Limits to Decolonization: Indigeneity, Territory, and Hydrocarbon Politics in the Bolivian Chaco

Dr. Penelope Anthias visited the Center for Latin American Studies to discuss her book Limits to Decolonization.

Limits to Decolonization: Indigeneity, Territory, and Hydrocarbon Politics in the Bolivian Chaco

May 14, 2019 - Pia Molina

On April 10, Dr. Penelope Anthias presented to a room full of University of Florida students and faculty from across campus on her premier book, Limits to Decolonization. Grisell Santiago's Advanced Spanish class from P.K. Yonge was also present at the event. Anthias began her talk by briefly mapping out the meaning of “hydrocarbon citizenship” as discussed in her book. The story focused on the 36 Guaraní Indigenous communities located in the ancestral territory of the Bolivian Chaco; a gas-rich area that Indigenous groups have long contested for control and land rights.

Penelope Anthias
Dr. Penelope Anthias (front and center) with Professor Grisell Santiago's P.K. Yonge Advanced Spanish and Literature class.

Anthias’ presentation began with the historical context that set the scene for the “waves of dispossession” and violent erasure of the Guaraní. Anthias highlighted the 1892 Kuruyuki Massacre, a clear demonstration of the Bolivian state's active oppression of Indigenous communities. The slave-like treatment of Indigenous communities is not an unusual history experienced by South America's lowland communities. Anthias emphasized that the struggle for territory has been a decolonial struggle, in which land rights are meant to extend to broader goals that aim to decolonize the treatment of Indigenous communities.

The struggle for land rights, however, was further complicated by the introduction of neoliberal multiculturalism in the South American context. At first, this multicultural shift appeared to benefit Indigenous people, as it argued for their own development of cultural values and priorities. Anthias focused on how during the 1990s, development institutions began to promote legal mechanisms for the recognition of Indigenous land rights. She discussed how this was the context that allowed for the creation of Bolivia’s Native Community Lands or TCOs. Although they were brought on and overseen by organizations like the World Bank, Anthias mentioned that TCOs were not a top-down policy but rather came about from a decade-long struggle by Bolivia’s lowland Indigenous movement.

This was emblematic of the agency and sustained resistance exhibited by the Indigenous people. Anthias continued her talk by focusing on how Evo Morales' 2005 election and subsequent presidency highlights the limits of decolonization. The gap between Morales’ promise to continue the struggle towards decolonization and the material manifestation of Indigenous land rights has pushed Indigenous communities to pursue an economic model that links Guaraní control of their territory to the control of gas rents, thus the conception of hydrocarbon citizenship.

In her talk, Anthias also reflected on how her own territorial practices have contributed to placing limits on the Indigenous struggle. Going forward, Anthias positions this struggle as a longer post-colonial fight for new governable spaces as discussed in the emerging literature. Her talk concluded with one question for the audience: Can we continue to look to Indigenous peoples like the Guaraní for a way out of the colonial present, given the acute constraints they face? The audience engaged with this question and reflected on what future efforts to further indigenous rights will look like given that traditional decolonial struggles have not yielded the promises put forth by leaders like Morales.

Dr. Anthias' visit was organized by Dr. Joel Correia as part of the MALAS Indigenous Studies Specialization Speaker Series, with support from the Center for Latin American Studies and the Department of Anthropology.

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