At the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels, the researchers for the project Multicultural Autonomy: a necessary condition for sustainable development, have recently made public the preliminary results of a two and a half year study in six countries of Latin America: Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil.
In coordination with the Austrian Ludwig Boltzman Institute for Contemporary Research on Latin America, this eurolatinamerican study presents a collective effort to reveal the mechanisms and characteristics regarding autonomy within indigenous communities, both theoretically as well as from the perspective of the people concerned. Some of the researchers are committed to indigenous issues beyond strict academic interest and, as in the case of the Kunas from Panama, they are also members of the groups researched.
The conference, also presented by Centro Tricontinental, Lovaina-la-Nueva, and parliament representative MarÃa Luisa Bergaz Conesa, gave opportunity to discuss the essential platform which will govern research work based on the concept of autonomy, which is conceived, from the perspective of Latin America, as a process of resistance utilized by ethnic groups that have been neglected and denied, and intend to recover and strengthen their identity reclaiming their culture, their practice of collective law and organizing the political and administrative framework pertaining jurisdiction, capability, levels of application and proper material basis. We must consider that a true claim of autonomy includes the application of law, the protection of the land and the ultimate transformation of society as well as the State.
Autonomous events must be regarded in a holistic manner; that is, considering the political, economic and cultural context, autonomy means more than mere law. The legal constitutional foundation of community is a starting point, rather than a result.
Autonomies represent a permanent process of long term learning and negotiation where the assurance of continuity and development begets the construction of the autonomic entity and the acknowledgment of a valid audience.
In the face of lack of political determination from the State and other sources of economic power, autonomic entities propose negotiations by means of struggle or congregation, in accordance with their allegiance to indigenous peoples. Once again we find that autonomy is not given, but conquered. Those autonomic entities, in their common denominators, bring about diverse manifestations (the Sindicato in Bolivia, the Conaie in Ecuador, the EZLN in Mexico and the Congreso Kuna in Panama).
Autonomies facilitate self-determined communities to create and promote traditional ways of political interaction with other segments of the constituency and a harmonic rapport with nature. In this sense, whenever the autonomic entity carries a democratizing intent, the autonomic movement will strengthen its representation and its consensus.
Another thesis presented suggests that autonomies reiterate ethnic and national identity which complement and advocate the State’s democratic reform while maintaining its unity. They also provide means of pacification for armed conflict once the State agrees to migrate towards autonomy. Therefore, autonomy creates a higher level of political involvement within a national and institutional context.
The usual obstacles to achieving autonomy are militarism, the doctrine of national security, racism, exclusion, extreme poverty, structural adjustment policies, and the neoliberal planning which seeks to appropriate the natural resources which belong to indigenous communities. There are specific cases, as in Brazil, where territorial autonomy represents a necessary condition in order to manage biodiversity in an intelligent, sustainable way.
International cooperation with indigenous communities was also discussed, particularly regarding the European Union, and it was agreed that there is a gap between theory and its implementation. The cooperation addresses the effort to end poverty and modernizing the State without taking into account people’s habits, lifestyles and development. Also, when the State tends to decentralize, it usually concentrates on incorporation, regardless of the separate levels and practices of political articulation within the local and regional indigenous communities.
The next stage of this project’s publications and progress reports will include a comparative perspective of the autonomy process in Latin America, which, in contrast with other areas, is built upon an inclusive, pluralistic and democratic foundation.
[Translated by Miguel Alvarado]