|june 13 2005- LATIN AMERICA:
Indigenous issue, advances on paper no guarantee
of real progress.
SANTIAGO, Jun 13 (IPS) - The growing political participation and influence
of indigenous people in Latin America, which was recently noted in a World
Bank report, has not yet led to a modification of their dire social and
economic conditions or to a reduction in government resistance to addressing
native peoples' demands for autonomy and respect for their cultures.
When the World Bank presented its study "Indigenous Peoples, Poverty
and Human Development in Latin America: 1994-2004" on May 18, the
Chilean Congress once again voted down a proposed constitutional reform,
introduced nearly 15 years ago, that would grant constitutional recognition
of the country's aboriginal peoples.
"This Congress is absolutely retrograde when it comes to responding
to this kind of demand," José Santos Millao, one of the Mapuche
Indian members of the National Corporation of Indigenous Development (a
government agency created in 1993), told IPS.
The constitutional reform, which needed 76 votes in the Chamber of Deputies
to pass, won just 53, while 26 lawmakers voted against it and 24 abstained.
That blocked one of the aims of socialist President Ricardo Lagos, who
has also been unable to push through the ratification of International
Labour Organisation (ILO) convention 169.
Chile, one of the most politically and economically stable nations in
Latin America, is an exception in a region where most countries have ratified
the ILO convention on protection of the social and economic rights of
However, advances in terms of legislation are not a guarantee against
the neglect and marginalisation that aboriginal peoples have suffered
in Latin America since colonial times. That is true even in countries
where indigenous people have won greater autonomy, like Colombia, Panama
Since 1991, the Colombian constitution has recognised the nation's multi-ethnic
character. ILO convention 169 was also approved by the legislature that
Indigenous reserves in Colombia cover a total of 27 million hectares,
and this collectively owned land cannot be held in lien, subdivided or
sold. In addition, each resident of the reserves receives a stipend of
40 dollars a year from the state.
In many of the reserves, children are taught in their own native languages,
and traditional indigenous legal concepts are applied, as long as they
do not run counter to the constitution or to Colombia's national laws.
But the autonomy granted to indigenous people is undermined by "the
presence and occupation of our territory by the armed groups, including
the police, army, air force, and guerrillas," involved in the country's
four-decade armed conflict, Feliciano Valencia, human rights coordinator
in the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, a southwestern
province, commented to IPS.
The country's 800,000 indigenous people represent around two percent of
the population, and belong to 90 different ethnic groups, each of which
has its own language. These groups live in all parts of the country -
the Amazon jungle, the Andes mountains, the grasslands and Colombia's
Caribbean coastal region.
The poorest are the 12 percent of indigenous people who live on land that
has also been settled by outsiders, where the natural environment has
Indigenous groups frequently file complaints about violations of convention
169, because oil and mining companies are often granted permits to work
on their land without consulting them.
The United Nations has issued warnings about the murders of indigenous
people in Colombia, and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered
the right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe to adopt precautionary measures
to protect an entire ethnic group, the Kankuamo Indians in the Sierra
Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia, from extermination.
Luis Macas, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities
of Ecuador (CONAIE), told IPS that the U.S. government's zeal in attempting
to impose a "unipolar world" dominated by Washington clashes
with the aim of native peoples to build "a multinational, multicultural
state characterised by unity in diversity."
Ecuador ratified convention 169 in 1998, thanks to the influence of CONAIE
and its political arm, the Pachakutik party, which in 2002 won 10 seats
in the single-chamber Congress, and obtained 30 mayorships and four provincial
governorships in 2004.
The right to bilingual education is also recognised by the constitution,
as are indigenous legal traditions. In addition, all courthouses and public
agencies must have officials who can act as interpreters for Quechua-speaking
Ecuadorians, who comprise the largest indigenous community in the country.
Macas noted that indigenous groups largely administer their own territories,
in a context of relative autonomy, especially in the Amazon jungle region,
where native communities must be consulted before companies are issued
permits to drill for oil, and when indemnification for environmental damages
and clean-up procedures are negotiated.
"But the foreign oil companies, which have their own private guards,
exert pressure, which means indigenous peoples must defend themselves
through different forms of peaceful struggle, as in the case of the Sarayaku
communities," said the tribal leader, who also mentioned the disputes
over land ownership and control of water resources in the Andean mountain
"There is integration and participation within the rules of this
political system that some people call democracy, but which excludes large
sectors of the population," as demonstrated by the high poverty levels
that drive hundreds of thousands of rural residents to swell the ranks
of urban slumdwellers and push many other Ecuadorians to seek a better
life abroad, mainly in the United States and Spain, said Macas.
In the view of Rafael González, spokesman for the Committee of
Campesino Unity in Guatemala, one of the Latin American countries with
the largest proportion of indigenous people, the tendency has been forced
integration and assimilation into "white" or non-indigenous
society. "Autonomy remains a pipedream," he told IPS.
In Mexico, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) demanded constitutional
reforms in favour of indigenous autonomy, but Congress approved "a
limited version of that measure, which did not satisfy the guerrillas,"
anthropologist Pedro Ciciliano at the National Autonomous University commented
in an interview.
But in some parts of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the EZLN exercises
"de facto autonomy," just as there are "de facto integration
and assimilation" of some indigenous communities in Mexico.
Although indigenous people represent 11 percent of Mexico's population
of 105 million, there are only three ethnic Indians out of 500 national
Mexico has approved convention 169 and has established the right to bilingual
education and respect for native cultures. In addition, there are special
policies on land rights, but indigenous people do not enjoy full autonomy
in their territories.
Recognition of the self-determination of Bolivia's 36 different indigenous
communities, who comprise around 70 percent of the population, is a basic
demand of the aboriginal, campesino and labour groups calling for a constituent
assembly to rewrite the constitution, said Juan de la Cruz Villca, former
president of the Confederación Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos,
a labour federation of rural workers and small farmers.
The Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní Indians are the largest ethnic
groups in Bolivia, who gained recognition through convention 169 "but
who cannot govern themselves according to their own traditions and customs,"
the rural leader told IPS.
Paulo Maldós, a political adviser to Brazil's Missionary Indigenist
Council, affiliated with the Catholic Church, said the constitution of
1988 has brought about a fundamental change, because it recognises the
territorial and cultural rights of indigenous peoples.
Until that year, the tendency was assimilation into mainstream society
In addition, the ratification of convention 169 was very important, because
"it gave coherence to the constitution," although a new statute
on indigenous peoples, introduced in Congress in 1994, has not yet been
passed, said Maldós.
In Argentina, the constitutional reforms of 1994 recognised indigenous
rights, but since a specific legal framework or regulations were never
drawn up, these rights are not enforced.
It would never occur to judges in the southern region of Patagonia, home
to the Mapuche Indians, to invoke the constitution in order to rule against
powerful agribusiness companies, said Mauro Millán, a leader of
the Tehuelche Mapuche Organisation.
"If we are not allowed control over our own resources, then nothing
has changed since the conquest of our land in the 19th century,"
Millán told IPS.
In Chile, although indigenous culture is not recognised by the constitution,
progress has nonetheless been made in the direction of achieving recognition,
deputy minister of planning Jaime Andrade Huenchucoy, the government official
in charge of indigenous affairs, told IPS.
"There is prejudice, and in some cases even racism," he admitted.
But he underlined the enactment of the Law on Indigenous Development,
the transfer of 230,000 hectares of land to indigenous communities, and
the 33,600 scholarships issued every year to indigenous students.
Andrade also pointed to the centre-left Lagos administration's Origins
Programme, which finances some 4,000 projects administered by indigenous
Furthermore, a debate has been opened on the preservation of the indigenous
cultural and genetic heritage, while measures to protect the coastal region
inhabited by the Lafkenche people, a branch of the Mapuches, are being
And although indigenous people have no representation in Congress, they
won posts in last year's municipal elections, and now hold 17 mayorships
out of a total of 345, and more than 160 seats on town councils.
Santos Millao recognises these steps forward, but says the Chilean state
has shown itself to be "deeply intransigent" towards indigenous
demands for autonomy.
"Recognition of the territory that was once ours and was usurped
by the laws that the Chilean state has passed since (independence in)
1810 is absolutely fundamental. It should be obvious that we don't want
to recover the entire territory, or even one-quarter of it, but we do
need a space to live in and develop," he added.
Chilean lawyer José Aylwin told IPS that integration policies are
contradictory, because they focus on bringing indigenous people into the
What indigenous people need, he argued, is to have control over their
own legal and territorial affairs, and over their natural resources.
* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente (Argentina), Franz Chávez
(Bolivia), Mario Osava (Brazil), Constanza Vieira (Colombia), Kintto Lucas
(Ecuador) and Diego Cevallos (Mexico). (END/2005)