Book Review: Penelope Anthias’ Limits to Decolonization



Limits to Decolonization is a rich ethnographic account of an indigenous struggle for territorial recognition in a context of intensifying extractivism. It traces the historical demand of Guaraní communities to regain control of their ancestral territory in the Bolivian Chaco where most of the country’s gas extraction takes place. While the topic is stereotypical of indigenous rights campaigns, Anthias’ thick ethnographical work and years of active engagement with the different actors have resulted in an approach to the interrelationship between indigeneity, territory, and resource extraction is non-reductionist. It consciously avoids an omniscient bird’s-eye view common in paternalistic readings that exalt indigenous difference for the purpose of aligning the research to predefined political agendas. From the outset, Anthias explicitly acknowledges her positionality as a white female outsider and promises to offer a “critical reflection on decolonization rather than a piece of decolonial scholarship by and for indigenous peoples” (p. 15). Moreover, her analysis of subaltern agency allows for contradiction and moral ambiguity. Consequently, indigenous people are not painted in monochrome terms as victims or heroes, nor are white ranchers simply portrayed as villains.

After discussing the theoretical orientation, the book develops the argument in six empirical chapters followed by a short conclusion. Chapter 1 describes the origins of the land claim and the formation of the Asamblea del Pueblo Guaraní Itika Guasu (APG-IG, Assembly of the Guaraní People of Itika Guasu), an organization forged to counter ethnic and class oppression by local hacendados (or owners of haciendas). As part of a broader indigenous movement, the APG-IG participated in a series of mobilizations leading to the enactment of a new land law that, for the first time, formally recognised indigenous territories as Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (TCOs, Native community lands). The reform takes place in the mid-1990s during the heyday of neoliberalism in the country. Therefore, the Bolivian state starts demarcating TCOs largely as an attempt to consolidate its cultural project of “neoliberal multiculturalism”. Anthias meticulously scrutinises the case of the TCO Itika Guasu and shows that mapping and titling territories as means of ensuring indigenous rights is highly problematic and it could even be counterproductive. This is one of the two central themes of the book discussed in depth from Chapter 2 through 4.

Chapter 2 delves into the process of TCO demarcation by state officials and how these were challenged by Guaraní activists. Anthias applies a Foucauldian lens here to highlight how certain types of knowledge were legitimised and others muted during this process, ultimately “subordinating indigenous territorial claims to established limits of state and settler geographies” (p. 83). Chapter 3 examines the entrenched ethnic and class tensions within the Chaco region. We are introduced to the local karai (white) elite of ranchers as well as campesino smallholders who had settled in the region decades ago. Through practices such as the invocation of nationalist sentiments and the threat of violence, these actors defended their property rights curtailing, in turn, the Guaraní’s aspiration of regaining effective control over the territory. Chapter 4 provides a vivid ethnographic account of the effects of TCO demarcation on local Guaraní communities. The titling process results in a vast but discontinuous territory where the other claimants – mostly ranchers from the traditional elite – consolidate their private property rights while most Guaraní people are relegated to marginal land. This led Anthias to claim that the “TCO titling failed to modify, and served to reinforce, a postcolonial logic of property that makes alternative imaginaries of territory both invisible and unviable” (p. 180, emphasis in original).

Chapters 5 and 6 elaborate on the second central theme of the book, namely the formation of an alternative understanding of territorial autonomy by the Guaraní people as they responded to the intensification of hydrocarbon development. Chapter 5 explores the political ecology of gas extraction in the Chaco region since the early 2000s, providing a rich account of the negotiations that the APG-IG carried out with the state and transnational companies. It presents the tensions and disillusionment with the government of Evo Morales as well as the signing of a controversial “agreement of friendship” between the Guaraní organization and the Spanish multinational Repsol. In Chapter 6, Anthias examines how the Guaraní conceptualization of territorial autonomy has shifted from reclaiming communal land towards a “vision of gas-funded autonomy” (p. 205). Increasingly, as she demonstrates, capturing gas rents has come to dominate the politics of the APG-IG. However, to suggest that Guaraní people simply succumbed to rent-seeking behaviour would be simplistic cautions Anthias. Instead, she argues that their new pragmatic approach “must be placed in the context of a MUCH longer struggle for territorial recognition, sovereignty, and citizenship” (p. 246). She, therefore, coins the term “hydrocarbon citizenship” to capture their repositioning in the new conjuncture. This new form of citizenship recognition subordinates and aligns their struggle with the state’s extractivist agenda, and may well be in line with a broader shift at the national level as Bolivians reconfigure notions of citizenship and nation after the so-called gas war of 2003.

For all its merits, there are two questions that the book’s analysis does not fully address. First, it does not clearly state the nature of the project of decolonization in question. Anthias alludes to “a new discourse of state-led decolonization” (p.12) under the Morales’ administration but this is usually conflated with its “post-neoliberal” vision of resource allocation. How decolonization is understood by both the state and the Guaraní people remains largely unspecified. What is implied is that a genuine project of decolonization would fully recognise indigenous sovereignty over their territories. This runs the risk of reproducing essentialist notions of indigeneity that, as Tania Li argues, constructs people as culturally distinct from an assumed permanent attachment to a fixed area of land. Second, while the ethnographic data allows for a deep immersion into the lives of Guaraní communities, more attention to their internal class differentiation would help to elucidate the differentiated impact of the changing conditions. This is crucial to properly explain who benefits and who loses out through the tactics employed by Guaraní leaders. I explain such dynamics in my research in a different TCO, that of Guarayos in northeast Bolivia, here.

In exploring the historical evolution of the Guaraní people’s ethno-territorial claim, Limits to Decolonization makes an important contribution to the growing literature on indigenous politics in contemporary Bolivia. More broadly, this thought-provoking book casts light on the limits of indigenous mapping and the reconfiguration of citizenship within extractivist geographies.

[This is an abridged version. Read the full review here.]

Enrique Castañón Ballivián has a PhD in Development Studies from SOAS University of London.

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