Bolivia: dissent over indigenous identity in census

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales sparked controvery by exlcuding the word mestizo, or mixed-race, as a choice for ethnic identification in the national census now underwayā€”the country’s first since 2001. Morales said that including the choice would only serve to “divide Bolivia,” and pointed out that it had never been used in any previous census. But this census for the first time offers citizens the option of declaring themselves members of one of 40 ethnic groups. Opponents charge that Morales, who has built his political program around indigenous identity, is hoping to use the census results to consolidate power. “I’m not Aymara, I’m not Quechua I’m a mestizo,” read graffiti painted on walls around La Paz.

Interior Minister Carlos Romero said the census would help the government construct the “plurinational state” declared in Morales’ new constitution. And he added that those who do not wish to identify an ethnicity could simply check “Bolivian” on the census form. Bolivians were obliged to stay at home on Nov. 21 to participate, silencing the usual cacophony on the streets of La Paz and other cities in the country of 10 million. More than 60% of Bolivians are said to be of indigenous descent. (AP, AINI, Nov. 21)

But there is also dissent over the census from within Bolivia’s indigenous majority. The National Council of Ayllus and Markas (CONAMAQ), a body of traditional Aymara leaders, presented an amparo or legal petition to the National Institute of Statistics (INE) and its director Ricardo Laruta, charging that the census violates the constitution by not including indigenous autonomous jurisdictions as geographical indicators. “The current constitution refers to the model of a Plurinational Communitarian State; therefore the ayllus, markas and suyos should be recognized,” said CONAMAQ’s David CrispĆ­n, using the Aymara words for commual land-holdings, watersheds and regions.

CrispĆ­n also charged that the census’ choices for indigenous ethnicities are only based on 34 language groups identified in Article 5 of the constitution, without taking into account what he called 16 “original nations” arising from the Aymara and Quechua cultures. “We feel really marginalized, and we will be invisilble for another 10 years,” he said. (CONAMAQ statement, Nov. 15 via Eju!, Santa Cruz)

The survey’s Quesiton 19 provides the choices of ethnicity, including the 34 indigenous groups and Afro-Bolivians. But CONAMAQ leader Rafael Quispe said, “I was discriminated against in this census… Various original nations were marginalized, despite the fact that CONAMAQ presented an amparo charging that these options were not peoples but languages. I am not the only one who was not taken into account; various brothers were not registered because they did not identify with any of the options under Question 19.” (AINI, Nov. 22)

In the Isiboro SĆ©cure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), Samuel PĆ©rez, a leader of the Central of MojeƱo Ethnic Peoples of Beni (CPEM-B), objected to the census’ use of “YurakarĆ©ā€“MojeƱo” as a category, which he called an effort to “make disappear” the MojeƱo-Trinitario and MojeƱo-Ignaciano peoples. He charged that the conflation of the YurakarĆ© and MojeƱo groups was aimed at reducing the power of the indigenous inhabitants of the TIPNIS, which straddles the border of Beni and Cochabamba departments. The YurakarĆ© are in the southern side of the reserve, in Cochabamba, and their lands have been overwhelmed by Aymara and Quechua settlers from the highlands. (AINI, Nov. 23)

There were other conflicts over the census in Cochabamba’s lowlands. At least 60 people were injured Nov. 16 in a clash between police and protesting landowners from the municipality of Colomi who had erected a roadblock. The landowners were demanding a resolution of a long-running demarcation dispute with the neighboring town of Villa Tunari. The new census placed two communities claimed by Colomi under the jurisdiction of Villa Tunariā€”leaving Colomi with less state funding, the protestors feared. Residents also threatened to block the highway linking Cochabamba to Santa Cruz in a similar dispute between the towns of ChimorĆ© and Ivirgarzama before the Ministry of Autonomy sent staff to negotiate a de-escalation. Officials said the trouble had been stirred up by members of the opposition Movimiento Sin Miedo. (Xinhua, Nov. 17; ABI, Nov. 16; ErbolLos Tiempos, Cochabamba, Nov. 15)