SIID Research Associate Lorenza Fontana maps the hypotheses and debates on the 20% ‘decrease’ of the population self-identifying as indigenous in the latest census.

Ayamara women at the celebration of the Indigenous Peoples Day, La Paz, August 2013

In November 2012, a new census was realized among the Bolivian population. The final results, announced a few weeks ago, showed a decrease in the indigenous population of about 20% in a decade: from 62% in 2001 to the 42% in 2012. In absolute terms, in Bolivia, ‘only’ 2,806,592 people declared themselves to belong to an indigenous group out of 6,916,732 people older than 15. As expected, Quechua and Aymara are leading the list, followed by Chiquitanos, Guaraníes, Mojeños, and, in decreasing order by population size, the other 31 ‘peoples’ and ‘nations’ recognized by the new Constitution approved in 2009. In a country that recently modified its denomination from ‘Unitary Republic’ to ‘Plurinational State’, where the first ‘indigenous president’ was elected ‘only’ in 2005, these changes in ethnic self-identification constitute a big issue and fuelled a major debate in the media and among analysis and intellectuals. The discussions focused on the ‘technical reasons’ that could explain the change, but also on the political consequences as well as on cultural considerations on the very nature of the Bolivian nation and on the role played by Evo Morales and its government.

Most radical voices raised accusations against the ‘disappearance’ of thousands of indigenous people. There was even talk of ‘statistical ethnocide’, referring to the political manipulation of semantic categories to influence processes of individual and collective self-identification. This would have motivated the distancing from ethnic labels of part of the population that, ten years ago, declared to be part of an indigenous group.

Another hypothesis was that a modification to the Census question on ethnic identification could partially explain the change in the data. In 2001, the question asked whether the person identified him/herself with an ‘indigenous or native people’: in 2012 the term ‘indigenous native peasant’ was used instead. The question was “As Bolivian, do you belong to an indigenous native peasant nation or people?”, with a tick-box ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. In case of affirmative answer, the interviewee should name the people/nation to which he/she belongs (the interviewer was not allowed to read the list of the 36 pueblos officially recognized).

In the light of the diverging identitarian narratives that dominate the discourse of contemporary rural organizations (peasant, indigenous and native), it is plausible that, by introducing the ‘peasant’ category, some people opted for answering ‘No’. In practice, they would have refused self-identification with an ‘indigénaoriginariocampesino’ identity, but they might well have claimed identification with an indigenous or native group. At the same time, the use of a spurious category as self-identification criterion leads to other types of problematic answers. For example, a member of the Federation of Peasant Unions, originally from the El Puente municipality, north-west of Tarija, in Southern Bolivia, told me:

“When they made the population and household census this year [sic.], I register myself as peasant, because I am neither indigenous nor native. I answered ‘yes’ to the question! And peasant…although it was not in the options.”

The decrease in the indigenous population recorded in relation to the form of the question in the Census sheds light on the discursive gaps between the rapid urbanization of the Bolivian population and the progressive ruralization of the ‘indigenous’. A whole debate has been going on between those who consider that indigenous identities are relentlessly diluted as a result of increased internal migration, and those who consider urbanization as an experience that reshapes, rather than destroying, indigenous identities. Beyond these interpretations, it is clear – and the Census has confirmed – that Bolivia is becoming a predominantly urban country at the same time as the ‘indigenous native peasant’ category abundantly used in the new Constitution and in the new legal framework adopted by the Plurinational state is contributing to strengthening the conception of the ‘indigenous’ as rural by definition, through its association with the ‘peasant’.

The data obtained through the Census will have further repercussions, ranging from the shaping of the political debate to the formulation of the public policy agenda and the determination of the number of indigenous seats in the Plurinational Assembly. On the latter point, the Bolivian political analyst Carlos Cordero declared:

“[Indigenous organizations] do not have arguments to claim for more seats in the Parliament. The data from the Census have been devastating for this sector. However, [their seats] can’t be reduced either, they remain with seven seats because it is a right already entitled”.

Finally, the debate around the Census was the occasion to revitalize a longstanding dispute between liberals and communitarians on the mestizo (person of mixed cultural heritage and descent) issue and on the nature of the Bolivian nation. On the one side, the results of the census would confirm that Bolivia is not a country with an indigenous majority and that the dominant category to define the ethnic belonging of Bolivians is the mestizaje (which was deliberately excluded from the census’ questions). This position emphasizes the risks implicit in the excess of indigenism, which would potentially threaten the national unity and the principle of equality (for example through the introduction of collective rights to decide on natural resources exploitation). On the other side, positions closer to communitarianism strongly criticize the nationalist discourse as an ideological instrument used by the State to impose a fake sense of unity functional to dominant interests.

What is at stake in this discussion is the issue of identities and of the volatility of collective self-identification criteria, which has historically characterized Bolivian social landscape. The first risk implicit in both the partisans of mestizaje and the indigenist discourse is to apply essentialized and normative lenses to understand extremely complex and changeable processes. Secondly, it is often underestimated the performative power of the State (no matter whether neoliberal, nationalist or plurinational) to influence processes of collective self-identification and the capacity of social groups to adapt and negotiate their position (and identity) with respect to environmental and political transformations.

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