A united front

28 Feb, 2012 | Omari Eccleston-Brown

Social issues and Politics

Bolivia does exist, but it’s a nation divided along invisible lines: East and West; loose borders that separate one ancestral community from the next; and perhaps most strongly, the breach between the tropical lowlands and the cold and blustery highlands.

There's a certain legend here that goes "Bolivia doesn't exist". It's a fantastical story which I've heard several times, but never told in quite the same way. But more or less it goes like this: after a drunken state affair turned sour, President Malgarejo, one of Bolivia's most notorious dictators, paraded the English Ambassador around the main square in La Paz on a donkey and then threw him out of the country. Upon hearing the news, with one fell stroke of her royal pen an enraged Queen Victoria scratched Bolivia from the world map forever. Many Bolivians believe this amazing story to be true. Speak to them and they will swear that Bolivia is still languishing from that one indiscretion to this day. Nevertheless, talk to most Bolivians and you'll most likely hear that the country's purported non-existence takes a different, more subtle form. "Bolivia isn't unified. Firstly, because its many indigenous peoples, who actually make up the majority, were excluded and marginalized for years," said Gonzalo Colque, the director of Fundación Tierra in La Paz.

"Secondly, because there's a lot of historical social conflicts. The relationship between Bolivia's different native communities has always been complex and strained," he added. Officially, Bolivia is made up of 36 separate indigenous communities. In 2009, President Evo Morales completely rewrote the constitution and rechristened the country the 'Plurinational State' to embrace them all. Despite this show of oneness, many Bolivians still don't believe the country pulls together as a whole. Many don't even accept the term 'Bolivian'. Bolivia does exist, but it's a nation divided along invisible lines: east and west; loose borders that separate one ancestral community from the next; and perhaps most strongly, the breach between the tropical lowlands and the cold and blustery highlands.

However, a recent indigenous antiroad march that trekked the 500km from the heart of Bolivia's Amazon basin to its capital high in the Andean mountains challenged both the government and these age-old perceptions. The march was successful: Evo Morales' government was forced to U-turn and cancel a planned highway through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), the protestors' ancestral home. But it also had an important by-product as well– it united Bolivians in a sense of joint purpose. On the 25 September, about five weeks after they set out, the marchers' way was blocked by 500 police officers and they were gagged, beaten and bound.That was a Sunday. By the Monday a nationwide strike had been called in outrage at their treatment. Great swathes of the country were galvanized overnight. Despite their differences, one thing that unquestionably binds Bolivians is their intolerance of violence against their own. Stay here long enough and you'll discover that no-one needs to die for them to cry massacre, as they have done in this case. The TIPNIS cause has turned into more than just a defence of the environment, it's become a rallying point for disparate groupsacross the length and breadth of the country who demand self-determination and greater respect from the government. When the marchers finally arrived in La Paz after 65 long days tens of thousands of jubilant Bolivians welcomed them into the city as heroes. Citizens gathered into a long, snaking human corridor guiding the weary men, women and children all the way to the President's doorstep. It's a day that will stay with me for many years. I suspect it'll stay with the marchers for the rest of their lives. In the middle of the cheering crowds I asked one of them, Javier Collar, how he felt. The black flag he'd carried the whole way in honour of his leader who'd died in a plane crash at the beginning of the march still sat heavy on his shoulder.

"Many of us did probably think that we were divided. But what we go through in the lowlands is the same as they go through here in the highlands. The virtue of this march has been that it's reminded us of that reality, that Bolivia is one Bolivia, one heart," he said, smiling through the tears building in his eyes.

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