The New Bolivian Education Law

Among the Guarayo

by | Oct 28, 2011

Two indigenous school children, with backpacks.

The new education law brings education about indigenous communities to all. Photo by Rosalie Parker Loewen

They marched determinedly down Bolivia’s Santa Cruz-Trinidad highway under the hot sun. It was July of 2010, and Bolivia’s most prominent lowland indigenous organization, CIDOB (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian Oriente) was marching to demand modifications to the new Law of Autonomies (or Self-Determination) and Decentralization, created by Evo Morales’s largely Andean party MAS (Movement Towards Socialism).

I was among the marchers. Ten days earlier, the protesters had reached the busy town of Ascensión de Guarayos, home of the Guarayo Indians since the 1500s. I was in Ascensión to study education, and local education activists had urged me to join them in the march. “Just hide if the reporters come, so they don’t write that we’re being funded by the Americans,” they warned with a smile, referencing President Morales’s unsubstantiated claims that the U.S. development agency USAID was behind the protest. My study of Bolivian education had forced me to look at broader issues of social and political change in this country where 70% of the population identifies as indigenous.

For two and a half months that winter, I carried out ethnographic research on yet another widely publicized and controversial MAS policy designed largely to benefit the indigenous population, the new Bolivian Education Law. After interviewing national education leaders in La Paz, where the policy was being revised and debated, I went to study the law’s reception in the Guarayo community of Ascensión in the department of Santa Cruz for two months.

The new policy resonated in the town on many levels, yet I found significant disagreement over various aspects of the law’s content and implementation. While these tensions didn’t indicate deep political breaks between MAS and local indigenous activists, they raised several questions. Why, for example, did some Indians not embrace a policy designed for all Indians? And what were they demanding instead?

A “Decolonizing” Education

The new Avelino Siñani-Elizardo Pérez Bolivian Education Law is a cornerstone of the MAS agenda to radically change the historically racist, hierarchical order of Bolivian society. Named after the founders of the Warisata school (see pp. 65-67), the law proposes a revolutionary, “decolonizing” education with a new emphasis on productive skills, community involvement, and indigenous language, culture, and knowledge. After a stormy reception (the proposal presented by indigenous organizations in 2006 was opposed by the urban teachers’ union, the Church and many universities), a modified version was signed into law in December 2010; the Ministry of Education is now gradually phasing in the new law in Bolivian schools.

Activists and officials in La Paz described the old Bolivian education system as one of mental colonization in which the white elite imported and imposed their allegedly “superior” Western models of schooling and knowledge. Aymara official Victor Pinaya, the Director of the Office of Curricular Development in the Ministry of Education, told me about his own experience in a rural school: “I remember my book that I used when I was little…it said, ‘Mother eats cake.’ First of all, I didn’t know what cake was. Second, there was [a picture of] a mother, but she was blond, with white complexion, with a dress, shoes. But when I looked at my mother, she was brown-skinned with braids, short with sandals, with her worn, swollen feet…That type of education, where did it lead us? To the point where we admired that type of mother and we looked down on our mothers…the school had made us value other cultures, another model of mother, another way of life.”

As Aymara activist Pedro Apala put it, decolonization therefore requires Bolivians “to stop valuing the foreign and begin to value what is ours.” While previous policy created indigenous education programs solely for the Indians, the new law presents indigenousness as something that all Bolivians need, indigenous or not. For example, the law requires every child to learn an indigenous language and some indigenous content in addition to Spanish and traditional Western subject matter. In the activists’ terminology, the new education is both intracultural and intercultural. It seeks to strengthen culture withinIndian communities and also promote dialogue between cultures that puts Western and indigenous ideas on an equal playing field. From the standpoint of indigenous rights, the lingo all sounded good to leaders in La Paz. But what would “decolonization” look like in practice?

Highland-Lowland Tensions

In June 2010, the eight Indigenous Education Councils (Consejos Educativos de los Pueblos Originarios, CEPOs) and the Ministry of Education met to discuss the new regional curricula. Seven of Bolivia’s most numerous indigenous peoples have their own Councils, while remaining groups make up the Multiethnic Amazonian Council. These groups are currently designing regional curricula that correspond to the language, culture, territory, and context of their peoples. Under the new law, these curricula will be applied alongside a new national curriculum.

The lone gringa in the room, I seated myself next to the Guarayo representative. As Ministry officials introduced themselves, he turned toward me. “All of the officials are Quechua or Aymara, none of them is from the lowlands,” he informed me softly. With a current population of 20,000, the Guarayo are one of Bolivia’s 34 so-called lowland groups represented by CIDOB, the indigenous organization leading the aforementioned march. Lowland peoples have demonstrated increasing political clout since the 1990s. They are still, however, a distinct minority compared to the dominant highland groups (Quechua and Aymara) that comprise roughly 85% of the country’s indigenous population. Indeed, while lowland groups generally supported Morales and MAS, they were quick to tell me that they were underrepresented at the national level. The CEPO representatives showed an hour-long Powerpoint on their progress, followed by an open opportunity for comments. High-ranking Ministry officials offered abundant praise but also criticized the curricula as too ‘Western.’ One Vice Minister questioned a sample lowland lesson about the plantain, arguing that it was “more contextualizing something from other peoples…than recognizing native knowledge.”

I furrowed my brow. Didn’t the Vice Minister consider plantains to be indigenous or “native”? Perhaps he had issues with the plant’s history, as the crop recalls the infamous banana plantations and banana republics of the Caribbean and Central America. Or maybe it was because bananas were part of imposed alternative development projects by USAID in some parts of Bolivia. None of these connections seemed to hit home in Ascensión, however, where native residents cultivate the crop and use it for traditional Guarayo dishes such as masaco.

I wasn’t able to ask the Vice Minister to elaborate but the comment was revealing in itself. While highland intellectuals envisioned a process of radical “decolonization” from the West, the ideas and sense of history only partially resonated with lowland groups such as the Guarayo.

National Laws in Ascensión

The Guarayo enjoyed a semi-nomadic existence in the tropical eastern lowlands for several centuries prior to colonization, relying on subsistence agriculture, hunting, and gathering from the surrounding forests. Spanish colonial efforts focused on the more accessible highlands and their dense, well-organized populations, largely ignoring the isolated lowland frontier. Indeed, exploitation of the Guarayo did not begin until the arrival of Franciscan missionaries in the early 1800s. The priests founded several mission towns, including Ascensión, as part of their project to congregate, convert and “civilize” the natives.

In 1938, the Bolivian state stripped the missions of their control over the Guarayo, clearing the way for the local white elite. With state backing, these elites seized local land and compelled the Guarayo to work as peons on their farms. When the 1952 National Revolution ended the hacienda system in the highlands and gave indigenous highlanders new forms of political representation, these reforms failed to reach the lowlands. Change would have to be driven from below. In the 1980s, the Guarayo and other lowland groups began to organize.

Today, the Guarayo enjoy increased political power in their communities and significant (if still partial) control over their territory, a term now used by international law to describe land of traditional use and occupancy. However, logging and other commercial deforestation have severely depleted the rich expanse of forests, chasing the dense groves to distant slopes and inaccessible hilltops. Furthermore, the Guarayo are still marginalized in many senses, in their region and within Bolivia as a whole. It’s a position that they continue to work to reverse.

Nevertheless, the Guarayo do not want to call this change “decolonization.” Inside the offices of the Guarayan Educational Council (CEPIG), an official told me that the concept of fully “decolonizing” from Western influences is too radical and impractical given the current reality of many of these groups. A relatively small Guarayan town through the 1970s, Ascensión has been transformed into a multi-ethnic hub through increased migration and commerce. One glance at Ascensión’s main commercial area confirms this; the twenty-block stretch is saturated with cell phone vendors, microfinance banks and a couple of new Internet cafés. Indeed, today, many Guarayo look to move ahead through equal access to advanced education and new technologies, not through a romantic return to some pre-colonial past. Policymakers in La Paz do not deny this reality; they also highlight the potential value of many Western advances, including technology. The disagreement over the term, however, reflects highland officials’ call for a more far-reaching and thorough shift towards “authentic” indigenousness. For example, while some national activists advocate a full return to indigenous spirituality, many Guarayo in Ascensión identify strongly with the Catholic Church.

Despite Ascensión’s diverse population, teachers, parents and leaders generally supported CEPIG proposals to emphasize Guarayan language and culture in schools. About half of the town’s 20,000 residents are still Guarayo; the other half comes from other parts of Bolivia, including many indigenous highlanders. The Guarayo see education as an important means of strengthening indigenous identity following intense racism at the hands of the white elite. Despite these steps to revalue Guarayo identity, the language and culture are still threatened. For example, as one Guarayo teacher explained, the town now celebrates the Day of Tradition and many residents wear traditional clothing for the occasion. “But we take that off and throw it away; we are other people,” he added. “It’s different to learn to practice, live with, and value [the culture] one has.”

Toward a ‘Plurinational’ State

Language and culture, however, are not most residents’ top priorities in education. Access and equality are. Guarayan teachers, parents, and leaders unfailingly called for more resources, including materials, infrastructure, and teacher salaries. Indeed, schools in Ascensión face issues of severe underfunding that disproportionately affect the town’s poorest Guarayo residents; some schools even lack running water. There is no university in the area; most Guarayo youth cannot continue their education after high school. Locals demanded that municipal, regional, and national governments fulfill their responsibility to address these citizenship needs.

Many residents also insisted that the government consult and involve them more in the construction of educational policy. One weekday evening, I chatted over coffee and pastries with María, a Guarayan teacher and mother in Ascensión. She estimated that the majority of teachers knew very little about the new law; teachers had only received pamphlets about the policy. She also criticized the lack of Guarayo representation at several events, including a 2009 conference to write the national curriculum. Expressing her frustration with what she saw as a disconnect between the Ministry of Education and the communities, María commented, “A reform like this should come from below…they have never consulted us…it’s an imposition.” Although she supported much of the law’s content, she was unhappy with the manner in which it was created.

At the 2010 indigenous march, I discovered that these desires were not limited to education, but—throughout the country—included concerns over a lack of resources and local participation. The specific list of grievances was long but the themes remained constant—marchers wanted more control over their own land, greater financial guarantees from the state, and more representation in and consultation from the national government. While largely absent in discourse, the trendy new term “plurinationalism” loomed in the background. First used as a mobilizing phrase for indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador in the 1980s, plurinationalism envisions indigenous groups, and all others in any such multiethnic country, as separate nations, each with substantive rights to consultation, autonomy and self-determination. Additionally, as one of many distinct nations that constitute the state, each indigenous group demands equality and inclusion in a state that is imagined as having broad redistributive responsibilities.

In Bolivia, plurinationalism is now central to debates over the relationship between the state and indigenous rights. While the concept is often attributed to Morales, plurinationalism arose as a proposal of grassroots indigenous organizations and was later incorporated into the MAS agenda despite objections within the party. In 2009, the Republic of Bolivia became the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Implementation of the term, however, is still being defined and negotiated, with indigenous groups pushing for more autonomy, consultation and resources from Morales’ government.

Positioned near the front of the march, I glanced behind me at the colorful spectacle. Hundreds of activists snaked down the unevenly paved road, bearing Bolivian flags alongside banners with the names of different indigenous groups. On either side, rolling green hills and plains speckled with cusisal palms and the occasional herd of grazing cattle stretched out under an open sky. While MAS has brought some changes for these lowland groups, the impact on indigenous communities will rely heavily on policymakers’ willingness to expand local participation, autonomy, and resources. For the Guarayo and other indigenous groups, the struggle for dignity and equality marches on.

Fall 2011Volume XI, Number 1
Helen Strom graduated from Harvard College cum laude in Social Studies in 2011. Her honors thesis, entitled “I Am Free and Not an Indio; I am Guarayo: Plurinationalism, Ethnicity, and Decolonization in Evo Morales’ Bolivia,” was based on eight months of travel and research in Bolivia and earned high departmental marks. Special thanks to her thesis advisor and mentor Theodore Macdonald for his invaluable collaboration and guidance.

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