Back in 2006, two encounters with grassroots change processes shaped a lot of what I have written ever since. The first was with the fishing communities of Tikamgarh – I went back to see them again in 2016 and made this video. The other was the Chiquitano indigenous group in Bolivia, a second inspiring story in which grassroots mobilization took them from a situation of apartheid/semi feudal servitude to winning a million hectares of land after Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first ever indigenous president in 2006. You can read that story here.
The Chiquitanos’ story brought home to me a number of key themes: among them, the importance of identity; path dependence (aka one thing leads to another); the interplay between political organization and ‘unruly’ protest; the central role of alliances (eg with highland indigenous groups) and of accidents (after the government sacked thousands of tin miners, some of them moved to Chiquitania and started to help organize).
Last month, I went back, with some trepidation, to find out what has happened since they got the land. That involved a 5 hour drive to the Chiquitano capital of Concepción from the nearest city, Santa Cruz, first through vast flat plains full of agribusiness (soya, sorghum, sunflowers and cattle) and dotted with giant grain siloes. Then we started to hit hills and forests (a brief encounter with a tarantula, a toucan tumbling overhead) and entered Chiquitano territory: little towns of red tiled roofs, wood pillared colonades and beautiful churches, with the trademark Chiquitano features of giant carved tree trunks and traditional designs in white and rusty brown.
I sat down with two of the leaders I interviewed in 2006, Don Carlos Cuasase, a former deputy and mayor of Concepción, and Doña Jeronima Quiviquivi, a grassroots activist.
On the current situation:
Doña Jeronima: In 2007 we got the license for our lands, we were very content. We had somewhere safe to work with our children and grandchildren. It cost us deaths to get that and we have to defend it. The TCO (Tierra Comunitario de Origen/ Original Community Land) is a treasure. But there were things we needed on top of land – schools, healthcare for pregnant women; the houses are full of mosquitoes. And the young people need communications – there’s no signal anywhere outside Concepcion – all we have is one old landline for the whole village. But at least we have our first students at university now.
Don Carlos: Of course our grandchildren live better now than we did. But they have a different development, we have to guarantee that they have books, can go to university. Another problem is social – the deforestation by loggers and mining companies. They are eating our trees, and the authorities do nothing because the officials are paid off by the companies. They also buy off communities and leaders to divide us. We seize some tractors from the loggers, and have to give them to the authorities who just give them back to the companies. Then we seize the same tractors all over again. And then they accuse us of damaging the tractors and take our leders to court – 40 of us face proceedings at the moment. There is fear now.
Don Carlos: To the world outside the government’s discourse is beautiful; we must respect madre tierra! But it’s not really like that. We are not treated equally to the highland peoples and if we don’t control our territories, the colonos (squatters) will come in. The colonos are killing madre tierra.
Doña Jeronima: All those people from the highlands want to overwhelm us. They come with all the papers ready to take our land. [which means the Agrarian Reform ministry, INRA, is supporting them].
Back in Santa Cruz, I interviewed Bienvenido Zacu, an indigenous leader who served as a Vice Minister in Evo Morales’ first government.
‘The first term we made progress, got land titles. I had a team of 30 professionals in the ministry working on it. But then came the deals with the transnationals, the government became more extractivist. There’s doublespeak here – ‘we must defend the madre tierra’, just as they are giving it to the oil companies.
It all changed after the 2011 Tipnis conflict. We were organized then, united. But we shamed the government in front of the world. The government responded by promoting divisions, buying off leaders and organizations with pick up trucks and cash.’
What did I make of all this? It seems to me that what was being described is a battle of logics: extractivism (the government needs natural resource revenues to fund essential services, transform the country and maintain popularity); party politics (the lowland Indians have few votes, so count for little in electoral politics); indigenous autonomy (still a powerful narrative); modernity and materialism (also powerful, including among the Chiquitanos, as the market economy with its school fees and newly-acquired desires for cool stuff, penetrates ever deeper).
I was also struck by the growing importance of connectivity (broadband, phone signal, roads, cheap Chinese motorbikes) in building lives, and trying to stop the young people from giving up and leaving for the city – always likely once they start going to secondary school or university. As one villager said ‘They went to study in the town and they didn’t want to come back to the darkness’.
It may feel like the Chiquitanos have run out of political road, but one indigenous organizer Hernan Avila Montaño was more upbeat: ‘In the long run, indigenous movements have political agency greater than anything in the past. They won’t go away. Their communities are still there, in spite of everything! They’re incredibly resilient.’ Seems like, once again, we are back to Gramsci and ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’
And here’s me downloading in the middle of all this, a 2 minute video