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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.

“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.”