Between local authenticity and global

accountability: the ayllu movement in contemporary Bolivia


Paper prepared for the workshop


“Beyond the lost decade: indigenous movements and the transformation of development and democracy in Latin America” Princeton University, 2-3 March 2001


Robert J. Andolina

University of Cambridge




At stake in highland Bolivia is the constitution of new cultural and political subjects, where a new indigenous social movement is gaining increasing prominence.  This movement reconstructs and deploys the term ayllu, which refers to extended family and local community structures and occupation of space rooted in Andean social and political practices.  It differs from the nationalist Aymara-Quechua indigenous movements of the 70s by situating ethnic belonging more firmly in local and regional territorial concepts, while at the same time promoting “traditional” or “original” local authorities as national and international indigenous representatives.

As a consequence, the ayllu movement is shifting the identity categories that receive national and international recognition, changing the organisational form and expression of the Bolivian indigenous-peasant movement(s), and producing an explicitly territorialized identity that challenges the political boundaries of Bolivia’s recent decentralisation policy.  These changes are coupled with a re-negotiation of gender roles and relations; the largely male ayllu federation leadership looks to balance locally specific gender roles (as they see them) with international gender norms

This essay does not outline the content of ayllus but rather examines an indigenous movement based on the ayllu’s contemporary political salience.[1]  This movement entails three kinds of acts.  First, strengthening ayllu structures and practices where ayllus are seen as fairly intact.  Second, "reconstituting" ayllus where they are seen as de-articulated or disappeared.  Third, federating ayllus into broader regional and national structures, which clamour for national representative status and compete with an already existing confederation, the United Peasant Workers Union Confederation of Bolivia (in Spanish, CSUTCB).[2]

The emergence of the contemporary ayllu movement is somewhat puzzling.  Indigenous movements have been present in the Bolivia highlands since the 1970s, where Kataristas and Indianistas promoted Aymara and Quechua nationalism and played key roles in forming political parties and NGOs, as well as the peasant confederation in 1979.[3]  The Bolivian lowland indigenous confederation has existed since the early 1980s and has been a key political player since its 1990 march to La Paz, the Bolivian capital.  Second, although ayllus had been studied by both Bolivian and foreign scholars, and indigenous intellectuals upheld the ayllu as a paradigm of Andean culture, until rather recently few thought it would serve as the basis for a political movement.  Third, the state has played a rather limited role in shaping the ayllu movement. The remainder of this paper therefore analyses the shift of the ayllu and original authorities from local cultural paradigm to national and international political agent (or private communal figure to public figure).  It also considers the preliminary impact and limits of the ayllu movement.[4]

            This paper argues that transnational politics must be understood in specific local political spaces, accounting for the role of non-state actors and state action. 

It must be accompanied by a consideration of how authority and legitimacy operate in specific transnational processes.  Most studies of legitimacy focus on the state and/or legitimacy crisis emergent from contradictions of late capitalism and the welfare state or from the weaknesses of formal political institutions (Habermas 1984; Connolly 1984).  Recent developments in social movement studies recognize that social movements challenge authority through legitimacy battles (Slater 1985, Hanagan, Moch and Te Brake 1998, Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar 1998, Andolina 1999), and gain legitimate recognition from the state through claim making (Tilly 1998).

In this case, the Bolivian state has maintained a weak presence in the ayllu movement, and players other than the state validate identities and establish criteria for the legitimacy of indigenous political subjects.  International financiers of the ayllu movement and of indigenous policy implementation not only offer funds or “technical” assistance, but also carry ideas and experiences that create expectations and shape the character of the ayllu movement. As noted by Brysk (2000), indigenous movements and their supporters form a community based on shared beliefs and symbolic appeal; Alger (1997) suggests that international actors build links with local partners to enhance local participation.  But we still need to know the content of those links and communities and the authority and legitimacy dynamics and dilemmas contained therein.  Transnational relations are increasingly social in character, and the understandings and ideologies of the network members will set criteria for legitimacy. 

The member of transnational networks are not just international but local, and in this case include Bolivian NGOs, ayllu federations, and campesino federations.  Legitimacy challenges and negotiations of authority are not only directed at the state or economic elites but at local non-state actors.  The ayllu movement is bound up in a game of strategic and symbolic interaction with the leaders and organisations of the peasant confederation, each of whom have a support network with distinct political ideas and strategies.[5]  Yet the ayllu movement's differentiation from the peasant unions has met with (only) limited success, in part because of the response of those campesino unions, and in part because as the movement moves upscale it departs from the local context of territory and authority on which it is based.


A History Across Scales

The emergence of the ayllu movement must be understood across scales where actors, resources, and ideas flow across boundaries both north-south and south-south.  This is not to say that national boundaries and state-based politics are irrelevant.  Indeed, Risse-Kappen (1995) insists on considering how the state enables and constrains transnational politics across its borders.  Keck and Sikkink (1998) go further to argue that states only allow transnational influence when it perceives such activity to be in its interests.  The ayllu movement case supports these arguments but also goes beyond them. In general, the Bolivian state has played an inactive permissive role here rather than an active one.  First, it may see the ayllu movement as being in its interests, particularly if the movement promotes dialogue and can weaken the peasant federations.  Politicians and state functionaries tend to view the peasant union as blocking progress and de-stabilizing the country rather than offering proposals within the current system.  Weakening the peasant unions would dovetail with the union-busting consequences and intentions of neo-liberal reforms, and help “pacify” the country. [cut or cite interviews].   In short, this would help the government build a stable, “governable,” institutional democracy and liberal economy.  Second, the Bolivian state has a fairly long tradition of drawing on international resources to carry out its actions,[6] what Bolivians often call cooperacion internacional (international cooperation (aid)).  An international “Bolivia support group” largely composed of official organisations has existed since the late 1970s, and Bolivia is targeted as part of the IMF’s debt relief plan.  It is rather normal or accepted that international development agents play a role in Bolivia.  Third, we must consider unintended consequences of state actions.  As noted earlier, Bolivian governments passed a series of (potentially) pro-indigenous legal and constitutional reforms that enabled and encouraged the growth of the ayllu movement.  Ironically, these reforms were partly a response to indigenous movement pressure, including pressure from the peasant unions now challenged by the ayllu federations.

Unlike the movement activists, who go back to pre-Inca times to explain the presence of the ayllu, I will go back only fifteen years or so.  I divide this history into three phases, moving from 1984 to the present.  It follows a pattern contextualizing the ayllu movement, where global initiatives carried out within Bolivia contribute to national debates and reforms, which in turn generate further international interest in indigenous affairs in Bolivia and a transnational convergence around the ayllu symbol that adds funds and creates expectations for the ayllu movement.  The remainder of the paper will focus on the third phase and how transnational processes construct and legitimate a burgeoning national ayllu movement.


a. 1984-1990: Global-Local Phase.

Prior to 1984, little attention was paid to the ayllu as the basis for development projects, state policy or social movement organizing.  The CSUTCB (peasant union), created in 1979, was consolidating representation of highland indigenous peoples on the basis of the union structure it has wrested from the 1952 corporatist state.  National NGOs with Catholic roots that supported the confederation, such as CIPCA (Centro de Investigacion y Promocion del Campesinado) and IPTK (Instituto Politecnico Tupaj Katari), built on the Katarista tradition of mixing class and ethnic discourse and working with the peasant union structure for organizing and development projects.  Expressions of indigenousness worked largely through nationalism based on Aymara and Quechua languages (see e.g. Albo 1985). 

In certain locales, however, another interpretation of how “development with identity” might work was beginning to bubble up, one potentially compatible with the Indianista philosophy in Bolivia that was more strictly “ethnic” (see Pacheco 1992).  International development organizations and projects played a key role in creating spaces for this alternative form in conjunction with local Bolivian NGOs and local indigenous leaders.    

In northern Oruro department, the Campesino Self-Development Project funded by the European Union opened space for an ayllu-based implemented.[7]   Project implementation opened debates ensued over what issues to promote in agricultural development and who would represent local communities.  This resulted in favouring traditional authorities such as mallkus and jilaqatas over campesino union leaders as project-community interlocutors:

The Proyecto de Autodesarrollo Campesino [PAC]…was composed of the de facto presence of ayllus, which, through of all of their [ayllus] problems saw the glimmer of a possibility of structuring the development process around the ayllus; the willingness to understand and redeem the traditional organizational structure by an external agent such as PAC, at the same time stirred up cultural validation in the communities, accompanied by a growing willingness of self affirmation.  Little by little…they began to develop common platforms of action. (Izko 1992, 103) 


Apart from constructing new criteria for development, PAC also promoted encounters of original authorities that proposed broader projects for unification and federation of ayllus.  This set conditions for the organisation of the Jach'a Carangas council of ayllus in northern Oruro, today a key member of the national ayllu confederation (Izko 1992, 105-106).

A second key transnational relationship was that of Oxfam America and the Andean Oral History Workshop, who worked together in evaluating ayllus in Northern Potosí department.  Oxfam is an international grassroots development NGO with headquarters in Boston affiliated to Oxfam International.  Its South America regional office, set up in 1988 in Lima, concentrates its work on indigenous peoples in the Andean region.  Its founding officer, Richard Chase Smith, worked previously in the Peruvian amazon and had developed a vision development around culturally-based organization.  The Andean Oral History Workshop formed in 1983 with headquarters in La Paz, Bolivia.  Many of its founding members were rooted in the Indianista political line, and its main activities involved recovering oral history of Aymara communities and transmitting them back in the form of radio programs, videos, and education materials. 

Oxfam’s role in promoting the ayllu in Bolivia began after visits to an El Nin'o recovery project in Bolivia run by Catholic Church based NGOs, nominally conceived around ayllu logic.  In Oxfam’s view, however, the project was anti-ayllu and too "pro-peasant:"

.  [At first…] I said “hey, this is interesting.”  No one else has talked about this.  So I looked at it, talked to some people, and gave some support.  And then went to visit, maybe five months later, and what I found appalled me.  I found your absolutely typical development project, not at all tied to the ayllus, but in fact anti-ayllu, tied to the Catholic Church parties.  There was a group of progressive priests and Catholic Church NGOs, CIPCA was one of them.  Piulosi, the head was a French Canadian priest, who was all for miners, minero-campesino alianza…The views of the ayllu were straight out of 16th century spanish colonial domination.  I was absolutely appalled. I had, fights, arguments, debates…and it was clear, the strategy they had set up was to take away power from the ayllu structure. (Interview OA ex-director, 31/03/00).

Oxfam America thus decided early on that the peasant confederation should not be a referent for recovering ayllus.  It also felt that the union was too disorganised and influenced by political parties (Interview oa officer 03/04/00).

From there it adopted a series of strategies in tandem with Bolivian NGOs who shared Oxfam’s cultural emphasis and vision of the ayllu, especially the Andean Oral History Workshop:

But the people in THOA were interested in that so I began working with them, seeing where could we go with this.  THOA was also interesting because a number of them were also Aymara and Quechua students within the university, revindicando their identity, their culture, and so forth. (interview oa ex-director 31/03/00)

 First, Oxfam and THOA decided THOA would conduct an impact study of NGO development projects on ayllus, focusing on the recovery project in Bustillos province of Northern Potosi(?). Its critical take on development practices and union organisation in the region as “colonialism continued” generated controversy and a negative reaction from more "campesinista" Catholic NGOs.[8] THOA also began to imagine the ayllu as the basis for social organising, as did a group of community leaders and intellectuals in northern potosi who began to organize a federation based on ethnic authorities associated with ayllus (Rivera 1997, 14).

Discussion spaces also emerged to debate the “ayllu-sindicato” question, promoted by THOA and Oxfam.  The first of these took place in Cochabamba in 1987 under the auspices of the Bolivian Studies Meeting.  It brought together Bolivianist scholars, Aymara intellectuals, and community authorities and historians (Rivera 1997, 13).  Oxfam followed by encouraging meetings among Bolivian NGOs and intellectuals favourable to the ayllu to develop consensus on strategies and goals. This group consisted of the Andean Oral History Workshop, the Centre for Andean Agrarian Development (based in La Paz), and The Institute for Popular Legal Counsel (based in Potosi).  It also included individual intellectuals and scholars, among them Fernando Untoja, ayllu ideologue, writer, and politician; and Roberto Choque, who is now working with CADA.  Oxfam members attended some but not all of these sessions (interview oa officer 03/04/00).  Indigenous leaders from the Federation of Ayllus of South Oruro (formed in the late 1980s with the help of Bolivian researchers) also joined the group and were funded by Oxfam once Oxfam learned of them.

            At this juncture, three regional (but sub-departmental) federations existed that provided an alternative organizing model for the indigenous people of the Bolivian highlands.  There was also an incipient coalition of Bolivian support NGOs and individual scholars and intellectuals in favour of recovering ayllus, as well as international donors of both official and non-governmental status interested in a “development with identity” or “ethno-development” modeled around ayllu structure and leadership.  The issue remained a “global-local” one until the 1990s, but in certain spaces the campesino development and organizing approach was being questioned.


b. 1991-1996.  National debates and reforms.

The lowland indigenous march to La Paz in 1990 and the contestation of the quincentenary of the discovery of the Americas in 1992 opened up a broad debate around ethnicity and nationalism in Bolivia.  A series of national reforms followed that were largely national, but were part of broader international campaigns and political/policy trends, and to some extent guided by international organisations. 

The ayllu appeared in these discussions as both symbol of an alternative indigenous identity and as an alternative model for development.  Some of these debates were carried out within the peasant confederation (CSUTCB), together with the lowlands confederation (CIDOB) and their support NGOs (see Calla, Ortega, and Urioste 1989, CIPCA 1991, Cuadros 1991).   This led up to the Assembly of Nationalities in 1992, which failed in its aim to restructure and unify the indigenous movement, but did help generate broad public discussion of indigenous issues (Calla 1993, Andolina 1999).

In addition, the pro-ayllu NGO group set up in the late 1980s continued to meet annually to develop goals and strategies to promote the ayllu. The possibility of forming a confederation, however, was not discussed until the final meeting in 1994, when higher-level ayllu authorities (generally called mallkus) invaded the meeting and formed a coordinating committee that eventually became CONAMAQ, the national ayllu council, in 1997 (Interview OA officer 03/04/00).[9]  In La Paz department, furthermore, THOA worked with leaders of the peasant union affiliate through the mid-1990s; the unwillingness of the new leadership to continue supporting ayllu recovery activities further persuaded THOA to fully support the ayllu-based confederation as an alternative. In addition, critiques of the peasant confederation’s ideology and purpose have discredited the CSUTCB.  Many leaders loyal to the peasant union were/are strongly in favour of promoting the ayllu and restructuring the campesino federation, creating disagreement with those against such reform (see Ticona 1996).   Some leaders gave up on waiting for this reform and “defected” to the ayllu movement:

Entonces hemos propuesto cambiar la estructura del sindicalismo, a la originaria, hemos propuesto cambiar la sigla, han pasado de ahí hasta aquí, como l0 años, entonces lo que habíamos hablado en ese entonces, los dirigentes actuales siguen hablando, en lo que vamos a cambiar, pero nosotros nos hemos cansado, de decirles: " Hermanos del sindicalismo, cuando vamos a cambiar esto" y no nos quisieron escuchar o no nos han comprendido, entonces hemos quedado en la nada. Se esta duplicando, en algunos casos si, el objetivo es que tiene que desaparecer el sindicalismo, no podemos seguir con ese viaje esquema, además si hablamos de pueblos originarios, no tiene ningún sentido  la existencia del sindicalismo. (Interview THOA/AEC 03/09/99).


There are documented weaknesses and divisions within the peasant union (CSUTCB) that had been the only legitimate representative of indigenous peoples in the highlands of Bolivia.  The shift to a neoliberal economic model and a less corporatist (allegedly pluralist) interest-mediation system after 1985 confounds the CSUTCB, which was born during the corporatist state-capitalist era.  It retains formal links with the now rather weak worker federation (COB), whose dwindling mineworker base insists on retaining its role as vanguard, limiting the possibility for a clearer ethnic line to emerge in the CSUTCB and formally subordinating the CSUTCB to the COB.  Pluralist democracy itself has encouraged the penetration of numerous political parties in the CSUTCB, seeking to capture leaders as militants and their followers as voters.  This has in turn hampered responsiveness to the grassroots and the ability to act in a regular, unified fashion in challenging the government (Ticona, Rojas, and Albo 1995, Andolina 1999, Ticona 2000).

That government, moreover, responded to these new debates and campaigns by enacting a series of reforms that largely unintentionally encouraged ayllu-based organising.  These policy proposals were debated and enacted during the presidencies of Jaime Paz Zamora and (especially) Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who selected Aymara indigenous leader Victor Hugo Cárdenas as his vice-presidential running mate.[10]

  Three of these reforms centred around indigenous culture: the 1991 ratification of ILO convention on rights of indigenous “peoples,” including rights to administer their own forms of justice, increasing importance of original authorities; the 1994 Education reform that formalized bilingual, intercultural education including indigenous languages and cultures; the 1994 constitutional reforms recognizing Bolivia as a multicultural and pluriethnic state.  Two further reforms enabled and constrained indigenous space and territorial claims.  The 1995 decentralization and popular participation laws had contradictory effects.  The first of these “municipalized” Bolivia and extended the municipality throughout the countryside, cutting across ayllu boundaries and potentially threatening ayllus.  The People’s Participation Law, on the other hand, allowed for legal recognition of ayllus as “territorial grassroots organisations” who can obtain a collective identity card and participate in vigilance committees, which watch over municipal governments.  Finally, the 1996 agrarian reform (Ley INRA) on the one hand created a freer land market, in some ways threatening small producers, while on the other hand provided for legalizing “original community lands” (Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (TCOs)) only available to indigenous or “original” communities.[11]

All of this opened up space for an alternative federation to claim representation of the Bolivian highlands.


c. Multi-scalar Phase (1997-present): new networks and donors. 

Since the nationalization of the ayllu movement through the creation of CONAMAQ there has been a new phase of transnational convergence.  First, the Danish NGO IBIS decided to fund ayllu federations in northern Potosi department, encouraged by Oxfam America with whom it works closely in Ecuador and lowland Bolivia.  Second, IBIS and Oxfam sponsor exchanges between ayllu leaders and indigenous leaders in Ecuador associated with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and its highland regional affiliate, ECUARUNARI.  Third, the NGO Plan Internacional funds the Aymara education council and the Andean Oral History Workshop to carry out workshops on education reform with local school boards; these organisations in turn combine these with ayllu promotion activities.  Finally, DANIDA (Danish official aid) established indigenous peoples as key target of its development aid in Bolivia in 1995, financing projects that indirectly promote the ayllu and original authorities in local politics and development projects.


Transnational networks and multiple authorities

Organisations supporting the ayllu movement gain their authority not only through controlling funds, but also through an ongoing commitment to and affinity with indigenous identity and indigenous issues, as well as their knowledge of these.  Both ayllu movement leaders and members of ayllu support NGOs maintain a favourable view of Oxfam America.  It gets this recognition not because it is a “global donor,” but because of its work and experience locally in the Andean region (Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru).  At play, therefore, is a global-local mesh (Cohen and Rai 2000).

How do network players exercise this authority?  The attraction of key donors to the appeal of the ayllu and the ability of traditional authorities to take advantage of their appeal, grant the kind of resources and legitimacy necessary for the ayllu movement to gain representation and a voice in public affairs.  However, the link between the ayllu organisations and others is not just one of resource transfers, but an exchange of ideas.  These ideas, moreover, chart certain paths for the evolution and character of the movement and prioritise ayllu federations over peasant unions, and prioritise “authentic” indigenous ethnic identities over the class-ethnic mix of campesinos.

I illustrate this below by locating the ayllu movement in a transnational conversation that structures movement legitimacy around “political potential” and “authenticity” and lays out possible movement trajectories by constructing a set of movement referents or exemplars.  These referents are the Bolivian lowland indigenous confederation (CIDOB), the Bolivian campesino federation (CSUTCB), and the national indigenous confederation of Ecuador (CONAIE).  Furthermore, these exemplars are themselves structured such that CIDOB and CONAIE appear as good examples, and the CSUTCB as the “bad example.”


Political Potential.  Here a clear hierarchy emerges among the referents.  The most prominent exemplar is the Ecuadorian indigenous confederation (CONAIE).  It is seen as most advanced in organising, alliance building, maintaining a steady indigenous discourse, achieving favourable reforms, and able to negotiate and contest the government.  The Bolivian lowland indigenous federation, CIDOB, follows CONAIE; it is seen to have a solid organisation, good negotiating skills, constructive proposals, tendency towards dialogue, and a steady indigenous identity and discourse.  In contrast, the Bolivian highland campesino-indigenous confederation (CSUTCB) is portrayed as lacking proposals, simply opposing everything seeing the state and foreigners as enemies, with a tendency to protest and create obstacles.  A member of a key NGO donor to indigenous organisations sums up this hierarchy:  


We see high political potential in the indigenous movement.  On the basis of the Ecuadorian experience we are trying to see what may happen in Bolivia…there had been efforts to include an ethnic project in the CSUTCB, but it is totally identified with unions and has stayed with a discourse from the 1970s, a discourse that is now defunct…and going nowhere.  […] The ayllu movement could be a Bolivian ECUARUNARI [the highland regional member of CONAIE] (Interview, 16/11/99).


Pro-ayllu NGOs, indigenous leaders, government officials, and indigenous secretariat functionaries made similar statements.


All of this is not “mere rhetoric,” but situates the ayllu federations in concrete ways.  One is the aforementioned exchange between ayllu federation and Ecuadorian indigenous leaders.  While these exchanges were meant to be reciprocal, the idea was that the former learn from the latter.  Another example is that the national ayllu confederation (CONAMAQ) shared office space with the Bolivian lowland indigenous confederation (CIDOB) in La Paz.[12]  Finally, the ayllu federation is taking a tactical line of “dialogue over protest,” following the lowland Bolivian approach and moving away from the highland peasant confederation approach.  Indeed, this past September, while the peasant confederation sealed off the capital city of La Paz with major roadblocks and combative resistance, the original authorities associated with the ayllu federations met with President Banzer to make demands and express their commitment to dialogue over protest.


Authenticity.  This is the key claim by ayllu federations; that they represent real indigenous traditions of ayllus and original authorities.  Indeed, they are already advanced in the “authenticity hierarchy” in the transandean frame.  For instance, in the exchange between ayllu leaders and CONAIE of Ecuador, Ecuadorian indigenous leaders left impressed with the ayllu -- that such a pre-Colombian structure would still exist today, noting that in Ecuadorian highlands this had largely disappeared.  The Bolivian lowland indigenous organisations are (also) portrayed as representing an authentic culture, often referring to the “traditional authority” system of capitanias found in parts of the Bolivian lowlands.  In this sense the highland ayllu federations identify with indigenous lowlanders (CIDOB), as stated by an ayllu confederation leader: 


[…] CIDOB and CONAMAQ are like brothers, one as the older brother and the other as younger, because they are both recuperating cultural identity (Interview 08/09/00).


In contrast, the Bolivian campesino federation (CSUTCB) is painted as lacking authenticity, having a union structure outside of Andean original culture and authority systems.  It is a somewhat curious stripping away of authenticity, as the unions were an important carrier of ethnic discourse, and there had been an “indigenisation” of campesino unions and leadership positions on the local level. 

The political potential and authenticity criteria are illustrated together by a leader of the Potosi ayllu council.  She affirmed, “The exchanges with the Ecuadorian indigenous movement has given us strength to grow as an original peoples movement, outside of campesino unionism…The difference is that in Ecuador they have lost their original authorities…but in the political question…we share the same road” (interview 25/11/99). 


Limits of Ayllu Legitimacy

In spite of the efforts of ayllu federations and others to differentiate themselves from peasant unions and practices, they face certain limits that make them look something like campesino unions.  They also face responses from union leaders that challenge authenticity claims of ayllu leaders.  One of these limits is the contradiction between political potential (in part requiring exercise of a rational kind of authority) and authenticity (based on traditional authority).  Specifically, rules for advancement of original authorities would have leaders move gradually from local, less prestigious positions, to higher, more prestigious positions at other scales, with a rotating system and limited office terms (one to two years).  However, national and international reality is not the mere aggregation of local experiences.  Mallkus at the federation level may be ill equipped to deal with politics at these scales and lack the necessary learning time.  Indeed, ayllu federations have already adjusted to this by increasing term time of federation leaders, and some movement leaders have their key experience as former members of campesino unions, not as original authorities.  Furthermore, the ayllu movement has formed departmental-based federations or councils and has created non-traditional federation offices such as “mallku of organisation,” or “mallku of education,” mirroring both state and campesino union structures.

A second area of legitimacy contradiction is with gender roles and women’s participation.  International donors and Bolivian feminists have expectations about improving women’s participation and leadership, and so do some indigenous women.  This creates two dilemmas.  One is rooted in machismo and the tendency to relegate women to household duties, as noted by a member of an ayllu support NGO:


“[They said] well here the women’s offices will be closed, we are ayllus now, we have to move together unified…we saw that the seminars were being led by men […] But even women have said ‘if we go to ayllu organisational meetings, then who will care for the animals, the kids, and preparing meals’?” (Interview 11/11/99).


Another dilemma is that women cannot be mallkus, only mama t’allas through marriage to mallkus.  Ayllu federations have made two kinds of responses to this dilemma.  The first of them breaks with tradition.  Consider the example of Ana Vilacama.  She is the “Chaski Mallku” (Communications Director) of the Potosi Department ayllu council. When I asked her about her experience in original authority, she struggled to respond, noting only that her male relatives had been authorities, which allowed her certain liberties not available to all women.  But it seemed that she became a federation mallku because of her sex (her colleagues pointed to this) and her valuable prior leadership experience with the unions. 

The other ayllu movement response to this dilemma has recovered authority traditions that had been neglected.  Invoking the concept of chachawarmi, the La Paz department ayllu federation (CONSAQ) explained that in previous times, the mallku and the mama t’alla exercised authority as a pair.  Recuperating that practice, CONSAQ announced that mallkus who arrive to future assemblies without mama t’allas could not vote in those meetings (Field notes, 14/12/99).


A second broader limit on ayllu movement legitimacy is the response of the campesino leaders.  Although the campesino confederation faces a lot of criticism, in many ways it constitutes a fairly solid organisation with important symbolic power derived from its role in resisting the state.  It also retains the ability to call mass mobilizations (another basis for movement legitimacy) as it did just over a month ago, sealing off La Paz and compelling the government to negotiate.  Further, the campesino organisations have carried an “ethnic” discourse and have raised indigenous issues.  This on the one hand makes its leaders feel part of its agenda and identity is being usurped, and on the other hand enables them to adapt or co-opt some of the discourse of the ayllu movement.

I illustrate this more concretely one again through reconstructing a conversation, here between ayllu movement leaders and campesino leaders.  It reveals both shared and contrasting understandings of what it means to be an indigenous political subject. The establishment of these meanings draws on anticolonial ideology typical of indigenous and campesino organisations.  The conversation also generates some surprising results.


The Call of the Mallkus.  The ayllu federation leaders represent themselves as “more indigenous” than the campesino leaders in at least three ways:

These are illustrated by the following ayllu movement leader comments:


Well, the unions have come on the scene only since the 1953 Agrarian Reform; the original authorities have been around forever […the unions] are dependent on political parties. (Interview 29/11/99).


In the campesino unions…political parties are making all of the decisions from above; our brothers [the campesino leaders] are like their pawns…CONAMAQ is working from the bottom-up (interview CONAMAQ 08/09/99).


The Reply of the Campesino Secretarios.  Interestingly, the campesino leaders both deny and affirm the mallkus call.  Many campesino leaders concur with the need to recuperate ayllu traditions, and some leaders even state the need for the campesino confederation to hold a constituent congress and change its name and possibly its structure to something more explicitly “indigenous.”  Echoing this, other campesino leaders reject unionism: 


Under the name of campesinos they gave us land…they should have under the agrarian reform valued our own names as Aymaras, Quechuas, and Guaranies. […] We are not syndicalists.  They have imposed that name on us; they have brought it from outside. (Interview 12/03/98).


On the other hand, campesino leaders criticize the ayllu movement for favouring negotiation over contestation and having what they see as a discourse close to that of the state.  They even argue that these attributes make the ayllu federations “not indigenous:” 


I believe that some NGOs are encouraging them to recover our ayllus, our original organisations, even the Viceministry of Indigenous Affairs is involved, imposing this from the government.  This we will not allow, because they have nothing to do with ayllus. […] But now we are quite concerned about this problem, before they impose an ayllu confederation from the top down, we are going to change our name of the Confederation with the name originarios, and we will be recovering our ayllus; it is our organisational form. (Interview 12/03/98).


Although it is now a little late to stop an ayllu confederation from forming, we see in this interchange similarities and differences that mark what it means to be “indigenous.”  The mallkus of the ayllu movement stressed criteria such as knowledge and practice of norms and customs of indigenous culture and the continuity of these practices since pre-Colombian or even pre-Inca times.  Both sides suggested the importance of rejecting “outside influences:” for the mallkus it was the union itself, as well as political parties, while for the union leaders it was the state and foreign NGOs.  In addition, the peasant leaders stressed the importance of political tactics and strategy.  And both the original authorities and the campesino leaders are claiming indigenous status and managing ethnic discourse.

Finally, this conversation is significant because others, such as national and international support NGOs, and even members of governmental institutions, share the positions taken by the ayllu and campesino federations.  “Transnational communities” articulate around the two sides of this conversation.[13]




Overview of ayllu movement consequences 

In the past fifteen years the ayllu has shifted from cultural paradigm to political subject, in part through creating larger federations claiming representation.  It is largely in the last five years, however, that it has gained visible presence and public recognition.  Key here was the formation of a national organisation, CONAMAQ, in 1997.  In spite of these advances, the ayllu movement is not yet as well known as the campesino movement around the CSUTCB, and the campesino organisations bolstered their position through its September/October protests.  One result of this rebellion was the re-creation of a state Campesino Affairs institution, which had previously been abolished.  Moreover, the new institution is now at the level of “Viceministry,” pushing the Indigenous Affairs institution from its previous “Vice-Ministry” level to the full ministerial level.  But the long-run signs may point to the ayllu movement becoming more prominent if not dominant.  What are these signs and consequences?      


a.       Shift in indigenous movement discourse.  The conversation around what it means to be indigenous or originario in the Bolivian highlands has expanded.  The ayllu movement successfully tapped into a key component of existing indigenous movement ideology, and a latent part of the campesino federation’s own ideology, “out-indigenising” the campesinos and forcing them to re-take the ayllu and indigenous culture in a more serious way.  They would fail to do so at their peril.

b.      Shift in cultural imagery of regions.  There is a view among some in Bolivia that the “real Indians” live in the lowlands, while in the highlands they have all turned into campesinos since the 1952 establishment of the corporatist state and the 1953 agrarian reform.  The ayllu movement contests this, and makes “real original people” appear more prominently in the Bolivian highlands.

c.       Organisation and network changes.   Within Bolivia, ayllu federations have developed closer relations to lowland indigenous federations than have the campesino organisations.  There may also be a future shift in the campesino union name and structure.  Internationally, the ayllu movement may be taking the place of the CSUTCB as the indigenous representative of the Bolivian highlands.  Certainly no one is proposing exchanges between the Ecuadorian indigenous movement and the Bolivian peasant unions, whereas ten years ago they participated together in international meetings.

d.      Shift in funding flows.  Increasing funds are going to the ayllu movement directly and indirectly. 

·        IBIS from Denmark now funding an ayllu federation in Potosi Department, and is eager to get more involved.

·        Plan Internacional Bolivia is funding the Andean Oral History Workshop to conduct workshops on education reform with local school boards, which the Workshop combines with pro-ayllu organising.

·        DANIDA (Danish Official Development Agency) may shift some of its highland funding that travels indirectly to highland indigenous peoples through implementation of the Popular Participation Law to specifically indigenous programs going through the Indigenous Ministry.

·        The World Bank in Bolivia is increasingly interested in the ayllu movement and may soon incorporate it into programs and policies.

To what extent this takes away absolute quantities of funds from campesino organisations I cannot verify, but the relative balance of funding is shifting away from the campesino organisations and toward the ayllu federations.

e.       Potential future shifts in state-society relations.  First, the ability to create indigenous territories through indigenous municipal districts or original community lands may grant more autonomy to indigenous people in those areas, and redistribute administrative rules over Bolivian space.  Second, the ayllu movement’s tactical approach may promote governance practices around “dialogue” rather than “protest/repress/negotiate” pattern typical of state-indigenous relations in highland Bolivia. 



This paper has argued that the creation of a new political subject in Bolivia around the ayllu social movement is not only “Bolivian” but also a product of transnational networks and the fluid and multiple authorities within them.  Understanding this process demands a focus on interaction among network actors, including the distribution of legitimacy among them, the criteria for legitimacy and identity validation, and the ideologies at play in legitimacy battles.  The appeal of a clear and “authentic” indigenous (ethnic) identity centred on the ayllu and traditional authorities gained recognition and funding for the new indigenous organisations, but also attracted ideas and expectations about the movement’s politics and tactics that have shaped its emergence as a political figure.  These dynamics also unleashed a series of unintended consequences that further reconfigure civil society organisations, funding flows, and state-society relations. 

The transnational validation of a new political identity in Bolivia also appears to entail the weakening and discrediting of “old” identities and tactics rooted in class-based protest politics.  This may have some unintended consequences of its own, one of those being limiting possible avenues of citizenship and representation to ethnicity and quiescence.  In a supposedly open pluralist and liberal era, both within Bolivia and worldwide, this would be an ironic outcome indeed.  It would also seem to play into the construction of highly institutionalised democracies and “liberal-cultural” economies.  Resistance to this construction might be in danger of being reduced to an “ethno-masquerade,” undermining the authenticity that is a key basis for movement legitimacy.












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[1] For ayllu descriptions see Platt (1982), Rivera (1990), Taller de Historia Oral Andina (1995) and Ticona and Albo (1998).

[2] This paper will focus on the last of these moves.  It will also use the Spanish term campesino and “peasant” interchangeably.  Campesino is probably a more accurate term, as it refers more generally to “rural people” and small agricultural producers, who today are quite rarely “peasants” in the feudal sense.

[3] See Hurtado (1986), Rivera (1987), Pacheco (1992), Calla (1993), and Patzi (1998).

[4] The material for this paper was gathered during fieldwork visits to the Andes in 1998, 1999, and 2000.  The fieldwork involved in-depth interviewing, participant observation, and collecting primary and secondary document sources.  I worked with ayllu movement leaders and supporters during the 1999 visit.

[5] Radcliffe (2001) argues that networks “recruit” members into a common ideology or operating framework.

[6] In this sense, both social movements and states mobilise (or attract) international resources.

[7] Departments are Bolivia’s largest political subdivision, followed by provinces, sections, and municipalities.

[8] It was eventually published as Rivera and THOA (1992), and in abridged form in Rivera (1990).

[9] CONAMAQ stands for the Ayllu and Marka Council of Bolivia.  Marka is a broader territorial and political space grouping various ayllus together.  Suyu is an even broader spatial concept having a regional or country level meaning.

[10] For greater detail about the making, passing, and implementation of these reforms, see Van Cott (2000).

[11] The term “indigenous” is used by Bolivian lowlanders who identify with a pre-Colombian heritage.  This term has not caught on as much with their highland counterparts, who felt it was imposed by anthropologists, and preferred the term “originario.” 

[12] CIDOB’s headquarters are in the lowland city of Santa Cruz, but it maintains a smaller office in La Paz in order to have a presence in the capital city.

[13] The ayllu movement’s international donors, local NGOs such as the Andean Oral History Workshop, functionaries of the Indigenous Affairs Viceministry, and even former Bolivian Vice-President Victor Hugo Cardenas, share the ayllu movement’s position.  A key Swiss donor, and key Bolivian NGOs such as the Campesino Promotion Centre (CIPCA) share the campesino union’s position.