RED Conversations Series –Indigenous struggle for Autonomy and Territorial Rights in Bolivia

Ashish Kothari interviews Mirna Inturias and Iokine Rodriguez, two activist researchers who have been working with the Monkox indigenous people of Lomerio, Bolivia. The Monkox community has been at the forefront of a struggle for territorial rights and autonomy, so as to advance a vision of development which guarantees the sustainability of their natural resources.

Ashish Kothari: Thanks a lot, Mirna and Iokine, for taking the time to talk with REDWeb about your work in Bolivia. Both of you have been involved with a community, there, which has been trying to gain its autonomy, and also work towards transformations in its economic, political, social and cultural life. Could you tell us where this effort finds itself currently and also describe the kind of transformation taking place?

Mirna Inturias: We’ve been working with an indigenous nation called the Monkox of Lomerio, settled in the lowlands of Bolivia. Over the years, they have been very resolutely focused in their struggle for territorial rights, and in 2006 they gained rights over their land of 2060 hectares. Now, they have intiated a struggle towards obtaining political autonomy over their territories.

AK: And, why exactly have they been fighting for autonomy?

MI: The reason they are fighting for autonomy is that the Monkox indigenous nation has a slogan ingrained in their culture- the search for freedom. And, political autonomy as well as social self-determination would allow them to get further in that search. Their struggle is a historical fight for freedom. The possibility of gaining political autonomy would allow them to develop their own visions of development, political and social organizations, and the possibility of defining their own future.  So, this historical fight for self-determination is very much a representation of the Monkox people’s indigenous struggle for the maintenance of their cultural integrity

AK: Is this also because they feel that the notion of development or the way in which the Bolivian state deals with them or engages them politically and economically is inherently flawed, and so they are determined to gain an autonomous status to change this situation, or is it something else? 

MI: What the indigenous people really want is to develop an inter-cultural relationship with the state. In order to get there you need to have some conditions of equality because currently there are many disparities in power that don’t allow those inter-cultural relations to be equitable. And the only way to move forward is to have some conditions that can strengthen their own political and governance structures as well as their own economic systems. This also has to be supplemented by strengthening their own culture, as well as their own ways of thinking about forms of development. Only these steps would allow them to establish links and bridges with the state, and with other cultures with which they have to engage in daily basis. 

Iokine Rodriguez (L) and Mirna Inturias (M) at the Bir ACKnowl-EJ conference in Himachal Pradesh, India. Pic. Ashish Kothari

Iokine Rodriguez: We often think that an indigenous community should be able to start building inter-cultural relations with other communities and the state within the existing parameters. But, that is a complete misconception. The current conditions just don’t give indigenous people the equality of power in the dialogue. We need to create the conditions in which a long term complex dialogue could be developed between the state and the indigenous peoples.

AK: And, what about the economic system? Is the current economic system such that it benefits the Monkox people or is it a problem, and they want to define and design their own economic path?

MI: The economic system has historically been parasitic towards the indigenous people’s ways of life and being. The market has always set the rules of negotiations and they have no control over that process. That is why they need to develop new economic systems on their own. Following which they can develop new and dependable relationships with others. Ultimately, strengthening their own systems is crucial to be able to do it in a more equitable way. Otherwise, the current forms of injustices will continue to perpetuate over time.

AK: Now that there is a recognition of autonomy by the state, what are the key challenges that the community/indigenous people face in taking forward their vision?

MI: The first challenge that the Monkox nation faces is to strengthen its own organization, CICOL (Indigenous Community of the Original People of Lomerio). Then they have to strengthen CICOL’s relationship with other communities. Following which they need to develop new governance systems which would guarantee the sustainability of their natural resources, given their enormous reliance on the natural resources for their livelihoods. Finally, based on these steps they need to develop a long term vision for their society.

AK: It is quite apparent that the Moncox people have already taken some bold steps towards autonomy, and hopefully the state will recognize their autonomy. But, once it is recognized what are the key challenges that the community will face in taking forward its vision.

MI: There are two types of challenges – some are internal and others are external. The internal challenges are to strengthen the decision making procedures as well as the organization of relationship with all the communities. The Moncox people also need to overcome the resistance to change that still remains within the territory. There are some old hierarchies, families that don’t completely agree with the territorial Monkox autonomy that CICOL is trying to implement. They would prefer another form of autonomy which would align it more into traditional national politics. And the other challenge is to develop and start thinking of new models of education that are more truly inter-cultural and that take into account their own culture and ways of being.

A workshop on “good leadership” attended by the community elders as well as the youth in Lomerio.

IR: The community also needs to think about and develop economic systems that again are more rooted in their own cultural views. Externally, it needs to face the challenge of the pressures exercised by the outside world that are still present in the territory – extractive industries and the timber companies that have access to their resources. They also need to deal with the challenges of  community forestry management, which is legitimate and legal but is still following the market oriented mono-cultural trends that create tensions with the move towards a more plural and inter-cultural way of managing indigenous territories.

AK: Has the move towards a leftist revolutionary government in Bolivia and in some other countries in Latin America helped this process of autonomy or has it created new challenges?

MI: There is a difference between the first stage of the revolutionary process and a current one, a more recent one. In the first stage, many necessary steps were successfully taken – the first one being the inclusion of the right to autonomy in the constitutional framework. Indigenous people became politically more visible and were given access to spaces of participation in constitutional reforms and political systems. Their genuine demands for rights advanced significantly. But, in the more recent times, the government has focused very aggressively on a violent form of development on extractive industries, which is not allowing any space for dialogue, and is debilitating the indigenous movements and demoralising it.

Monkox community participating in a march against extractive pressures in Lomerio.

AK: That certainly is a troubing situation. What role have you played in understanding and addressing this situation?

IR: We’ve been working in Lomerio since 2013in the capacity of activist-researchers. We don’t believe in research for the sake of collecting information. We believe we can play  a role supporting the struggle of communities for great social and environmental justice and also creating spaces for reflection on socio-political and economic issues, which is what we have been doing with the Monkox people in Lomerio.  We’re using our research to help them create a space to think through  the challenges they face in the management of their territories  and in their struggle for autonomy, and what are the visions they can create towards their future? Often when indigenous people and movements are in their struggle, they don’t have the time to stop and think because of the day to day demands of their struggle. Research is  a good way of creating that space. And we hope that we have been contributing to that, and also advancing towards greater justice in the world, just by our little contribution to Lomerio.

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Iokiñe Rodríguez is a Venezuelan sociologist based at the School of International Development (DEV), University of East Anglia in the UK. She specializes in local environmental knowledge and conflict transformation in Latin America using participatory action-research. Iokine has worked in Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia building local and institutional capacity to transform environmental conflicts. Her work on environmental conflict transformation focuses on issues of local history, local knowledge, power, environmental justice, equity and intercultural dialogue.  Iokine is a co-founder of Grupo Confluencias.

Mirna Inturias is a social researcher who specializes in indigenous issues, identity and interculturality, indigenous education and transformation of environmental conflicts. She has carried out research on environmental conflicts in protected areas and indigenous territories in the Bolivian Oriente, Chaco and Amazon. Mirna is a founding member of Grupo Confluencias and is associated with various networks of reflection and research on environmental conflicts in Latina America. She is a lecturer at the Nur University, Bolivia.

Ashish Kothari is a co-founder of Kalpavriksh.

This interview was transcribed by Shrishtee Bajpai of Kalpavriksh.

The interviews published in the RED Conversation series are not based on an exact transcription of the recorded interviews. They are an approximation based on an interpretation as well as a summation of the original interview. To view the recorded interview, click on the links below:

https://youtu.be/spNi8t9FaWA (part 1) 
https://youtu.be/Ak92wlFX838 (part 2) 

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