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Jose Bailaba Parapaino is one of the village leaders in Santa Rita. He was the first representative of Bolivia’s indigenous population to be elected to congress.

Bolivia: For the right to be treated equally but be different

We visited the village of Santa Rita in Bolivia and met Jose Bailaba Parapino. He’s one of the people leading the struggle for indigenous peoples in Bolivia to have the same rights as everyone else and retain the opportunity to lead according to the traditions and beliefs of their people. 

8/24/2015 Publisher: Daniel Ogalde

Jose was forced into slave labour for two years

A few kilometres outside the small village of Concepcion in Bolivia is Santa Rita, a village comprising simple wooden houses surrounded by the tropical growth that thrives in the warm climate. The road leading there is dusty and makes the jeep lurch. This has been the home of the Chiquitano people for generations. It is quiet and peaceful; the sun has made most people seek shade indoors. Only the crickets and a few birds can be heard along with the rushing of the wind in the trees. But things haven’t always been as they are now.

“Our struggle, which has spanned so many years, has brought us here,” says Jose Bailaba Parapaino, one of the village leaders.

His black hair is adorned with white streaks and frames his sun-tanned face with its friendly eyes. A friendliness that a hard life hasn’t been able to grind down. Jose is one of a terrifying number of people who can still recount tales of time not so long ago in Bolivia, a time when slavery was still a reality.

“For two years I worked on the property of el patron (the landowner). Out in the fields, I used to think that things couldn’t go on like this. That it was wrong and that we needed change.”

Long history of discrimination and oppression

It was only a few decades ago that indigenous peoples did not enjoy freedom of movement in Bolivia. They needed documents – not only ID but also special permits.

“Without these, the police could arrest you with no explanation, and as we had no knowledge of our rights, there was nothing we could do. They scared us into obedience.”

Many would compare the society at that time to a kind of apartheid regime. For example el patron bought permits from the authorities, and if the villagers wanted to have them, they were forced to work for him.

“El patron selected those he wanted to work for him, and to get a permit we were forced to clear a hundred square metres of land from all brushwood and vegetation. We did this with an axe or a machete. Imagine how many trees there are on such a large piece of land. It took about 30 days to get everything done. It was backbreaking work,” says Jose.

The villagers themselves had to provide food and tools. They got up early to journey several kilometres from their homes on foot. Some mention distances of up to 40–50 kilometres that they needed to walk daily to subsequently continue their work in the fields. An inhumane system that was perpetuated largely thanks to the corruption that infected and still infects Bolivia.

Fighting for equality and equal rights

Diego Faldín is another of the leading figures in Santa Rita who, together with Diakonia and our partner organization OICH, has long been fighting for equality in the country. He explains:

“They put us between the sword and the cross. The authorities threatened us with prison if we didn’t do the work, and the church on its part threatened us with the wrath of God. The problem was that these people were often also the landowners, or closely linked to them.

Together with OICH, Diakonia has worked for many years to increase awareness among indigenous peoples of their rights. Leadership training has formed part of this support.

Diego has himself taken part in several rallies to demonstrate for his human rights and right to land.

“We’ve encountered a great deal of prejudice, hate and violence, but we’ve achieved success through dialogue – by not just being aware of our rights but also demanding them,” he says.

Elected to congress

Both Diego and Jose have been arrested by the police several times, but despite all the difficulties they have faced, their successes have still been more numerous. One such victory was when Jose, as the first indigenous representative, was elected to congress. This would also turn out to be a major challenge.

“It was tough. Me among all these rich congressmen in jackets and ties. When I first showed up in my traditional dress, they didn’t want to let me in the room. They wanted to force me to wear clothes that weren’t mine – to be someone I wasn’t. But I could always say with my head held high that in the same way as they had been elected by the people, so had I. Today, the situation has changed, and we’ve won the right to be treated equally but to be different,” says Jose with pride.

Slavery persists but in a different form

Even if the work on human rights – and equality in particular – has come a long way in a country that today calls itself “plurinational”, the road is still a long one. Bolivia is a country still characterised by a great deal of prejudice and racism, particularly in relation to minorities such as indigenous peoples.

“There’s still slavery but in a different form, and unfortunately it still affects many people. The problem is not only a lack of compliance with legislation, it’s also that the legislation isn’t implemented by the authorities and police. This means that many people today are forced to work for less than the minimum wage or, even worse, receive no payment for work they have performed because their employer has packed their things and disappeared, or simply refuses to pay up,” says Diego Faldín.

For Jose, this is a memory from the past. A ghost that bears witness to the discrimination that maybe doesn’t exist anymore in the same form in society but remains in people’s memories. A memory he would prefer to forget and put behind him.

“Missing my family was the worst thing about it. Being away from them for such a long time. I don’t want future generations to have to experience what we experienced. That’s why we need to pass on these memories so that they aren’t forgotten while taking responsibility for ensuring that we know our rights,” says Jose.