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A question of autonomy on Bolivia's high plains

Indigenous communities must decide if they want to govern themselves according to cultural traditions.

Bolivian indigenous peoples take a break from a march in favor of a referendum vote to approve a new constitution, Ayo Ayo, Oct. 17, 2008. The constitution approved this year gives indigenous communities rights to self-government. (Gaston Brito/Reuters)

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.