SWM 2015: Bolivia - Promoting indigenous participation in Santa Cruz de la Sierra

Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)

Case study by Vanessa Mazzei

Bolivia has some of the highest levels of poverty in South America, and it also stands out as one of the most culturally diverse countries in the region with the highest percentage of indigenous people in Latin America – an estimated 62 per cent of the population. Yet indigenous communities have nevertheless struggled historically to secure equality. In this regard, constitutional reforms in 2004 acknowledging the ‘multi-ethnic and multicultural’ nature of the Republic therefore represented a milestone for the community, particularly its recognition of their right to full and effective political participation.

Helping with the implementation of these reforms has been the primary focus of organizations such as Apoyo Para el Campesino-Indigena del Oriente Boliviano (APCOB). In recent years the government, while encouraging indigenous participation in civil society in rural areas, has to some extent overlooked the phenomenon of rising migration to cities. The department where this shortcoming has been most evident is that of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which has the highest concentration of urban indigenous inhabitants in the country. This is the main reason why the city was chosen for the UN Democracy Fund-sponsored project ‘Nunca Nos Fuimos: We Never Left’, with the aim of promoting greater visibility, political participation and representation of indigenous people in the city.

Despite their increasing presence in Bolivia’s cities, indigenous communities are not always considered part of the urban fabric. One issue that has contributed to this situation is the lack of reliable data, creating significant barriers to developing effective programmes that could make a significant difference. Consequently, the first phase of the project focused on the collection of quantitative and qualitative data, culminating in the launch of a book in October 2014. The subsequent distribution of this data among indigenous leaders, government representatives and academic institutions has had a very positive impact on the community’s advocacy and coordination.

A key aspect of indigenous urban communities is their sheer variety, with each group having their own distinct organizational structures, skills, social connections and ways of occupying urban space. Learning about these is key to developing appropriate responses. Nevertheless, one common factor is that the pursuit of better living conditions drives much migration to urban areas, as well as the desire to give more visibility to the indigenous movement. In urban centres there are more possibilities of appealing to public opinion and institutions, of forming alliances and filing lawsuits.

It is also very important that indigenous communities are able to maintain their culture and identity in an urban context, including their organizational forms, specific customs, original languages and traditional crafts, as well as their rights to collectively owned lands. The project therefore also focused on strengthening associations and networks among these communities, creating a forum for shared dialogue and decision-making. This was one of the most significant milestones of the project, with the launch of two major events that were attended by hundreds of people. This helped raise awareness of indigenous peoples’ issues among a wide range of stakeholders, including local authorities, government officials, NGOs, journalists and the general public.

The project also focused on strengthening capacity in other areas, with training for indigenous leaders on national law, citizenship and governance. In addition, a proposal summarizing the aspirations of the different urban indigenous communities was developed to be included in the Municipal Charter of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. After a consultation between the population and their representatives took place, lawyers completed a constitutional review and finalized the document. Other activities include awareness-raising initiatives among the general population about the challenges these communities experience, including the distribution of a documentary and a touring photographic exhibition, ‘Being Indigenous in the City’, that has received around 15,000 visitors. Forums, websites and active social networking have also been implemented to engage younger generations.

An important date for APCOB and the urban indigenous people of Santa Cruz de la Sierra will be August 2015, when the Autonomy Commission of the City Council will submit the Municipal Charter, a document which will include the indigenous peoples’ proposal. This document will then undergo constitutional review and, if approved, will be submitted to referendum. APCOB’s work played an important role in influencing political representatives to include these provisions – an important step forward for indigenous peoples’ rights in Bolivia’s cities.

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.

Photo: Bolivian schoolchildren learning about indigenous culture

Credit; APCOB

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Date: 11/06/2015




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015
Indigenous Peoples

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