A question of autonomy on Bolivia's high plains

JESUS DE MACHACA, Bolivia — On Bolivia’s high plains, two hours outside of La Paz, the municipality of Jesus de Machaca is preparing to make history.

On Sunday, Jesus de Machaca and 11 other indigenous municipalities will decide whether they want to govern themselves according to traditions that have been relegated to the margins of Bolivian politics for hundreds of years.

A "yes" vote would change many things for the community of about 15,000 Aymara Indians. The residents would control the renewable natural resources on their land, use traditional local courts to deal with crime and legal disputes, appoint community leaders and hold elections according to their customs, and gain more control over how the community uses money from the state. A "no" vote means business as usual.

Bolivia indigenous population didn't obtain full suffrage until 1952. Up until then, many worked as serfs on large farms owned by the country’s elite. Under the presidency of Aymara Indian Evo Morales, the consistently marginalized indigenous peoples have taken a central role in government for the first time since colonization in the 1500s. Morales has emphasized that Bolivia is multi-national state, made up of peoples who have the right to preserve their culture.

Indigenous autonomy is central to this concept, because it officially recognizes indigenous communities' rights to self-government based in their cultural traditions.

But is autonomy in Jesus de Machaca's best interest? Community leaders, who heavily influence their followers’ votes, are divided. “There are authorities who think autonomy is a step back and self-marginalizing,” said Rene Poma, a leader in Chama, a town within Jesus de Machaca. But he says others see it as a chance to recapture a culture and unity that colonialism stripped away over hundreds of years.

The municipality of Jesus de Machaca stretches over 350 square miles in the department of La Paz. Its capital city is also called Jesus de Machaca. The people live by farming, and the landscape of tilled fields, small mud houses and stone walls is a picture that has changed little in hundreds of years.

The altiplano, or high plain of Bolivia, is a fierce place to make a life. The sun burns during the day, the temperature can drop below freezing at night and winds rush over the vast, flat landscape. The people of Jesus de Machaca raise cows, llama and sheep, and sow crops including potatoes and corn.

Members of the community fulfill leadership positions for a year at a time. Poma, 54, spent many years working in La Paz, but has returned to Chama, his ancestral town, to serve an important traditional roll as the Mallku Orignario. His duties include resolving community disputes and advocating for the community within the municipality.

Poma has mixed feelings on autonomy. On the one hand, Jesus de Machaca currently has to distribute income from the state according to laws that apply to all municipalities. With autonomy, resources could be better directed to serve the needs of the community, with a focus on investment in agriculture, Poma said.

“Right now, as mayor, the municipal law has me trapped," said Adrian Aspi Cosme, mayor of Jesus de Machaca. "It says Adrian, 20 percent for health, 10 percent for education, 25 percent for functional costs. It doesn’t let me manage the money. If I want to put 50 percent toward education, the law doesn’t permit me to.”

But he also sees the disadvantages.

The traditional Aymara culture has been eroded by hundreds of years of colonization. “There’s a loss of community values like solidarity and reciprocity,” Poma said. “Individualism has come.” Along with cracks in cultural values that will challenge autonomy, the economy worries Poma. “We don’t have economic autonomy, so we’re always subject to the resources the state gives us.”

Poma describes Jesus de Machaca as one of the poorest regions of the altiplano, where families that live off agriculture and by raising animals have an average income of less than $100 a month. “An enterprising and innovative culture hasn’t been developed in the communities, so there’s not productive, sustainable employment for the whole area,” Poma said. “It generates huge migrations toward the cities, especially of young people. That will be a huge challenge for the new autonomy to change.”

Esteban Sanjines directs programs in the altiplano for Fundacion Tierra, an NGO that deals with land reform and use in Bolivia. Sanjines says that Jesus de Machaca is an unusual case in terms of altiplano communities, because it was never incorporated into a hacienda.

Because this colonial system affected Jesus de Machaca less than many of its neighbors, its traditional internal government and land use stayed somewhat intact. It became the country’s first indigenous municipality in 2002, and this continuity has allowed the municipality to move quickly toward autonomy under the new constitution.

Sanjines notes that the concept of indigenous autonomy is so new that nearly every detail of how it will function still needs to be interpreted from the constitution into law. This undertaking will begin when Bolivia’s equivalent of the house and senate reconvene in 2010, after the elections.

If Morales is not re-elected, and if he doesn’t gain a majority in both houses, Sanjines says the process of fleshing into law the details of indigenous autonomy has an uncertain future. If Morales does gain the presidency and both houses, legislation will begin to define how the rights of indigenous autonomy, laid out in the constitution, will take concrete form.

“What Jesus de Machaca would have to confront is how it is going to construct the municipality according to indigenous traditions,” Sanijines said. “How they are going to use indigenous customs to change the internal structure, instead of just changing names, is the big challenge.”