The Political Ecology of Indigenous Self-Development in Bolivia's Multiethnic Indigenous Territory

J. Montgomery Roper

PhD Thesis. 1999

This research examines the challenges faced by indigenous organizations representing the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory in Bolivia's Beni-Department as they attempt to transfer their focus from a territorial rights movement to natural resource development within the Territory. While there has been considerable enthusiasm over the possibility that organizations formed to pursue land rights will lead the future of indigenous self-development, the ability of these organizations to effectively undertake this tradition has been unclear.

Fieldwork was carried out in the Beni over 12 months in 1997. A central goal of the methodology and the analysis was to contextualize events in the Territory within multiple levels, taking into account the power relations among various actors in different contexts and over time. Combining data from interviews with key actors, documents from and pertaining to the region, and observation of events during 1997, I have reconstructed the history of natural resource development efforts in the Territory from its recognition by the state in 1990 through 1997.

Despite the initial apparent strength of indigenous organizations in 1990, self-development efforts have been a disaster. Numerous projects planned for the Territory have collapsed, and what has evolved in their place is a "tragedy of the commons" involving the commercial exploitation of fine woods. By the end of 1997, the indigenous organizations were financially broken and debilitated by internal conflicts, and most support organizations had suspended activities in the Territory.

Three major sets of factors have undermined self-development in the Territory: 1) state supported pressures by logging companies; 2) weaknesses in the indigenous organizations; and 3) the lack of a collective ideology in the Territory. This case study reinforces the contention that the state must serve a central role in ensuring a positive environment for indigenous self-development. Further, it underscores the fact the transition from territorial rights movements to self-development is by no means a seamless one. The nature and level of organizational management are more complex, and the need for legitimacy more acute. In addition, the kinds of external support that are key to the success of land rights movements do not necessarily transfer t self-development efforts.