Homogenous space or culturally textured landscapes? Clashing perspectives on indigenous territory in plurinational Bolivia

Authors: Carwil Bjork-James*, Vanderbilt University
Topics: Indigenous Peoples, Development, Political Geography
Keywords: Bolivia, territoriality, indigenous people, extractivism, state
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Astor Ballroom II, Astor, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


After leading a bold experiment in redefining relations between state and indigenous people, and economy and environment, the government of Evo Morales has taken a sharp turn away from the ethno-ecological radicalism it once vocally embraced. In its place, the country has pursued an extractive but redistributive economic model built on the export of primary commodities, which requires new intrusion into the indigenous territories it so recently promised increased autonomy. Accordingly, the government has rhetorically shifted from a pluralistic to a unitary Bolivian nationalism and proposed a developmental vision that emphasizes “integration” and vertebral connection of a “homogenous” Bolivian territory in which all regions are available as sources of resources and linked to circuits of state services. This paper considers this dramatic turn (and the two competing visions of territory involved) as aspects of a global conversation about the nature of territory and the role of the state in realizing those visions.

“Modern [state] territoriality had been developed to control and manage natural resources, emphasizing simplification, homogenization, efficiency, and scientific legibility” (Vaccardo, Dawson, and Zanotti 5). Territory is also a central aspect of the claims made by indigenous and other traditional peoples to autonomy and self-determination, which have increasingly won national and international recognition. These claims are typically intertwined with ecology, cosmology, sense of place, traditional use, and cultural continuity. The experience of actually existing plurinationalism in Bolivia poses the question of whether the state can ever be a neutral arbiter between these conflicting territorialities.

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