- Limits to Decolonization: Indigeneity, Territory, and Hydrocarbon Politics in the Bolivian Chaco by Penelope Anthias
Limits to Decolonization: Indigeneity, Territory, and Hydrocarbon Politics in the Bolivian Chaco
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018. x + 304 pp. Notes, glossary, references, and index. $27.95 paper (ISBN: 978–1–5017–1436–8); $95.00 cloth (ISBN: 978–1–5017–1435–1).
In what ways is the self-proclaimed decolonizing administration of Evo Morales shaping the lives of lowland indigenous people in Bolivia? How have hydrocarbon (oil and natural gas) politics impacted these dynamic processes of change? Anthias tackles these questions through an ethnographic study of communities in Itika Guasu, a Guaraní territory in the Bolivian Chaco recently titled by the state, although its boundaries remain in dispute. The territory is one of the sites where Bolivia is involved in intensive hydro-carbon extraction to fund widespread social reform programs enacted since the election of Evo Morales in 2005. Anthias shows how both the social reforms and extractive processes have complicated land titling strategies, upset power relationships, and divided communities in the lowlands.
The first three chapters analyze the historic process of land titling practices, while the last three focus on the ways in which local politics and hydrocarbon extraction are reshaping the Bolivian lowlands. The book is organized clearly, beginning with a discussion of the history of struggles over land and human rights of the Guaraní in southeastern Bolivia. Anthias explains how the Guaraní had autonomy over a large area of the dry, flat Chaco until the late 1800s when settlers massacred indigenous communities and began ranching on the land to supply the needs of highland mining cities. The ranchers used the Guaraní as slave labor until the practice was banned after the Bolivian National Revolution of 1952. Little else changed, however, until the lowland indigenous communities began to organize in the late 1980s. As some indigenous groups gained rights to territory in the 1990s, neoliberal privatizations and corporate tax breaks coincided to entice foreign hydrocarbon companies into the same territories. The election of the first indigenous president in the country’s history, Evo Morales, did not end hydrocarbon extraction on indigenous lands. Instead, Morales relied on newly renegotiated rents from the foreign companies to fund social reforms.
Many lowland indigenous people felt like victims of the Morales reforms rather than winners as hydrocarbon policies superseded their rights. It is on this point where Anthias makes her strongest contribution to the literature. She dissects the divisions in the local communities caught in power struggles over [End Page 268] strategies to deal with the impacts of hydro-carbon extraction on their lands. Her analysis is reinforced as she emphasizes the many different competing groups in the communities besides the Guaraní, including highland colonizers and their descendants, ranchers, and others. The indigenous territory exists, as she explains, within an “entangled landscape” (173). Additionally, she demonstrates how local and national political figures co-opted these struggles for personal gain, using historical constructions of race and ethnicity to sow discord. The election of Evo Morales in 2005 exacerbated racial discourse in the lowlands and instigated a sometimes violent movement for departmental autonomy to protect lowland business interests from interference from La Paz. She explains how all of this has taken place amid severe environmental conditions in the Chaco brought about by anthropogenic climate change, including from the impacts of hydrocarbon extraction.
This comprehensive study builds on earlier work in this region by Nancy Postero, Bret Gustafson, and others. Anthias is well-versed in this literature, and her work effectively uses theoretical concepts of indigenous struggles, extractive politics, and property to clearly frame her arguments. Her use of the concept “hydrocarbon citizenship,” however, could be better defined and distinguished from hydrocarbon nationalism, or Postero’s “postmulticultural citizenship” (Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Postmulticultural Bolivia, 2007).
While the references to the many local and national agencies and their acronyms can be confusing at times, it is this level of detail, and the individual stories that are told, that makes this book so important. We clearly see the issues that divide families and communities, muddying the political rhetoric. People...