The Trajectory of Indigenous Politics in Latin America


On Monday January 28, Bishop Alejandro Goic announced that the Mapuche rights activist Patricia Troncoso was calling off a 111 day hunger strike in Chile. Troncoso, along with several other strikers, was demanding the release of Mapuche political prisoners, an end to military repression of indigenous groups, and retraction of charges of arson leveled by the Forestal Minoco company. The strike was accompanied with protests in the Chilean capital of Santiago and petitions.

In 2002, Troncoso and several Mapuche activists were accused of setting fire to 100 acres of pine plantations – charges they deny – and were sentenced to ten years in prison. They were tried in an unjust trial, where the administration of Ricardo Lagos drew on anti-terrorism legislation devised during the time of military ruler Augusto Pinochet. Further, Mapuche people claim the plantations as part of their ancestral lands, unrightfully occupied by the company. Forestry companies expanded their expropriation of indigenous lands during the Pinochet era, when many indigenous people were forced to relinquish their rights.

The recently elected administration of Michelle Bachelet offered certain concessions to Troncoso on Monday, including transfer of the Mapuche rights activists to a Education and Labor Centre penitentiary and a review of the controversial anti-terrorism legislation. Bachelet also appointed a presidential commissioner for indigenous affairs to begin a dialogue with indigenous groups and promote recognition of indigenous peoples. The case has brought national and international attention to the plight of the Mapuche people in Chile, a country often touted as a successful free market democracy with high growth rates, despite having one of the worst levels of social inequality in the region.

The strike has also highlighted the militarization of indigenous communities that has been accelerating in recent years across Latin America. Mapuche zones in the south of Chile have a heavy police presence and Mapuche people are subject to frequent police brutality, daily raids, and the use of firearms against unarmed members of their community. On January 2, a Mapuche youth was shot and killed by police when members of the Yupeco-Vilcun community staged an occupation of a farm.

There are similar reports from other parts of Latin America as well. The Zapatistas, a revolutionary indigenous group based in southeastern Mexico, have faced growing violence from paramilitary forces in the last six months. In Brazil, a law is currently under debate that would allow the state to intervene into indigenous communities to protect children from neglect and abuse. Like the Australian intervention into Aboriginal territories, where police and military personnel were sent into the Northern territory on the pretext of saving indigenous children, the actions are seen by local communities and human rights groups as being less concerned with the welfare of children, and more with efforts to occupy indigenous lands and eventually take over coveted property.

The stepped up efforts at containment and repression are linked to the growing mobilization of indigenous people across the region, that received a strong impetus with the armed uprising of the Zapatistas on January 1st, 1994. This followed on the trail of an Americas wide indigenous campaign to mark “500 Years of Resistance,” that protested the official “Discovery of the New World” commemorations in 1992. In Ecuador during the 1990s, there were five large indigenous uprisings and several demonstrations in opposition to neoliberal reforms. In Bolivia, a coalition of indigenous, peasant and workers groups participated in water wars to protest the privatization of water and gas wars to demand the recovery of natural gas reserves from transnationals.

The 2005 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and a leader of the coca growers union, is an expression of these years of indigenous organizing. The rise of Morales and other left leaders across the region, along with their attempts at nationalizing gas reserves, rewriting the constitution, and giving land titles to indigenous communities, has highlighted the contradictions that exist, as wealthy landowners, transnationals, and creoles are unwilling to give up their entrenched power and control over ancestral lands.

In Venezuela, the 1999 constitution guaranteed indigenous communities the right to lands which they have traditionally and ancestrally occupied, and the 2001 Law of Demarcation generated a process of mapping of indigenous territories that would restore indigenous ownership of land once officially ratified. But the process of accessing those lands has been highly conflictual and indigenous people have suffered intimidation from private goon squads of landowners. The growing activism of indigenous groups in Venezuela has prompted a resurgence of racist stereotypes and caricatures in the media. One piece published in the supplement El Camaleón of the daily El Nacional in 2003 entitled “Founding of the bolivarian circles in the community of the Tabayara Indians,” reported the visits of president Hugo Chávez to the imaginary Tabayara community. In one visit to the Cacique Konsoda, a parody of an indigenous chief, the chief supposedly speaks with the president for an hour and a half, but since the president does not speak indigenous languages he is unable to understand anything. The report concludes: “That is the problem with these indios, nobody understands anything they say.” These racist constructions of indigenous people as ignorant and incomprehensible demonstrate the anxieties of a wealthy and middle class opposition sector, who are fearful of indigenous people reclaiming their rights.

Likewise, in Bolivia, where a new agrarian reform law was passed in 2006 to protect indigenous lands from being sold or bartered, indigenous leaders have been assaulted for defending their territories against intruders violating the laws. The IPS reported that public land in Ascensión, occupied by the Guarayo people in eastern Bolivia, was illegally sold by corrupt indigenous leaders of the Union of Guarayo Native People (COPNAG). Guarayo members of a disciplinary panel formed to indict the corrupt leaders were subject to threats on their life and attacks from private militias.

Under the agrarian reform law, the government has the power to redistribute unused land to indigenous communities, in return for compensation to private landowners. Under Morales, there has also been an attempt to reduce the concentration of land ownership among private interests. On December 8, the constituent assembly in Bolivia finally passed a draft constitution after seventeen months of partisan conflicts and delays, that limits the amount of land that can be held by any individual. The proposal will be voted on in a referendum in six months time.

But indigenous communities are understandably cautious about entering into coalitions with leftist leaders. Lucio Gutiérrez, a former army colonel who was lauded as part of a new wave of left leaders when he was elected president of Ecuador in 2003, has been blamed as responsible for the cooptation and demobilization of a vibrant indigenous movement in Ecuador. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) was formed in 1986 and led many large demonstrations against multinational corporations. In 2003, CONAIE entered into a coalition with Gutiérrez, and found themselves betrayed by Gutiérrez, who signed a letter with the IMF to privatize natural resources, liberalize the labor market and undertake fiscal reforms, all contrary to the platform on which he was elected. In April 2005, Gutiérrez was forced to rescind power and flee the country amid massive demonstrations.  

Recently, on January 10-12, indigenous groups in Ecuador came together at the Third Congress of Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador. Congress delegates vowed to fight for the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and the recognition of Ecuador as a plurinational state, and to oppose the extraction of natural resources. They called on the constituent assembly underway under the leadership of leftist leader Rafael Correa to include an agrarian reform law that would restore lands to indigenous communities. At the Congress, a new president, Marlon Santi, was elected to CONAIE. Santi was involved in the protests against the multinational oil company ARCO (Atlantic Richfield company) in the 1980s, and was a dissident during the Gutierrez administration. 

In an interview with Patricio Zhinghri T., Santi said that proposals from the indigenous movement are not on the agenda of the Correa government, and there are concerns that it will not be represented in the constitutional reforms. He revealed a willingness to strategize and collaborate with the government, but emphasized that indigenous groups will continue to mobilize independently to put their concerns on the agenda. 

These concerns are being echoed in other parts of Latin America as indigenous groups have sought to retain a sense of organizational independence under left wing governments. In March 2005 and January 2006, indigenous groups from the north-western state of Zulia in Venezuela organized protests against plans of the Chávez government to increase coal mining in their state. While expressing their support for the president, they also pointed to the water contamination and health risks for the mostly indigenous population of the region who depend on scarce water supplies.

The growing level of indigenous activism in recent months and years, which also included a historic Zapatista women’s meeting and a Meeting of the Zapatistas with the People of the World from December 28 to January 1, 2008, has signaled the strength of indigenous movements within the revolutionary processes taking place across the region, and their unwillingness to be intimidated by the violence or threats of the powerful. 

Sujatha Fernandes: [email protected]

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