Identity Politics and the Coca Leaf: Negotiating Indigeneity and Citizenship among the Coca Peasants in Bolivia

  • Häkkinen, Hannu (PI)
  • Pellegrini, Alessandra (PI)

Project Details


Combining debates on indigeneity with issues of peasant economies and social mobility, this study analyses the coca grower’s positioning vis-à-vis the discourses of the indigenous “living well” of the Evo Morales administration in Bolivia. His administration has been characterized by defining indigenous peoples as the ideological pillar of the newly refounded “plurinational state”, and coca earned a central place within these discourses, as it is thought to be part of ancient indigenous cultures. This study about coca growers in the Yungas - which is considered to be the “traditional coca growing region” - looks at how they adopt, challenge, negotiate and reinterpret the government’s discourse on “indigenous peoples”. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork carried out between 2006 and 2012, I suggest that people from the Yungas are reluctant to embrace the politics of indigeneity, although in some ways it could be argued that they epitomize the idea of “indigenous peoples” by being descendants of Aymara highland migrants from some hundred years ago and cultivating a crop considered to be an essential part of indigenous cultures. Instead, I show how they have carved out a space for themselves between the identity categories of “indigenous”, “non-indigenous”, and “mestizo”, and have filled this space with their own notion of what a legitimate, “real”, and specifically “traditional” coca grower is. This notion is predicated upon increasing market-based initiatives, and on an increasing identification with middle-class economic and social practices. By this, I argue that they create a new form of Bolivian middle-classness which is not bound to urban spaces and becoming mestizos. Rather, it is a kind of middle-classness which is bound to their peasant identity and their political positioning as coca growers, and the specificities of this middle-classness are bound to the specific features of the coca economy. By creating a new notion of middle-classness, people in the Yungas challenge the government’s politics of indigeneity and its discourse on the indigenous “living well”. Throughout this study, I describe what this new Bolivian middle-classness implies, how it is expressed in everyday life in the Yungas, and how through the reference to coca, multiple differentiations to other social groups are made.By taking the specific case of the coca growers in the Yungas, this study is concerned with finding new ways of conceptualising situations where globally defined “indigenous” people do not adopt this idea as their self-expression. It expands the culturalist focus in discourses on indigeneity with an economic view, and elaborates on the specific ways how prosperity and ethnic identification in Latin America become increasingly disarticulated, making new forms of social mobility and political positioning thinkable.

Effective start/end date4/01/1131/12/12


  • Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen Forschung


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