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Bolivian indigenous struggle to be heard – by indigenous President Morales

Indigenous groups across Latin America are increasingly butting heads with leaders they elected and demanding greater participation in decisions that affect their ancestral lands.

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The indigenous have also lost a key ally in Ecuador. Groups largely supported the rise of President Rafael Correa and the passage of his 2008 Constitution recognizing a "plurinational" state, but battles have erupted as the indigenous charge that Mr. Correa cares more about resource development than land rights. The president, for his part, has done little to seek compromise, instead putting indigenous leaders and their supporters under investigation for charges such as sabotage. To some analysts, the rifts in the Andean region show the dilemmas posed by fulfilling campaign promises while running modern economies.

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"Correa and Morales came to power reclaiming rights against foreign investment, but they still need it," says Christopher Sabatini, editor in chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly in New York.

They also can't please every faction under the umbrella of a national indigenous community, a community that does not share one platform but has many competing demands, claims, and grievances. And Mr. Sabatini say indigenous groups need new agendas that not only address age-old narratives of land rights but begin to tackle their lack of access to education, health, and other services.

Consultation may encourage claims

Many Latin American nations have signed the International Labor Org­an­iza­tion Convention that asserts native rights to land and prior consultation, says Max­well Cameron, an expert in Latin Amer­ican democratization at the Uni­versity of British Columbia. But in reality, countries differ on how those concepts are put into practice. In Guatemala, for example, despite hundreds of consultations, indigenous claims have been ignored, he says.

Some of the most conflictive protests by indigenous against development and resource extraction in particular have occurred in Peru. In August, the National Congress approved a law that requires companies to consult with communities before commencing projects on their territories.

But when indigenous concerns are taken into account, that could increase – not decrease – conflict. "A mechanism for consultation actually empowers people to make claims," Mr. Cameron says. "It doesn't mean that conflicts go away."

And at the root of the issue in Bolivia is vague terminology over what “consultation” means, how it is conducted, and whether indigenous communities have the last word on whether a project proceeds or not. These are some of the questions that will be grappled with in Bolivia and beyond as the indigenous navigate new powers.

"Historically the Constitution [in Bolivia] remains a highly important step for the rights of indigenous peoples," says Robert Albro, an expert on social and indigenous movements in Latin America at American University. "That is unequivocal," he says. "But it does not make it un-problematically good."

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