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The Search for Indigenous Justice in Plurinational Bolivia: Contested Sovereignties, Entanglement, and the Politics of Harm


This dissertation examines the effects of state-led decolonization in Bolivia among historically marginalized rural indigenous communities the Andean highlands. As part of its efforts to decolonize society, Bolivia’s revolutionary 2009 constitution declared the country a “communitarian, plurinational state” and granted indigenous people the right to exercise their own forms of justice. My analysis shows significant disagreement over the meaning of justice as indigenous leaders develop grassroots legal strategies to implement this right in a variety of contexts. At the national level, indigenous legal activists seek to redirect institution building processes back toward their own longstanding project of self-determination, revealing significant disagreement over who decides the proper role of the state in plurinational Bolivia. At the local level, I show how winning legal recognition of jurisdiction over (often decades-long) land disputes in rural highland communities carried with it the onerous task of untangling the extremely complicated and historically constructed problems that were often entangled into the disputed land itself, including competing claims to land rights and government corruption. Unable to address communities’ practical concerns, local organizations lost legitimacy, often leading to more even uncertainty or conflict.

Ultimately, this research shows how liberal law operates to maintain hierarchies of race, even in context like Bolivia, where new forms of legal pluralism have been advanced as a tool to dismantle them. I approach indigenous justice, not as an object with distinct values and practices to be studied, but rather as a diagnostic tool that leaders take up to analyze overlapping structural harms masked by state recognition and discourses of indigeneity. Writing from the uncertainties that indigenous legal activists face as they come up against the constraints of their own legal strategies, my research shows how the search for indigenous justice nonetheless opens critical space for imagining alternatives from the perspective of entangled and always-contested social projects on the ground.

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