Bolivia’s Indigenous Universities

Building Community

by | Oct 27, 2011

This colorful mural by indigenous Bolivian artists portrays traditional planting and gathering.

This colorful mural by indigenous artists adorned the walls of Warisata. Murals courtesy of Carlos Salazar Mostajo/Gesta Y Fotografia, Historia de Warisata En Imagenes

Along with demands for territory and self-determination to redress their historic marginality, the indigenous peoples’ push for higher education has found traction with the election of Evo Morales. In 2008 the government launched the Indigenous University of Bolivia (UNIBOL) with sites in three ethnolinguistic regions. The Aymara UNIBOL is in Warisata, near La Paz, where the country’s first indigenous school was founded in 1931. A Quechua branch is in the Chapare region north of Cochabamba. Though not a traditional Quechua area, the Chapare has long been a destination for Quechua migrants and is a bastion of support for the MAS by coca farmers. The third is in the predominantly Guarani southeastern Chaco. The Guarani UNIBOL also serves peoples of the Amazonia and eastern Bolivia (Guarayu, Chiquitano, and Moxeño) and the Tapiete and Weenhayek, also from the Chaco. Here the university is named after Apiaguaiki Tüpa, a Guarani who led an uprising in defense of Guarani territory and was executed by by the Bolivian army in 1892.

The UNIBOL is a leveling institution meant to compensate for the fact that indigenous youth are underrepresented in Bolivia’s traditional universities. Indigenous students receive government assistance and the backing of their organizations. UNIBOL offers training that responds to the government focus on communitarian productive development. In the Guarani case, students study forestry (for forest management in the Amazon); veterinary medicine and animal sciences (for engaging the cattle economy in eastern Bolivia), fisheries science (for fish farming) and gas and petroleum engineering.

The paradox is that oil and gas—as well as ranching, logging and industrialized fishing—have all affected indigenous communities in negative ways. Nonetheless, as well sites and pipelines dot and crisscross the region, indigenous organizations have taken a stance of engagement rather than opposition. Based on my experiences as a Guarani leader and educator and the first rector of the Guarani UNIBOL, the question is how to transform how these activities take place in indigenous territories. As indigenous organizations, we now have the power to prevent oil companies from acting as they please. Training in these fields could help our peoples monitor, mitigate, and participate in productive and redistributive aspects of extraction and commercialization, and to do so with more concern for environmental and social impacts. This would be, at least, the ideal outcome.

Yet the UNIBOL also has a deeper mission that overlaps with efforts to rethink the university elsewhere in Latin America. Along with the Bolivian government, the university embraces the discourse of “decolonization.” Decolonization seeks to dismantle legacies of colonial rule and rethink indigenous and national futures. This means at the ground level unraveling institutional and ideological racism, addressing racialized class inequalities and dismantling the patriarchal logic of colonial rule. It also means rethinking western knowledge and exploring indigenous linguistic and cultural perspectives. For indigenous peoples, this also means rethinking the territorial and ideological order of the state itself, which was created to control indigenous peoples and lands for resource extraction or labor. Against development that fuels accumulation elsewhere, decolonization imagines new economies that pursue buen vivir, or “the good life.”

Training youth and pursuing deeper transformations is a tall order for fledgling universities. Nonetheless, we must move beyond the old way of thinking that universities should assimilate our young people to western ways of thinking. Now the university teaches indigenous histories and knowledge alongside technical expertise. For example, a Guarani oil technician would aspire to compete with any other such expert, but would also know how to engage and understand indigenous social realities. Students would approach indigenous organizations and territories through mutual respect and concern for rethinking living well. We see students and communities learning from each other, through a reciprocal exchange of knowledge. As I often say, if we are just training youth to be like the rest, we are doing nothing for our people. We are simply creating technocrats.

Decolonization operates practically as a demand for affirmative action and intercultural respect. Yet thinking deeply about knowledge, nature, and “living well” requires a deeper engagement with socially, historically and spiritually embedded realities of people’s relationships to nature in indigenous regions. As such, decolonial thinking is likely beyond the ken or comfort of conventional academics. While northern universities retrench themselves in disciplines, techno-science and positivist inquiry, decolonial thinking questions the bases and purposes of knowledge production. In the case of extractive activities, the challenge is the search for new economic models that lead to “living well” or “the good life” in specific places, rather than the endless commodification of people and nature.

The UNIBOL thus marks a break from the past, but is itself dependent on the acceleration of extractive activities. A special tax on natural gas funds these and other universities. The UNIBOL is thus caught in the contradiction confronting the entire country: how to transform extractive economies that have led to rural poverty and environmental degradation, while relying upon these activities to generate revenues for state transformation. As the vanguard in the transformation of the colonial character of the state and higher education, our work to construct the UNIBOL may offer some possibilities.

Fall 2011Volume XI, Number 1

Marcia Mandepora is the rector of the UNIBOL-Guarani “Apiaguaiki Tüpa” in Machareti, Bolivia. She received a Licenciatura in Sociology from the University of San Simón in Cochabamba in 1997, and a Master’s in Bilingual Intercultural Education from PROEIB-Andes and that university in 2000. As one of the first and few Guarani to attain postgraduate education, Mandepora is a leading intellectual and women’s leader of the Assembly of Guarani People and a nationally recognized figure in indigenous education.

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