[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]
In today’s guest post, Nicole Fabricant, author of Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle Over Land, reflects on a recent trip back to Bolivia. While there, she attended a civic assembly organized by agribusiness elites in the lowland region. These businessmen and civic leaders have co-opted Indigenous opposition to a planned highway development project in order to promote natural resource extraction under the guise of a campaign for democracy and human rights in the region. Fabricant reports on the gathering she attended and raises larger questions about a growing trend of appropriating indigeneity for regional and rightwing agendas of natural resource extraction and exploitation.
I was back in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the lowland agro-industrial capital of Bolivia for the months of July and August 2012 in order to understand a new political conflict that had exploded between the government of Evo Morales and lowland Indigenous groups in 2011. The conflict was over the planned construction of a 182-mile highway, 32 miles of which would cut through the TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure) national park and Indigenous territory, a vital ecosystem located at the geographic heart of Southern Bolivia. Morales argued that the construction of this highway was critical for connecting trade routes and regions. Indigenous communities, on the other hand, argued that the highway would cause environmental degradation, the displacement of Indigenous peoples, and the disruption of their traditional ways of life.
While there has been a long history of rightist organizing in the region, the TIPNIS conflict in 2011 gave civic leaders and businessmen a new opportunity to advance their agenda for regional autonomy and undermine the administration of Evo Morales. These conflicts over land and natural resources opened up a new space for regionalists to perform the role of benefactor and protector of TIPNIS protestors, who they now described as “Our Indians.” This is quite ironic considering the fact that lowland elites historically used Indigenous labor on their haciendas and sugarcane plantations, often employing violence as a means to discipline a resistant labor force.
My colleague Nancy Postero (professor of anthropology at UCSD) and I had an opportunity to attend and observe the ways in which the civic leaders and agribusiness elite built strategic alliances with lowland Indigenous communities at the Gran Asamblea para la Democracia. At this popular assembly, or cabildo, civic leaders and regionalists intended to sketch out a political agenda for the lowland region. At the entrance of the asamblea, we watched a ballet dance troupe from Santa Cruz sway to the rhythmic beats of the Amazonian sounds. The women were dressed in white t-shirts reading “Cambas Renovadas” or Renewed Cambas (Camba is a term used to describe someone from the lowland region of Bolivia), with the departmental coat of arms with the symbols of the region plastered on their chests.
The male dancers dressed in the white clothes, abarca sandals, and straw hats that are the accepted local symbols of the idealized simple life of the lowland peasant. Swaying along to the festive music, Cruceños (the people of Santa Cruz) carried huge political banners into the stadium: “I voted for autonomy,” and “Rights for All Bolivians.” “We in the lowlands are peaceful, and we love parties,” says the civic representative. Other banners and t-shirts read “Por la Dignidad de los Pueblos Indigenas” (For the Dignity of Indigenous Towns) and “Cruceños defendamos Los TIPNIS y la Democracia” (Cruceños, defend the TIPNIS and Democracy).
We made our way to the VIP section of the of the Gran Asamblea. Hip hop music blasted from two large speakers. When Rubén Costas, the indicted governor of Santa Cruz and rival of Evo Morales, entered the stadium, the crowd went wild. He walked the entire field, in a Chavez-like moment of “embodied” popular democracy, greeting everyone with a wave or a handshake. As the crowd chanted “RU-BEN, RU-BEN!,” he held up a small baby wrapped in the flag of Santa Cruz. The flag has become a symbol of regional citizenship, imagined as more powerful than national identity.
The most fascinating part of this Gran Asamblea para Democracia was when the civic members staged the Indigenous representative from the TIPNIS struggle as a symbol of their regional battles for “democracy.” The representative was José Antezana, a young man in his late thirties who carried a large flag with the emblem of TIPNIS, the patujú flower. At first a little anxious and unsteady on his feet, he gained confidence as he spoke. “Buenas Noches, Santa Cruz:”
“I am here, in this assembly, as a leader of my people. We have come as citizens to demand respect for democracy. . . . I am here to tell you the truth about what is happening today in our Indigenous lands and also in the national park. It is the right and obligation of all of us Bolivians to defend this national park so that they do not destroy it with the highway the government wants to construct.”
The crowd broke out into an uncontrollable whistling and clapping. They chanted “COCA NO! TIPNIS YES!” Antezana fervently demanded justice for the nine deaths the TIPNIS marchers suffered on the marches to La Paz, and for the ways the government was trying to divide the lowland Indigenous movement. Antezana continued:
“Now our brothers are persecuted by the law, for thinking differently, for not sharing the politics of this government that only wants to divide us with bribes, and outboard motors, buying the consciousness of our brothers, but we are going to defend this territory. I assure you, brothers, the highway is not going to pass through TIPNIS even if the government insists! This territory belongs to us, it is our right, we have legal title!”
The assembly continued with many other speakers from different sectors—youth, labor, and neighborhood associations. Many referred back to the TIPNIS issue, thanking their “Indigenous brothers” for defending the “lungs of the country.” “We are here,” said one speaker, summing up this new alliance, “to defend the environment and the persecuted.”
Postero and I have been trying to make sense of these new strategic alliances. How could a group of people who historically used lowland Indigenous labor on their plantations now suddenly in 2012 claim to be working alongside them? Why and how did Indigenous peoples buy into this rightwing commoditization of their long and complicated histories and struggles? In a recent paper, we wrote about this as part and parcel of the new flexibility and mobility of “indigeneity.”
As Morales has reshaped a state (to include and incorporate Indigenous peoples), whites and mestizos feel very much on the margins of this kind of plurinational citizenship. In order to fit into this state and assert rights to lands, to resources, the traditional elites have had to costume themselves in Indigenous garb (Fabricant and Postero 2013). While historically, they used song, dance, and Indigenous traditions in order to stake claims, today, they must wholly embrace lowland Indigenous communities as “Our Indians” in order to undermine Morales.
Our article, then, queries the dangers of using and/or coopting indigeneity for regional and rightwing agendas of natural resource extraction and exploitation. As ideas of indigeneity are made increasingly malleable, they can be literally ripped from their political and economic context and meaning, making them empty signifiers. The Bolivian case points toward some of the dangers inherent in these kinds of empty signifiers. For these performances and strategic alliances have the power to truncate the long histories of uneven access to means of production and to resource wealth, they simply provide justification for any group to claim rights to “their natives” (Babb 2004) and advance an agenda that continues to disrupt Indigenous communities and livelihoods and ultimately impoverish resource-rich regions.
Nicole Fabricant is assistant professor of anthropology at Towson University. Her book, Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle Over Land is now available from the University of North Carolina Press.
Babb, Florence, 2004. “Recycled Sandalistas: From Revolution to Resorts in the New Nicaragua,” American Anthropologist 106(3):541-555.
Fabricant, Nicole, and Nancy Postero, 2013. “Performing the Wounded Indian: A New Platform for Democracy and Human Rights in Bolivia’s Autonomy Movement” submitted to Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power (Under consideration for Publication).
Friedman-Rudovsky, Jean, 2012. “In Bolivia, A Battle over a Highway and a Way of Life.” [Electronic Document, accessed on February 1, 2013]
-  This highway is part of a Brazilian-led effort called IIRSA, or the Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America, a vast network of 531 mega-projects including hydroelectric dams, highways, bridges, and electrical power systems that seeks to propel the continent into the twenty-first century (see Friedman-Rudovsky 2012). ↩
-  Evo Morales initially called for radical changes undoing a long history of neoliberal policies and incorporating the majority Indigenous population of Bolivia into new forms of state-making. Due to their dependency upon an agroindustrial model of development, businessmen and civic leaders in the lowland region joined forces to stand against Morales’s “New Bolivia” and call for regional autonomy where departments would have control over resource wealth. Several civic leaders had even been linked to an assassination attempt in 2009. ↩
-  Ruben Costa is the governor of Santa Cruz, one of the leaders of the autonomy movement, and has been indicted by Morales for misuse of government funds. ↩
-  This has to do with the fact that there are many coca growers and producers in this area of the lowlands. Coca growers are often highland migrants (not lowland Indians) and so their statement of “Coca No, TIPNIS Sí” has some racialized connotations that distinguish between highland and lowland Indians. ↩
-  On September 28, 2011, Morales sent 500 federal police using tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons to quell a TIPNIS protest. There has been no official reporting on the exact number of dead and wounded. ↩