me, and showed they wanted to share information with me. I also attended a meeting of the CICOL “directors.” CICOL, as the main indigenous organization of the territory, has been in charge of organizing for the titling of communal lands and pursuing political autonomy from the central government. Attending the meeting gave me a chance to observe the inner workings and power dynamics in the organization, and I was also able to hear the members of the organization discuss autonomy. 

In Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the regional capital, I discussed my experience and findings with several experts who have worked with the Monkoxt people in different capacities. I talked to Miguel González, who works for the Bolivian nonprofit CEJIS and has been the main consultant working with the Monkoxt to achieve autonomy, and with José Martínez, a sociologist who works in the University of Santa Cruz and has collaborated with lowland indigenous communities for decades. I also met with Miguel Aragón, a lawyer who has worked for and with indigenous organizations and who directly participated in the collective titling of Monkoxt land and territory. I met with Bienvenido Zacu, indigenous leader of the Guarayo nation, who served as a congressman and gave me an inside perspective of how the central government views autonomy. Finally, I met with Elisa Saldías, a sociologist who has worked analyzing the gender dynamics in several indigenous communities, among them the Monkoxt nation of Lomerío. 

Through my experiences of participant observation and the interviews I conducted I observed that autonomy, although a new concept, is connected by most interviewees to an old concept: freedom, understood by the interviewees as the capacity to decide over one’s own life, that has always been practiced by their ancestors and that they are simply “legalizing” and making official. Although the concept of autonomy is widely known, the interviewees didn’t connect it to self-determination, an idea many people didn’t know how to define. Moreover, autonomy is equated to the conservation of their culture and traditional way of life, a rural way of life they consider threatened, and referred to as almost a paradise lost. 

I also asked community members about the perception of women’s status and role in society and their rights. The middle-aged women interviewed believe that a long road has been traveled since their mothers’—and especially grandmothers’—time. However, younger women talked about the weight of the house on their shoulders and different standards for men and women, and perceive the efforts of cultural conservation as a possible attack to the advances made in their social position and rights.   

—Maria Pomés Lorencés is a 2018-19 Tinker grantee and a graduate student in the Department of International Studies.