"Without land there is no life"

By Celia Aldana and Chris Hufstader
Elba Flores of the Center for Legal Studies and Social Research.

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The following text is excerpted from an interview conducted in 2007.

"In the past, indigenous people, especially those from the lowlands in Bolivia, lived in [conditions of] slavery, without any knowledge of their rights. This was mostly in the era of the rubber boom, when their ancestral lands were taken from them and they were forced to work in the rubber fields. Later on, during the era of the creation of large ranch estates, or haciendas, they also worked 14-plus-hour days, were whipped, and died trying to escape. Some of them were able to escape and hide out in inhospitable lands with little water. But in these places they were able to maintain their culture, like in the case of the Chiquitanos of Lomerio.

"The law in Bolivia, as well as the constitution, didn't recognize their rights. For example: The Agrarian Reform law of 1953 referred to them as forest people living like savages and required them to have a legal guardian in order to gain access to land. The concept of indigenous identity was totally unrecognized. The state, which was motivated by mono-cultural, integrationist, and colonialist ambitions, failed to recognize the indigenous people. To gain access to lands they were required to form a peasant union. Then they could get individual parcels of land of 50 hectares (about 124 acres) per family, which ignored the collective vision of land tenure of the indigenous people. Up until the 1980s, indigenous people were prohibited from walking on the sidewalks. They were referred to by the derogatory term, paicos.

"So they decided to organize themselves as an indigenous community starting in 1985, to demand their rights. Foremost were the right to dignity, and the right to their land. That was fundamental to them—as they said, 'without land there is no life.' They said that their land was the key to life for the indigenous people, and that it would allow them to recuperate and once again value their cultural identity. In 1990 the indigenous movement convened an historic march in Bolivia, called the First Indigenous March for Land and Dignity. This marked the movement's emergence from the underground, to make its demands known. And the Chiquitanos participated in this.

"The Chiquitano people have consolidated their territory, and have gone from being excluded by the state to being recognized by it. Now the local authorities treat them equally. There is still some discrimination, but now indigenous people occupy local positions of power. Never before were there indigenous mayors; now there are. There are senators, representatives in the constitutional assembly, and congressional representatives. It's not enough, but there has been some progress. For example, in the constitutional assembly there are four indigenous members, two of whom are Chiquitanos. There is more work to be done, but now the lowland indigenous people are represented. That, along with the consolidation of their territory, gives them more security; they can access more local power and exercise their rights.

The era of slavery

"In 1889, indigenous people from all over the country were taken to work on rubber plantations. The Tacana Indians were taken from north of La Paz to the rubber forests. And here in Santa Cruz the indigenous people were captured and taken. They tell stories of how they'd be invited to big parties, where they'd be given alcohol and told that they should go work the rubber, that there was a boom and that they'd be paid well. Some accepted and went. Others went as indentured workers. On their way to the barracks they weren't given anything to eat, some even died in jaguar attacks.

"Men and women worked there, some as young as 12. They tell stories of how they were forced into couples to have children to satisfy the need for workers. They were given one piece of clothing to use year round and they worked all day long. If they didn't come back with what the boss had ordered they would be whipped by the foreman. Many died trying to escape. There is one place everyone calls 'the tragedy,' because an entire family of indigenous people who attempted to escape was killed there.

"After the rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th century, the estates, known as haciendas, became the new development model in the country. But they were very traditional, feudal style haciendas, where everyone worked for the owner. They produced sugar cane and yucca, which was taken from the communities and sent to Santa Cruz to be sold on the national market. Indigenous people worked 15-, 16-hour days, they were whipped, and there was forced labor. There was also indentured servitude in which you were hired and your basic needs were provided for. They gave you clothes and you could have dried meat, lard, and salt. They wrote down in a book everything you took and at the end of the year the owner balanced the books. Many couldn't read or write, but they were told, for example, 'your work has earned you 100 pesos, but you spent 200 pesos at the company store and so you owe me 100 pesos.' So they'd have to stay and work another year for free—you'd never work off your debts.

"When the Agrarian Reform Law was passed in 1953, stating that land belonged to the people who worked on it, there was an article of the law that was very important to the indigenous people: It prohibited forced labor and slavery. In the western highlands the indigenous people took over the haciendas and the law was applied quickly. But in the eastern lowlands it was a long time before the law was applied. It wasn't until 1965 that people started leaving the haciendas and some owners refused to let the workers go saying that they were indebted to them. So the government had to intervene and it wasn't until nearly 1970 that they were able to form new communities and assert their identity."