Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Voice in the Village: Indigenous Peoples Contest Globalization in Bolivia

Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Voice in the Village: Indigenous Peoples Contest Globalization in Bolivia

Article excerpt

The close of the twentieth century saw the unexpected rise of an indigenous peoples' rights movement in Latin America and worldwide, contesting 500 years of oppression and the emerging challenges of globalization. By the turn of the millennium, indigenous rights campaigns had gained a voice in local, national, and international political arenas. Yet the legacies of oppression and the pressures of globalization continue, and inclusion has translated only partially into empowerment. Now we must ask when and how indigenous peoples gain influence over the development processes that threaten their lands, cultures, and livelihoods.

Bolivia provides a good case study in indigenous empowerment, since it is an indigenous majority country whose marginalized population has been struggling for rights in waves since the 1952 Revolution. In the 1990s, Bolivia's indigenous peoples made vast strides in legal recognition, political representation, and local autonomy, and began to contest globalization projects such as internationally sponsored dams and roads. But recently, development crises, internal political divisions, and lack of leverage in key transnational venues have limited the gains achieved by indigenous communities throughout the continent. Thus, the outcome of current indigenous struggles in Bolivia can help us to assess the prospects, potential, and limitations of the critical move from inclusion to empowerment in the era of twenty-first century globalization. After examining an overview of trends in indigenous rights struggles, we will focus on the Bolivian experience.


After centuries of chronic marginalization, indigenous peoples found their voice in the era of globalization. The key to their mobilization was the transnational formation of a pan-indigenous identity, coalitions with global civil society, and a series of appeals to international institutions and grassroots supporters above and below blocked state institutions. As Latin America democratized in the second half of the twentieth century, some governments became receptive to contestation. But the 1990s were also the peak of neoliberalism, in which globalization was a double-edged sword for indigenous peoples. At the same time that globalization challenged indigenous livelihoods and cultures, it also provided new tools for political mobilization and self-defense.

The threats and challenges of globalization included the expansion of state power, economic development, and cultural domination. Throughout the Amazon Basin, in Colombia, and in the Sandinista conflict with Nicaragua's Miskitos ethnic group, indigenous peoples have been displaced and persecuted by the militarization of national borders and manipulation by rebel groups. In some areas, this security crisis overlaps with cultural nation building that seeks forced assimilation through the suppression of native languages, religions, and family life.

In Latin America, North America, and Asia alike, tribal groups are threatened by several dynamics of economic development: construction of infrastructure such as dams and roads by international agencies, resource extraction by transnational corporations, loss of collective lands to privatization, and incursions by impoverished neighbors displaced by national development and globalization. In the latter scenario, tribal peoples are often vulnerable to physical abuse by police, military, and paramilitary forces enforcing national development plans, protecting transnational projects, or simply executing the orders of local elites. Mexico's Zapatista uprising reflects this pattern acutely: it was mounted on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994 in response to the associated privatization of historical collective land rights for tribal communities.

In response to these challenges, indigenous peoples have mobilized for their rights and achieved an unexpected impact, especially in Latin America. …

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