Indigenous Self-Governance in Bolivia

In 2009 the Government of Bolivia implemented a new constitution that formally recognized the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-governance and in 2010 Bolivia established a framework law for Indigenous, First Peoples and Peasant Autonomy (Autonomia Indígena Originaria Campesina – AIOC). With funding from SSHRC and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and in close collaboration with colleagues in Bolivia at the research centre Fundación Tierra ( and with a group of graduate students as well as Indigenous community leaders, I have been following and analyzing this process since it began. Together we have critically examined the legal and political constraints on the practical exercise of indigenous autonomy, the internal tensions and struggles over Indigenous autonomy within Indigenous communities, the institutional design of Indigenous self-governance, and the cultural and political forces that are undermining Indigenous peoples’ interest in autonomous self-governance in Bolivia.

New Research on “Saying ‘No’ to Indigenous Autonomy in Bolivia”

  • Wilfredo Plata and John Cameron. 2017. “¿Quiénes dicen no a las autonomías indígenas y por qué?: pragmatismo, hibridez y modernidades alternativas en la base” Click here for PDF

My colleague Wilfredo Plata and I wrote this article together based on collaborative research that we’ve been conducting together in Bolivia since 2009, when Bolivia established a new constitutional framework for ‘Indigenous autonomy.’ Our earlier research focused on the experiences of Indigenous peoples who were trying to exercise their constitutional rights to autonomous governance. But while we were conducting that research, we realized that there were many, many more Indigenous organizations that were deciding not to pursue opportunities to establish autonomous governments – and it occurred to us that nobody was paying attention to them. While other researchers were focusing attention on the small number of Indigenous groups that were working to create autonomous Indigenous governments, we shifted our focus to try to better understand the perspectives of Indigenous leaders and communities that were taking decisions not to pursue the new legal opportunities for Indigenous self-governance. This article is our effort to try to explain their perspectives.

Our central argument is that there are both external and internal reasons within Indigenous communities in Bolivia for not pursuing Indigenous autonomy. Externally, the government of Evo Morales has made clear that it does not support Indigenous autonomy, in spite of a pro-Indigenous Constitution. In that context, many Indigenous leaders have taken the pragmatic decision not to pursue initiatives that could sour their relations with the national government. But internally, many Indigenous communities are also uncomfortable with the idea of shifting to new forms of “Indigenous” governance: they’ve learned to govern themselves through a hybrid combination of municipal government institutions and local Indigenous norms and don’t see any strong need to change. Moreover, many Indigenous people are wary of being perceived as ‘backwards’ and don’t want to jeopardize their efforts to become more ‘modern’; they equate Indigenous autonomy with traditional practices that no longer fit with the modern world and (jokingly) see it as worse than having to give up their cell-phones. While researchers often assume that Indigenous peoples will automatically want to exercise Indigenous forms of self-governance, we found a much more complex range of perspectives.

The article is written in Spanish because it was important to share our research findings and arguments with Indigenous leaders, researchers and policy makers in Bolivia first. The article has been presented at public forums in La Paz, El Alto, Oruro, Sucre, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Tarija. While an English language version of the article will be available soon, we felt that we had an ethical responsibility to publish the research first in the country where it was conducted.

For links to our other research on Indigenous autonomy in Bolivia check out the articles below:

Jason Tockman, John Cameron and Wilfredo Plata. 2015. “New Institutions of Indigenous Self-Governance in Bolivia: Between Autonomy and Self-Discipline” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 10, 1: 37-59.

Jason Tockman and John Cameron. 2014. “Indigenous Autonomy and the Contradictions of Plurinationalism in Bolivia” Latin American Politics and Society 56, 3: 46-69.

John Cameron. 2013. “Bolivia’s Contentious Politics of ‘Normas y Procedimientos Propios’” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 8, 2: 179-201.

John Cameron. 2009. Struggles for Local Democracy in the Andes. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.