This Bolivian indigenous nation made up of almost 2,600 people living north of the La Paz region in the NCL (Native Community Land), Mosetén. They are forced to come to an agreement with timber merchants, which burden them with debt for life.
On both sides of the Cotacajes and Beni rivers, where they join at the Santa Elena River, live the indigenous Mosetén people following their own farming system of rice and yucca, which allows them to be self sufficient and cover their few expenses.
However, this model of coexistence was disturbed by the arrival of the inhabitants of the Andean plateau also known as “Andean colonists”. Attracted by the wealth of timber in the Mosetén region, the merchants intend to take control of the area.
Even though the Bolivian government gave the area the title of Native Community Land (NCL) in 2001 with the aim of protecting it, the pressure on the land and its natural resources has not ceased and the marketing economy wants to prevail.
The Mosetén people are neither able nor do they want to sell the land. Respect and understanding of nature forms part of their world view, but they also feel attracted by progress, especially the younger people.
Therefore, the Andean colonists arrived to the region with gifts such as televisions and satellite dishes with the aim of settling in the NCL. Some of them even tried to marry indigenous women in order to gain the right to control the land and succeed in dividing the NCL.
But the more serious problem arises when the timber merchants come to agreements with the villagers to extract wood from the forest. And they do this despite knowing that the colonists don’t care about the next generation or the environment.
This is explained by a few indigenous Mosetén people in the ethnographic documentary Habilito: Debt for Life by the anthropologist Charles Sturtevant from the University of Manchester, and the Bolivian national Daniela Ricco Quirogo.
Witnessing how their environment is increasingly being affected by the arrival of the Andean colonists, the Mosetén people are tempted by seemingly beneficial agreements offered to them by timber merchants who operate in the area, not knowing the consequences of these deals.
These agreements are known as the Habilito System. The employers provide the indigenous people with a chainsaw, fuel, money and even food to cut wood in their forests and hand it over. Thus they are “financed”, contracting a debt.
Taking advantage of the vulnerability of these people and the tension between the right of land that the indigenous have and the exploitation of its natural resources, “El habilito, is not only a system but also a verb,” as is pointed out by Doctor Sian Lazar, from the University of Cambridge.
This highlights the importance of using this word since they think that they are being financed and trained to earn money for their work and not contracting a debt.
In this way, the Mosetén people become modern slaves. Once they agree to dedicate themselves to them, they are no longer free and even though they don’t want to cut down a tree, they have to do it because they are urged to hand over the raw material to the traders.
This is because on many occasions they tell them that the pieces of wood that they hand over are damaged. So, as the delivery note is not correct, this means that next time they must provide more timber for which they need more fuel.
Consequently, the debt continues to increase and they must continue working for them as it is never covered. However, the employers justify their behaviour, arguing that they don’t deceive them and that it is the indigenous people that don’t know how to manage their debts.
Making reference to the Habilito System, Doctor Evan Killick, from the University of Sussex asks “Is this system different from capitalism?”, responding negatively and pointing out that the objective is always to exploit the worker.
In fact, the use of the timber that these indigenous Bolivians cut down could not be for a more global and capitalist purpose. The final target market is China, according to Sturtevant, one of the directors of the documentary. The Asian giant uses this raw material in the country’s construction industry.
Outside of the state
The Habilito System is not only carried out in the aforementioned region but throughout the Yungas and areas surrounding the Amazon rainforest, making this practise something of commonplace.
This is because it is much easier to expand this procedure in remote areas since there is less government presence.
The superintendents of regions such as Alto Beni, where the Mosetén people live don’t have a way of controlling the extraction and illegal trade of timber as they don’t have enough staff or resources.
In the same way, the declaration that protects their territories (the NCL) has not solved the existing problems because the role of the government has been substituted by the employer’s regimens and the patronage system.
With all of this, the Habilito has become a synonym not only of deforestation of tropical trees, but of destruction of a way of life and understanding society from an indigenous point of view. In a trap that connects them to a capitalist system which they never wanted to be a part of.
(Translated by Rachel Sharp)