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Bolivia’s indigenous poor issue poverty ultimatum to new government

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Representatives of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples have issued a stark warning of further unrest to the transitional government, unless widespread reform to address poverty is quickly put in place. The exile of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to Miami on 17 October followed widespread demonstrations by Bolivia’s poor. Many, including rural farmers and miners, felt let down by a government that failed to respond to their needs, and that reacted with brutal armed force against protestors, leaving over 70 dead in the last month.

The protests were apparently sparked by government plans to export natural gas to the United States, which many felt would benefit only the US itself, foreign investors and Bolivia’s wealthy elite. However, as Minority Rights Group International (MRG) highlighted in its 2003 study, indigenous poverty, marginalization, economic exclusion and lack of political participation have been firmly established features of Bolivian society for centuries and are a major factor in the unrest. In Bolivia indigenous peoples constitute a majority of the population and a disproportionately high percentage of the poor, whose main priorities include jobs.

In 2002, 14.4 per cent of Bolivia’s population lived on less than $1 per day and the poorest 20 per cent of the population had a share of only 4 per cent of income. The transitional government under former vice president Mr Carlos Mesa, faces the difficult task of rapidly reforming a deeply divided nation in which institutional racism is endemic and entrenched. His appointment on Sunday of a special coordinator for indigenous affairs is a positive step, however the new 14-member cabinet remains overwhelmingly drawn from the white elite. Mr Mesa has stated that he will hold early elections but is not likely to change the US supported policy of eradicating coca plantations, which many of Bolivia’s poor have turned to as a vital means of income since little or no viable alternative exists.

Indigenous organizations in Bolivia have a history of mobilization to achieve recognition of their rights as demonstrated in large-scale protests in 1991, which led the government to ratify ILO Convention 169 on indigenous rights. This created the foundations for more widespread constitutional reform in 1994 reflecting the concerns of indigenous peoples at the policy-making level. However, indigenous organizations were concerned that progressive provisions were failing to be implemented and exploitation and lack of consultation remained the norm. The development of the Bolivian Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) required by the IMF and World Bank included provisions for a participatory process, however despite initial consultations, this has proved largely ineffective.

Director of Minority Rights Group International, Mark Lattimer, stated: ‘Minority Rights Group International has highlighted the fact that similar circumstances of poverty amongst indigenous peoples exist in numerous Latin American states, including Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The Bolivian example should act as a warning to these governments that the demands of social justice cannot be ignored.’

MRG calls on the Bolivian transitional government and future elected governments to implement far-reaching reforms to address indigenous poverty, including obligations under the provisions of ILO Convention 169. Full participation of indigenous peoples in the planning, design, implementation and monitoring of policies that affect them should be ensured. Disaggregated data should be collected on indigenous peoples to identify their specific circumstance of poverty and assist in the design of policies that address these circumstances.

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