There’s a certain legend here that says “Bolivia doesn’t exist”. It’s a story which I’ve heard several times, though never told in quite the same way. But it goes something like this: after a drunken state affair turned sour, President Malgarejo, an infamous late 19th century Bolivian dictator, paraded the English Ambassador around the main square in La Paz on a donkey and then threw him out of the country. Upon hearing the news, with one fell stroke of her royal pen an enraged Queen Victoria scratched Bolivia from the world map forever. Many Bolivians genuinely believe this amazing story to be true. Speak to them and they’ll swear Bolivia is languishing from that one indiscretion to this day. Others say it’s no more than a myth, a yarn to be told in a bar with a cool beer in your hand and good company at your side. Nevertheless, stop to talk seriously with Bolivians and you’ll find that many do believe the country doesn’t exist – only it’s in a far more subtle and complicated way. Gonzalo Colque, the director of Fundación Tierra in La Paz, is one such Bolivian:
“Bolivia isn’t unified. Firstly, because its many indigenous peoples, who actually make up the majority, were excluded and marginalized for years.
“Secondly, because there’s a lot of historical social conflicts. The relationship between Bolivia’s different native communities has always been complex and strained,” he said.
If Bolivia exists at all, it clearly has its identity crises. In fact, it’s officially made up of 36 separate indigenous communities. In 2009, President Evo Morales completely rewrote the constitution and rechristened Bolivia the ‘Plurinational State’ to try to embrace them all. Despite this show of oneness, many Bolivians remain unconvinced. Many don’t even accept the term ‘Bolivian’. Welcome to Bolivia then, a nation divided along invisible lines: east and west; the loose borders that separate one ancestral community from the next; and, strongest of all, the breach between the tropical lowlands and the cold and blustery highlands.
Or so it seemed. A recent indigenous anti-road march from the heart of Bolivia’s Amazon basin to La Paz high in the Andes not only tested the government but challenged these age-old perceptions as well. The march successfully forced Evo Morales’ government into a U-turn – it cancelled its plan for a major highway through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), the protestors’ ancestral home. But the march had an important by-product too– it united Bolivians in a sense of common purpose. On the 25 September, about five weeks after they set out, the marchers’ peaceful way was blocked by 500 police officers. They were gagged, beaten and bound. That was a Sunday. By the Monday a nationwide strike had been called in outrage at their treatment. Great swathes of the country were galvanized overnight.
Despite their differences, one thing that undoubtedly binds Bolivians is their intolerance of violence against their own. Stay here long enough and you’ll discover that as far as a Bolivian is concerned no-one needs to die for an injustice to be branded a massacre, and that’s precisely what they’ve done in this case. The TIPNIS cause has become about far more than the environment, it’s become a rallying point and a symbol for disparate groups the length and breadth of the country who demand self-determination and greater respect from the government.
When the marchers finally arrived in La Paz after 65 long days, tens of thousands of jubilant Bolivians welcomed them into the city as heroes. The cheering corridor of well-wishers guided the 1,000 weary men, women and children right to the President’s doorstep to present their demands. It’s a day that will stay with me for many years; I suspect it’ll stay with the marchers for many more still.
In the middle of the rapturous crowd I asked one of them, Javier Collar, how he felt. The black flag he’d carried the whole way for his leader who’d died in a plane crash at the start of the march still sat heavy on his shoulder as he replied.
“Many of us did probably think that we were divided. But what we go through in the lowlands is the same as they go through here in the highlands. The virtue of this march has been that it’s reminded us of that reality, that Bolivia is one Bolivia, one heart,” he said, smiling through the tears welling up in his eyes.