Workshop on pluri-nationality in Bolivia and Ecuador: Different perspectives and Janus-faced experiences

By Jonathan Alderman and Britta K. Matthes

On Friday, 12th of January, the ECR/PGR workshop “Pluri-national state, autonomy and ‘good living’/’living well’: Approaches to and reflections on tensions in Bolivia and Ecuador” took place at the University of Bath. The event, supported by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), aimed at bringing together junior academics from different disciplines, who investigate the transformations taking place in Bolivia and Ecuador.

The event was opened with a thought-provoking keynote from Dr Ana Dinerstein, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bath and member of CDS. Her presentation, titled, ‘The Dilemmas of Autonomy in Latin America: on Shaping Absences and Resisting Translation’, focussed on Ana’s argument that the state always ‘translates’ autonomous struggles into the language of the state (laws, policies, etc.). The Plurinational States of Bolivia and Ecuador are particularly interesting as they are a new mediation of emancipatory movements into the state. However, these scenarios far from resolve earlier tensions. For her, emancipatory forces of autonomy, which are inextricably linked with hope, with the concrete task of what Ernst Bloch calls ‘the not yet’, cannot be translated into the grammar of the state. It is hence challenging and often contradictory for movements to position themselves in relationship with the state, pluri-national or not. This becomes particularly apparent in indigenous struggles, in which demands for recognition by and autonomy from the state paradoxically coexist. Drawing on Raquel Gutierrez, Ana called this ‘dual intentionality’, and this formed a recurrent theme throughout the presentations and discussions during the rest of the day.

In the first panel, three presenters shared their insights into and thoughts on autonomy in pluri-national scenarios. The pluri-national-autonomy nexus is key when addressing pluri-nationality since self-determination of peoples lies at the heart of the pluri-national state. Geoff Goodwin from the LSE picked up on the theme of the dual intentionality of indigenous peoples in relation to the state. He argued that plurinationalism theoretically offers a way out of the contradiction between integration and autonomy. Geoff highlighted how indigenous organisations had been fighting for greater inclusion in state land reform bodies, while struggling to maintain autonomous control over local water supply, their organisations eventually being incorporated under state control. For him, autonomy does not just emerge, but is a historical process. Pere Morell I Torra (Universitat de Barcelona) shared some insights into the transformations taking place in Charagua, the first Bolivian municipality that turned into a state-recognised indigenous autonomy, which he studied in depth for his PhD. Despite this and some other local initiatives in Bolivia, indigenous autonomy has not been advancing as expected and lacks government support. In her paper, Britta Katharina Matthes from the University of Bath identified three different notions of autonomy present in Bolivia’s pluri-national state: Autonomy as peoples’ self-determination, as national sovereignty and profound decentralisation. These are incompatible with one another, making the pluri-national state deeply contradictory. Taken together, these talks showed that autonomy provides a useful entry point for unpacking in a different way how demands for autonomy, encompassing dual intentionality, have played out in Bolivia and Ecuador.

In the second panel, the focus was on ‘good living’/’living well’ (Vivir Bien/Buen Vivir), the often-used translation of ancestral concepts from Aymara and Quechua people that have played a key, yet not unambiguous role in the pluri-national transformations. Moreover, ‘good living’/’living well’ have been important points of reference in debates over alternative development and alternatives to development. Jonathan Alderman (University of St Andrews) discussed briefly how the Bolivian government’s development strategy of Vivir Bien arose, and offered insights into a rural housing donation scheme, which implements the government-promoted Vivir Bien. This case study demonstrates the tensions surrounding the contested notion. Jorge Altamirano from Newcastle University argued in his talk that Buen Vivir (the Ecuadorian equivalent of Vivir Bien) and the Sumak Kawsay are fundamentally different concepts, even though many researchers and locals see Buen Vivir as translation of the Quechua notion of Sumak Kawsay into Spanish. He pointed out that the indigenous Quechua concept was used more frequently by the Ecuadorian government to begin with than the Spanish equivalent, Buen Vivir, but its use was gradually phased out. For him, this is to be seen in the context of the Spanish concept being less critical of the neoliberal economic policies that the government continued to favour. This makes Buen Vivir, in fact, a betrayal of pluri-nationalism. The last talk of the panel came from Janine Romero, who is at the University of Erfurt, Germany and conducted a case study on the Bolivian lithium programme. She pointed out that while the governmental discourse changed, mining governance has not been altered significantly. In addition, she found that post-extractivist thinking was hardly present in local communities where a monetary vision of the lithium project dominated, which challenges a prominent argument in neo-extractivism research on local protest.

The contributions to the final panel revolved around theoretical and conceptual innovations and reflections, triggered by pluri-national experiences. Angus McNelly (QMUL) and Aiko Ikemura Amaral (University of Essex) gave a paper in which they propose that in the recent transformations in Bolivia, the indio permitido (allowed Indian) turned into the indio institucionalisado (institutionalised Indian) and showed by looking at three topics, how this notion can help us to make sense of the Bolivian scenario. Finally, Sofía Cordero from the Universidad Central del Ecuador compared in her paper the experiences of plurinationalism and autonomy in Bolivia and Ecuador. The major difference she identified was the more formal process that the process of attaining autonomy has taken in Ecuador, compared to Bolivia. She suggested to distinguish two dimensions in the construction of autonomies: the administrative dimension and the performative dimension. The performative dimension is crucial as it enables grasping how the creation of indigenous peoples takes place.

We as organisers are very pleased with the event and hope that the discussions will continue.

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