I thought I understood Bolivia. At least, in the months and years preceding my three-month trip there in late 2017, I had read extensively about Evo Morales and the indigenous revolution which swept through the social and political landscape of the country with such unstoppable force over twelve-years ago. From that moment onwards, under the charismatic leadership of president Evo Morales, Bolivia spoke of a profound change which would shape the country and transform how the state would relate to its indigenous population now and into the future. Included in this programme for change was immediate approval for the nationalisation of Bolivia’s oil/gas reserves, transferring power of the country’s natural resources from the private sphere directly into the hands of a new ethnically constituted government which reflected the plurality of Bolivia’s population. Moreover, at the behest of Morales and the wider indigenous population, the country also undertook the enormous task of re-writing the constitution, which, after divisive conflict which nearly resulted in all-out civil war, now famously incorporates a plethora of legal protections for indigenous customs/traditions/beliefs including, among other things, the revered Andean earth-god Pachamama, more commonly referred to outside Bolivia and Latin America as Mother Earth.
With all this in mind, I left for my trip and was rather surprised and perplexed when I eventually arrived in Oruro on a chilly evening in early October. Surrounded by a mostly dry and flat landscape stretching for miles and miles in all directions, Oruro sits alone on the bleak, barren and windswept altiplano (highlands), a largely unknown and tired-looking former mining town. After a couple of days exploring the city and getting familiar with my new environment, I quickly began to realise that what I had read and learned about in terms of Bolivia’s new politics just did not directly correlate with the everyday reality I was experiencing on-the-ground, particularly in relation to its environmental politics. I began to see, as I described then, an array of contradictions between political discourse and State policy and the way in which people lived in the city of Oruro and elsewhere. Bearing in mind the constitutional protections put in place for Pachamama mentioned above, Oruro’s streets and pathways were surprisingly unclean, heavily stained with weeks-old rubbish spills which often left a foul stench in the mid-morning air. For a country whose president is known internationally as an outspoken environmental advocate, litter appeared to be an inherent problem for this city and others which I visited. The worst culprit was the mountains of plastic bottles disposed of by the side of the roadway on the outskirts of Oruro (and many of the other cities too), something which I noticed each and every time I arrived and departed the city by bus. Late-afternoon traffic congestion filled the city air with toxic fumes and by night-fall, many stray dogs of all sizes and breeds were out and about rummaging through black plastic rubbish sacks left out on the footpaths, eventually spilling their contents across the street in time for the early-morning rush-hour.
I am aware that these assertions may appear cruel and unfair, however, with this description, I do not intend to defame the city of Oruro; its people in particular I recall with great fondness and affection. Rather, my aim here is to merely highlight the genuine confusion I experienced and how I attempted to adjust (and re-adjust) my thinking toward Bolivia – a country I thought I understood but which I was really only beginning to discover and get to know. In the aftermath of my trip, as I sit and reflect on my time travelling throughout the country, my greatest mistake is not necessarily highlighting the problems which this country is currently dealing with (or not as may be the case) but rather, it is to judgementally fixate on the fact that they are contradictions and to even settle on this as a satisfactory explanation. Bolivia is imperfect but so too is Europe and, with all the political contradictions which dog the West of late (and I am thinking of Brexit, Trump and US gun-control to say the least), it is unhelpful to explain away Bolivia’s problems as mere contradictions. This places undue expectations on the country–let’s say, for argument sake, its ongoing struggle to satisfy the search for indigenous rights and protections while at the same time, attempting to accommodate what appears to be an insatiable desire among all members of its population to buy and consume ‘things’. Like all countries everywhere, Bolivia is experiencing the unrelenting pressures of the global marketplace where physical, epistemic and cultural borders are under threat and where politics everywhere is fragmenting under the weight of globalisation. What is more, these struggles are regularly being played out in disputes over land rights, autonomy and national economic management. In this world, contradiction – that divide between the path we should follow and the one we choose (or are forced) to experience in the end – is something we all can surely understand.
To conclude this blog-post, I would like to express my sorrow upon hearing the details of the accidental gas explosion which occurred during Carnival celebrations in February 2018. My thoughts are with the victims, their families, those injured and with all citizens of Oruro. One thing I learned during my time spent in Oruro is that its people are one of the warmest and most welcoming I have ever encountered, sharing with me their time and their homes and that this undeserving accident, during a time of great pride and celebration, will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the city and its people.
In late 2017, Cian returned from a three-month stay in Bolivia where he conducted fieldwork for his ongoing doctoral project. Cian’s PhD thesis examines contemporary forms of indigenous political expression in Latin America, exploring case studies in Bolivia (TIPNIS conflict) and Mexico (21st century Zapatismo) to help illuminate this comparative approach to ethno-political analysis. Cian is currently in the final stage of his PhD and expects to complete the project in late 2018.
You can find Cian on most social media platforms and he invites you to get in touch with him.