Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

BOLIVIA: Indigenous Demands Are Justified, Says UN Rapporteur

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 8 2005 (IPS) - Bolivia’s current political crisis is largely the result of the marginalisation of the country’s indigenous people, who are rightfully demanding the nationalisation of the country’s natural resources and reforms of the state to recognise the country’s true multicultural nature, a United Nations authority on indigenous people said in an interview with IPS Wednesday.

"I hope the present crisis, whose origins lie in the just causes of indigenous people, is resolved through dialogue and within the institutions" of democracy, said Roberto Stavenhagen, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.

Stavenhagen says the problems Bolivia is facing indicate that "the model of the unicultural state is falling apart" in that country and others where a majority of the population is indigenous, like Ecuador and Guatemala.

The special rapporteur, who lives much of the year in Mexico, adamantly dismissed the suggestion by U.S. intelligence reports that indigenous groups in Latin America might be considered a destabilising political and social force.

The resignation of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, presented Monday but not yet accepted by Congress, has left the Andean nation in a power vacuum, but has failed to calm the social unrest that has dragged on for over two weeks.

Seventy percent of Bolivia’s population of 9.2 million live below the poverty line, and a similar proportion are indigenous.

The indigenous movement, trade unions and campesino groups are demanding a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution in order to grant the country’s 36 indigenous groups the right to self-determination and a greater role in decision-making.

The movement is also calling for the nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural gas – the second-largest reserves in South America after Venezuela’s – in a country where a mere three percent of urban homes have household gas, according to the latest census.

At the same time, a powerful business and landowner movement pressing for greater regional autonomy in the wealthy eastern provinces of Bolivia is calling for a referendum that would grant greater local control over the country’s natural gas, which is concentrated in that region.

The indigenous, labour and campesino movement is opposed to the eastern provinces’ demand for regional autonomy.

"The origins of the instability lie in neoliberal policies, not in the indigenous movements demanding respect for their rights," argued Stavenhagen.

IPS: Political movements in favour of indigenous rights have been accused of acting with extreme radicalism and of pushing the country to the verge of an internal conflict. Do you believe indigenous people, who comprise a majority of the Bolivian population, are acting in an irresponsible or intransigent manner?

ROBERTO STAVENHAGEN: In Bolivia the situation is very complex. But it is clear that the participation of indigenous people, who have been neglected for centuries, is growing and that they are playing a central role in what is happening in the country today.

What I am seeing is that they are very well organised and that they are now rightly demanding greater participation in national affairs, and not just setting forth a few specific social demands. They are legitimately insisting that they be taken into account. I hope they are listened to, and that this is resolved within the framework of the democratic system.

IPS: The institutions of democracy in Bolivia are creaking under the weight of the crisis. Will they be able to deal with it?

RS: What we have in many of the countries with a major indigenous presence are national states created to cater to the interests of dominant sectors of society. But what the crises in Bolivia and Ecuador (where the president was removed in April) demonstrate is that the unicultural state is falling apart, because indigenous people are legitimately demanding to be taken into consideration.

States must be reformed, based on new cultural models, which will take a long time.

IPS: Do positions like the demand for the outright nationalisation of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons contribute to the search for negotiated solutions?

RS: The indigenous movement has taken some radical stances, but most politicians and economic authorities have too. I believe it is legitimate for indigenous people to demand the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, because they have not benefited from the wealth.

However, I hope that all of the forces have enough good sense to confront the dangers besetting Bolivia and to engage in dialogue.

IPS: The "Global Trends 2020 -Mapping the Global Future" report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council depicts indigenous movements as a threat to stability and insinuates that they could resort to violence.

RS: We are already familiar with the quality of these reports and the incompetence of U.S. intelligence bodies, which were completely mistaken in the case of Iraq when they claimed that there were weapons of mass destruction.

But above and beyond this, it is necessary to state that the instability that some countries in Latin America are experiencing, especially the Andean countries, has its origins precisely in the United States and its imposition of neoliberal prescriptions.

It is absurd to accuse indigenous people of causing instability, after they have suffered so much because of the policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are controlled by the United States. What we are seeing is the mobilisation of indigenous people, but that is a consequence of their interest in participating, and their demand that their rights be respected.

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