The many nations of Bolivia

Xavier Albo forgot to bring his map of Bolivia, he told delegates at last week's self-government conference held at the High Country Inn. "So I will use my head," he said in heavily-accented English.

Xavier Albo forgot to bring his map of Bolivia, he told delegates at last week’s self-government conference held at the High Country Inn.

“So I will use my head,” he said in heavily-accented English.

These are the Andean highlands, he said while patting his bald and shining scalp. That’s where the majority of the country’s indigenous people – Aymara, Quechua and others – live.

He then pointed to the semi-circle of hair running from the sides of his head across his scraggly beard.

“These are the very forested lowlands,” he said, where many Bolivians of Spanish descent, as well as indigenous people, live in intermixed cities.

The eccentric Albo was a standout at the Building on Success conference last week, a get-together examining the highs and lows of self-government in the Yukon. He was the only international speaker, an expert on the increasingly popular notion of “plurinationalism,” now entrenched in Bolivia’s constitution.

In the last few years, President Evo Morales, a man of Aymara ancestry, pushed through the new legal system. It declares the 10-million-person country a plurinational state, meaning a nation-state with many other recognized nations within it.

The constitution has allowed indigenous populations in the Andean highlands to establish self-government in their traditional territory through referendums. In a country with an indigenous majority, the bold revision of the country’s political structure is touted as an expression of a Bolivian reality – a state built on diversity.

Albo was a consultant for the Bolivian government during the constitutional changes, a researcher with the Centre for Research and Promotion of the Campesino, an indigenous advocacy group.

Originally from Spain, he moved to Bolivia in 1952 and quickly became fascinated by the impracticality and injustice of the Enlightenment era concept of a nation.

“The only nationalism was to build a strong Bolivian nation,” he said, sitting outside of the main conference room last Wednesday. “There was a revolution for that. So nobody would dare say anything but Bolivian nation.”

“Nation meant how to build a big country state.”

Nearly 100 years of war and struggle for independence made Bolivian solidarity a powerful force. This despite a population that retained culture preceding the Spanish conquest.

Around 55 per cent of the country is indigenous, one the highest percentages in the world.

While South America transformed through the effects of modernization, CIA-backed coup d’etats and calls for socialism, the indigenous movement also began sweeping Bolivia’s political agenda.

“The nation issue in the sense of indigenous issues started both in Bolivia and some other countries of Latin America at around the late 1960s and at the beginning of the 1970s,” said Albo.

When the Spanish first arrived in the 16th century, the indigenous people, many of them of Incan descent, described themselves as a nation.

But after centuries of oppression, they were often grouped together as “Indians,” much like in the rest of the Americas.

This began to change in the 1960s, as traditional names began to resurface, like Aymara and Quechua. Foundational documents – Albo compared them to the Together Today for our Children Tomorrow pamphlet that set off modern self-government agreements in Yukon – began appearing in the last 1960s.

“At first, they said these people were crazy,” said Albo.

The standard political science definition is that a nation is strictly related to a state. There are cultural nations – groups of people within a state with similar languages, customs and beliefs – but the state itself must be attached to some kind of homogenous nationalism.

There was a simple yardstick to measure a nation, said Albo. Simply ask someone’s most important identity.

While practical in England or France, this measure didn’t go down so well in the Americas.

“If you ask here, ‘What is your most important identity?’ You can say Canadian or Tutchone,” he said.

The fact that many Bolivians would put their ancient bloodlines before an imposed state identity renders the old concept of nation anachronistic, in Albo’s opinion.

“Nation has this 19th-century meaning of being society’s counterpart of the state in certain ways,” he said. “This cannot be said anymore.”

The growing unity of indigenous people in Bolivia continued for decades, surfacing in certain high-drama political battles. The so-called nations fought for land reform and against neo-liberal economic policies. One of the most notable fights was over the coca plant, the primary ingredient in cocaine.

The US government began sponsoring coca-eradication policies in Bolivia in the 1990s to battle the drug trade. But coca is used as a medicinal plant in traditional indigenous culture, chewed for everything from stomach pain to altitude sickness in the Andes.

The fight to preserve coca fields made Morales, the current president, popular. His rise to the presidency is attributable to his defence of traditional culture.

In the 2005 election, Morales won a majority in the Bolivian assembly. The next year he called for a constitutional assembly, setting off the changes that would make Bolivia plurinational. He faced another election in 2009 over the changes, but won with an even larger majority.

The constitution creates four levels of government – federal, provincial (known as departments in Bolivia), municipal and indigenous. Heavily indigenous regions can call referendums to turn their municipal governments, more akin to counties in less-populated areas, into indigenous governments.

If that road is taken, these municipalities become self-governments and are prescribed new powers outlined in the constitution. They can change farming and land ownership rules according to ancient tradition.

These self-governments can continue to grow if a political consensus emerges, said Albo. But this has not happened yet.

Another major break from the past is the ability of these groups to establish their own judicial systems, he said.

While the method of investigating a crime is the same, the punishment might be different depending on the region.

The process is running smoothly in the Andean mountains. But in the lowlands, where many different ethnic groups live, the process is much spottier.

There are more than 30 indigenous nations in Bolivia, said Albo.

There are 3.5 million Aymara people and 2 million Quechua people, he said.

“But not all of them will come to these autonomous organizations because many of them live in the cities,” he said.

The Yukon’s promotion of self-governments is a different phenomenon than the national soul-searching Bolivia underwent to get to where it is today.

“Yukon will be plurinational one way and Bolivia will be plurinational another way,” said Albo.

But the political changes in both regions share a similar spirit – that any body of law or government must reflect the will and ways of a people to be legitimate.

“The only thing that makes something legal or not is not only written law but the customs,” said Albo.

Contact James Munson at

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