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Indigenous Peoples in Latin America - a general overview

There are approximately 40,000,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean that belong to the almost 600 indigenous peoples of the continent, many of whom are in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia and Ecuador. According to World Bank figures, 12.76% of the entire American population and approximately 40% of the rural population is indigenous.

The circumstances of each people are so unique that generalizations may not apply to many particular cases.  Nevertheless, there are characteristics that distinguish them in their capacity as indigenous peoples with common problems and challenges.  

Increasing urbanization

Despite being basically characterized by a strong attachment to traditional territories located in rural areas, an increasing proportion of the indigenous population is urban or dependent on urban clusters for their livelihood. Many indigenous families have members in their communities of origin, as well as in the cities, and maintain ties with both realities. More and more indigenous people migrate or are displaced to regions or countries more or less distant from their communities of origin and their connection with the land is lost. Under such conditions, other factors may or may not keep their identity alive. New priorities are incorporated into the agendas, and their fate becomes more individualized. The community sometimes continues to be a reference; in other cases, it no longer is or barely remains as such.

Amid this diversity, perhaps the common and most complex dilemma now facing the indigenous peoples of Latin America has to do with the future of their children which is invariably linked to the viability of their future as peoples. 

Resource extraction threathens the land rights of indigenous peoples

Contrary to the declarative and legal achievements of the indigenous social movement, the security of their territories and resources has been severely affected in recent decades throughout the entire region. The competition between the governments of the region to attract new investments to subsoil resources or biodiversity, the incentive of extractivism and the export of raw materials, the reappearance of large agro-industrial estates, the inability and weakness of the institutions in charge of monitoring social and environmental impacts and, in some cases, a persistent racism and neglect of decision-makers towards the rights of the indigenous people of the region, have led to a new level of inequity and conflict and a progressive impoverishment of the indigenous population.

New intergovernmental trade agreements with the economic powers of the developed world facilitate the dispossession of indigenous land and resources or their exploitation carried out without consultation and in exclusion of the indigenous inhabitants. The increasing investment capacity of national governments and businesses after a decade of sustained economic growth is directed towards the economic control of vast areas traditionally owned by indigenous peoples. The current degraded state of many indigenous territories, which are subject to large-scale extractive projects or have been stripped by mega road, port or hydroelectric power projects, affects indigenous peoples’ fundamental rights to health, food and access to clean water. 

Lack of implementation of indigenous peoples' rights

After the recent ratification on the part of Chile and Nicaragua few countries in the region have yet to ratify Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The effective application of some of the rights that emanate from its provisions is, however, postponed. The struggle between the indigenous peoples and the governments regarding the right to be consulted and express their free, prior and informed consent, another manifestation of the right to self-determination, exhibits the gap between the recognition and enforcement of indigenous rights. In Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and other countries, the lack of political will to carry out consultations before initiating large-scale projects with expected impacts has led to a series of conflicts not only with the indigenous peoples, but also with the international institutions in charge of monitoring compliance with human rights.

Political participation of indigenous peoples

In some countries of the region, representatives of indigenous peoples have been able to position themselves within political structures of national or local governments and inter-cultural debate is increasingly present in Latin American societies. The case of Bolivia is paradigmatic and generates reasonable expectations given that an indigenous president, supported by popular organizations and with a governmental platform based on indigenous and inter-cultural proposals and ideals, has assumed leadership of the national government.

Future challenges

The need to freely and independently decide the fate of their societies and economies sets the pace for many policy initiatives of the indigenous social movement in Latin America. The application of the right to effective participation in decision-making processes that may affect their lives, resources and rights has produced very different results depending on the country and the political will with which national governments have received their demands. 

Faced with the direct and systematic confrontation between the life plans of the indigenous peoples and the economic plans of a governing elite insensitive to indigenous problems as seen in e.g. Peru and Colombia, other governments have taken the first and very relevant steps towards the redefinition of constitutions in order to make adjustments to the mandate of international instruments that establish human rights.

The array of situations and manners, by means of which indigenous peoples may integrate into the political decision-making structures of each country, vary greatly. Countries such as Bolivia has drafted a multi-national Constitution with profound reforms of the system of political participation of indigenous peoples and indigenous representatives have been able to democratically gain access to the national government. Other countries such as Nicaragua have established Autonomous Regions; and Ecuador and Colombia have reformed their Constitutions to include a political-administrative division that includes special areas with certain levels of indigenous autonomy.

Within the regional indigenous movement, there is a consensus that the structures and mechanisms generated by indigenous peoples since the 1970s, which were highly successful in so many ways, are losing validity in light of new political scenarios, the aspirations of new indigenous generations, the challenges of economic globalization or the transnational level of territorial aggressions.

Nevertheless, the reflection about this change, not only consider new forms of participation, the formation of alliances of increased social coverage, the focus on new complex problems, the promotion of more efficient mechanisms for decision-making and the management of more powerful tools for political advocacy. It also includes concerns about the inclusion of sectors of the population such as the elderly, traditional authorities, women, youth and adolescents of the indigenous communities and ways in which they can play a decisive role in the participation process.

Faced with the determined attitude of the indigenous social movement in defence of life, some American governments have assumed a belligerent attitude toward organizations that results in the police and military protection of extractive activities on indigenous land, the criminalization of demonstrations and protests, psychosocial campaigns against the movement – using threats, false allegations and harassment of leaders and advisors to the movement (including their prosecution and incarceration), public disinformation, economic neo-paternalism, corrupt management of political power against the claims and the exercise of rights of the indigenous population and, mainly, the momentum of an organizational parallelism that is causing conflicts within the indigenous peoples with serious consequences.

In countries where governments do not properly cooperate in the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples or where the internal conditions of the country limit access to impartial justice, indigenous organizations have taken action in international jurisdictions or have resorted to procedures established by the different monitoring institutions of the international human rights system.

In particular, it is worth noting the process promoted by the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights to develop binding case law based on the landmark cases of rights violations under the American Convention on Human Rights. There are an increasing number of initiatives of indigenous organizations to present cases to the agencies of the Organization of American States (OAS) and their resolutions are having a significant effect on the protection of indigenous rights at a regional level.  

The American indigenous social movement has found that rights are made effective only when a State establishes their implementation as a goal. It is essential for many indigenous organizations to work to ensure that social and political conditions exist in each country that allow public policies, programmes, strategies, mechanisms and mandates to be proposed, and that major legal rulings being issued in favour of indigenous movement are applied in everyday life.

The sensitivity of governments to the indigenous problem has usually been preceded by an awareness of public sectors with a capacity for political advocacy. The integrated action of the mutual cooperation between the agencies of the United Nations and other intergovernmental human rights protection systems, specialized NGOs and indigenous organizations of varying levels is imperative in order to help shape public opinion and, through it, propitiate favourable political will for the full realization of indigenous rights.