Carlos Mamani

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1995
Centro de Estudios Andinos
This description of Carlos Mamani's work was prepared when Carlos Mamani was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


Carlos Mamani reduces discrimination and social alienation among Bolivia's indigenous peoples by strengthening and legitimizing the traditional ayllu system of governance in the Andean highlands.

The New Idea

Carlos Mamani works to restore, strengthen and reinforce the ayllu, a system of governance and social interaction applied by three million people, 40 percent of Bolivia's indigenous population. Predating the Inca conquest, ayllu communities are still a way of life in Bolivia's Altiplano, the highlands among the peaks of the Andes. Settlements are based on watersheds, which are networks with natural and logical boundaries. All lands are held by the community and, except for small garden plots, land allocation decisions are made communally. Most of the community's work is done cooperatively. Leadership rotates among families. Decisions about water use, food production and education are made by this rotating authority. Carlos is teaching the people who live in ayllus how to evolve them into official local authorities. There is a strong political tide in Bolivia in support of the formation of local governments, in the hope that they will more effectively address the country's poverty than their national counterparts have. In 1995 the Congress enacted the Popular Participation Act, which provides mechanisms for municipalities to set their own priorities and secure funds directly from the government; as a result, in less than two years, the number of municipalities in the country has grown from 21 to 311. The Act provides that officially recognized indigenous groups may also participate along with municipalities. The law has provided an opening for them to secure a degree of legitimacy they have not enjoyed for 500 years of colonial rule. But the Act was created for municipalities, in the language of their bureaucracy, and there remains the arduous task of creating mechanisms to implement its potential in the ayllus. Carlos has devised mechanisms to take what already existed in the ayllu, even though it operated outside the political system, and strengthen it so it can meld with the other existing political structures. He is building a sense of identity and self-respect within the ayllu communities while he teaches them how to become consistent with Bolivia's legal and political system. He envisions the ayllu, the trade unions and the political parties all working together within Bolivia's constitutional government, based on acknowledgment that the ayllu are of value and must have a place in the republic.

The Problem

Indigenous peoples constitute 75 percent of Bolivia's population, but they are often excluded from the country's civil processes because of racial discrimination and because they have been politically sidelined. Starting in 1952 the Bolivian government introduced a new official system based on popular vote, political parties and labor unions for the country's then-numerous tin miners. Thus other structures were superimposed on the ayllu, the indigenous people's traditional system, and given power over them; for example, a person might well be elected to have authority over an ayllu even though he had never seen it before and was alien to its culture, simply because of his party affiliation. Ayllu inhabitants have become increasingly dependent upon decisions made by strangers about issues that affect them. For example, the state really educates only city children. Few indigenous children go to school and never in their own language. Questions about grazing rotations and harvests have been handed off to elected officials instead of to the community leaders. Over the years overgrazing became common; the fragile land suffered, especially during a long drought in the 1980s, and corruption set in at every level. Definitions of community boundaries became unclear. While agrarian reforms in 1952 and 1975 ended absentee ownership by a small number of wealthy landlords and redistributed land, they failed to honor the ownership that altiplano families throughout history have exercised in common and gave land that some groups, such as the Aymara, had occupied to others. Land-title disputes remain a serious and often violent problem. In 1990 the government passed a law to acknowledge the right of indigenous people to acquire title to their collective lands, but nothing was done to implement it. The ayllu inhabitants have been the objects of determined attempts to make them less "backward" and to urge them into the formal economy, which emphasizes the production of exportable goods. But the efforts of unions, parties and others to organize and politicize the altiplano's indigenous people have increased racial discrimination and poverty. These attempts failed, in part because they were resented as unfriendly and intrusive; they also were promoted by outsiders, traditionally viewed with great suspicion by the indigenous peoples.

The Strategy

Carlos's strategy involves the community, national and international levels to establish the rights of indigenous peoples to administer their own territory, drawing on their social and cultural traditions. He cites an international convention ratified by nations in Geneva in 1991 as "the most important" international legal support of his model. It stipulates the right for indigenous peoples "to formulate priorities and participate in formations of plans for development, the right to conserve their customs and their own institutions with their own original authorities." (International Convenio Law #169 and Law #1257, International Labor Organization, July 1991.) Since the whole history of the Andean people is oral, a major tool for this work is Andean Oral History Workshop, a nonprofit organization that Carlos helped to found for the purpose of reestablishing knowledge of the ayllu system by talking to people where it still functions in the altiplano and in Ecuador. Within community groups, Carlos retells the tales from Aymara history and teaches ayllu traditions and techniques that might otherwise be forgotten. He trains people how to exercise leadership when the opportunity arises. He promotes education in the indigenous languages that will develop knowledge of the community's traditions in its children. He uses the conscious practice of traditional rituals and ceremonies to build community pride and the social cohesion that underpin the ayllu system. The work of Ashoka Fellow Cristina Bubba similarly builds the inner strength of the Coroma ayllu, and Ashoka Fellow Maria Eugenia Choque is teaching women how to be part of ayllu leadership.At the regional level, Carlos has helped to bring together ayllu federations of the North and South Ouro, La Paz and Potosi areas for seminars and workshops. In the workshops he educates the Aymara about Bolivia's laws. He compares specific features of the ayllu system and the municipal system. Through the workshops, he and the other leaders have written out the drafts of new constitutions for the ayllu system, and he was instrumental in securing government acceptance of them in 1996, so that ayllu can now have legal representation in Bolivia's government. He has worked to establish a process for securing land titles by serving as a mediator in conflict areas and helping to organize a massive and unforgettable 28-day march by indigenous citizens who demanded that the government make good on its promises. He has taught local people how to write the proposals that the ayllus will be required to submit in order to receive funds from the government, what language to use, what it means and how to carry a bill. He lobbies government and other authorities for a change of attitude: "For the (established) order, it is intolerable that Indians should enjoy autonomy, when the rule is clientalism."Carlos is reaching out to indigenous leaders internationally. He is aware that his strategy can be widely applied in the Bolivian altiplano and in the Andean highlands from southern Colombia to Chile, where the ayllu system was once part of the indigenous peoples' tradition. He also sees that his method of establishing letigimacy for alternative local-government structures is a model for less organized groups.

The Person

Carlos is an Aymara Indian whose indigenous roots and personal familiarity with the ayllu system have enabled him to build upon it. As a boy he watched his father represent the family in the rotational leadership of the ayllu where he grew up. Though many of his childhood peers did not even learn to read, his supportive family and a scholarship enabled him to study history in Ecuador and obtain a master's degree. While he was studying at the university he learned that nothing was written down about the ayllu system. It was totally unacknowledged by any Latin American governments. He set out to bring it to public attention and wrote some of the first books on the subject.Carlos's tireless efforts have made him a natural leader for Bolivia's indigenous peoples. In 1996 he participated in a demonstration to protest the government's failure to deliver on a commitment it had made six years earlier to give title to indigenous people for their collective land. It became known that the government had conceded a large tract of land to an oil company in the low elevations of Bolivia and had also created a national park, both without acknowledgment of the indigenous people who lived in the areas. Indigenous people came from all over the country in a march that lasted 28 days and culminated in a demand at the president's palace to take action. Soon after that a process for securing land titles was established.