13 2005

june 13 2005- LATIN AMERICA:
Indigenous issue, advances on paper no guarantee of real progress.
Gustavo González.

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 indigenous peoples.

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 and Nicaragua.

Since 1991, the Colombian constitution has recognised the nation's multi-ethnic character. ILO convention 169 was also approved by the legislature that same year.

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 been degraded.

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 region.

"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 lawmakers.

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 and culture.

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 communities.

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 negotiated.

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 mainstream society.

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)