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ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies Social and Cultural Anthropology

Becoming a Peasant Middle Class: Coca Growers and the Politics of Indigeneity in the Bolivian Yungas

Alessandra Pellegrini


When Evo Morales took over the presidency in 2006, he has been described by many as the “first indigenous president” of Bolivia. Since then, his administration has been characterized on the one hand by a prominent discourse on indigenous people as being the moral authority of the nation and the state, which is closely linked to an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist stance, frequently invoked in public speeches of government representatives. On the other hand, coca earned a central place within these discourses, as it is thought to be part of ancient indigenous cultures which form the ideological pillar of the newly refounded “plurinational state” of Bolivia. Under the Morales government, coca became an emblem for national identity together with the idea of the moral indigenous people as the basis of the state.

These identity politics build the context of the research about coca growers in the Yungas, the intermontane valleys where coca his historically grown, which is based on fieldwork for two years between 2006 and 2012. As coca growers and as rural peasants, yungueños (people in the Yungas) seem from the outset to be perfectly represented by the new government. However, people from the Yungas do not tie in with this rhetoric on indigenous people when they articulate themselves in public spaces, nor do they refer to themselves simply as coca growers. Thus, while the government invokes the idea of anti-capitalist indigenous people and the coca leaf as an emblem of such an image, the question is how those who actually cultivate the coca leaves that are so much part of these indigenous cultures relate to these identity politics.

One could expect that as coca growers from the so-called “traditional coca growing region” and as rural peasants, yungueños would enthusiastically tie in with the government’s discourse on indigenous peoples. This even more, when considering that the president himself who is a former coca grower (although not from the Yungas) defines himself as being “indigenous” and that this current rhetoric promises advantages as politically visible subjects. However, in public spaces, yungueños do self-identify neither as “indigenous” nor as explicitly “non-indigenous”. By doing so, yungueños are in many ways reluctant to the official discourse on indigenous peoples and coca. They negotiate these discourses, however, by constituting themselves towards the government as a specific kind of coca grower, rather than as “indigenous peoples”. Yungueños have constituted themselves explicitly as “traditional coca growers” – a term widely used by them, but also generally used in Bolivian society – but interestingly they have done so without expressing this identification through the language of indigeneity. Rather, yungueños carve out a political position where they develop a politicised identity bound to economic dynamics, the creation of wealth, and new meanings of history and tradition. This is linked to their increasingly successful social mobility and the creation of a new mode of peasant affluence, which challenge the complicated relationship between ethnic and economic categorisations in Bolivian society. Yungueños are actually an emerging rural middle class, but without changing their ethnic identification towards becoming mestizos – so-called “whitening” – which is generally thought to be the case in Latin America.

This research addresses the question why some people do explicitly not self-identify as being “indigenous”. The general issue is about what happens when the state itself endorses a discourse on indigenous peoples as part of its politics, whereas generally, the discourse on indigenous peoples has been a discourse in resistance to the state. Thus, this research shows how the global idea of “indigenous peoples” expressed in the government’s as well as in the academic discourse is locally challenged and negotiated by those who would most likely epitomise it.