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Overview of Self-Determination Issues in Latin America
Melina Selverston-Scher | May 2002
This brief was commissioned and originally distributed by the joint IRC-IPS Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) project. It is reproduced here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign Policy in Focus-A Think Tank Without Walls-and can be accessed online at www.fpif.org .

Self-determination is increasingly at the forefront of political discourse in Latin America. Oftentimes, the language of self-determination and national sovereignty arises when the people and governments of the region complain that onerous external debts and trade agreements infringe on national economic policymaking. There is also the long-running tension over Puerto Rico’s territorial relationship with the U.S., an issue highlighted in recent years by the demands of the residents of Vieques that the U.S. stop using the island as a bombing range. Over the past couple of decades, the indigenous peoples of the region–the hemisphere’s first nations–have taken up the demand for self-determination.
Scholars and politicians in Latin America have long expressed concern about what they have called the "indigenous problem." Some have proposed ways to integrate indigenous people into the wider society to increase their access to the political and economic benefits of modernization. Others, of a more anthropological bent, have sought to protect indigenous communities from the dangers of modernity. The debate continues today, although the challenge is most commonly framed as protecting cultural minorities from the potentially negative impacts of development while guaranteeing that they enjoy the benefits of it.
For many indigenous communities and intellectuals, however, the problem is framed differently. Rather then seeking protection, they are seeking self-determination.
Increasingly, indigenous movements are demanding control over their own political and economic development and the right to maintain their distinct cultural identities. Many claim this as their right to self-determination. But Latin American governments, while increasingly encouraging cultural integration and indigenous participation in the political process, have balked at recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination.
Indigenous communities find it increasingly difficult to resist ethnic homogenization promoted by the market, media, and educational systems. In the face of homogenization pressures, indigenous political leaders are promoting ethnic and cultural diversity. In recent decades, as Latin America has made the transition to more democratic political systems and as civil society has developed, indigenous people have enjoyed new outlets and opportunities to express their political aspirations.
Recent Roots of Indigenous Organizing
Since the early 1970s, indigenous communities and organizations throughout Latin America have come together both nationally and regionally and now meet regularly to formulate common strategies on such issues as culturally appropriate economic development, bilingual education, the impacts of natural resource extraction, and climate change. One of the first regional organizations to emerge was the Consejo Indígena de Sud America (CISA), which organized popular resistance to authoritarian regimes. Internationally, the most important networking opportunity has been the UN Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, established in 1982 through the UN Human Rights Commission.
Latin American indigenous organizations regularly convene to present their perspectives and demands with respect to multilateral treaties and organizations, including the Organization of American States (concerning a proposed declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples) and the Convention on Biodiversity. At the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), indigenous organizations continually weigh in on development loans through the IDB’s Indigenous Fund. Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu (Maya) of Guatemala hosts regular international indigenous summits. The Coordinadora de Organizaciones de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA) successfully represents indigenous Amazonians from nine countries. It is commonly acknowledged, however, that the strength of the international indigenous presence is directly related to the vibrancy of local and national indigenous movements.
At the national level, the demand for territorial rights is the most contentious political goal but one that many indigenous communities consider essential to their survival. To a large extent, this self-determination demand for land rights is an extension of other peasant mobilizations in Latin America for control of agricultural land. Indeed, such peasant struggles have in many cases contributed to the formation of indigenous movements.
Indigenous identity is generally linked to the environment around which each culture has evolved. Territory, therefore, goes beyond land reform to include the rights to communal land, environmental protection, and control over development. Beyond the common call for land rights, specific demands vary according to the specific circumstances in different communities.
Different religious and political party affiliations directly influence the direction taken by indigenous communities throughout the region. In some communities, for example, leftist organizations and activists played an important role in grooming indigenous leaders during the 1970s, while labor movements provided a forum for protest. Indigenous leaders who called for bilingual education and other cultural reforms were sometimes labeled as folkloric dividers of the proletariat. The class/ethnicity debate continues to cause tensions within indigenous movements today, especially in the context of increased urbanization of indigenous labor. For the most part, however, a shared sense of cultural identity and history keeps indigenous communities united in national struggles, despite different political or religious affiliations.
A big spur to indigenous organizing was the 500-year anniversary in 1992 of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. While Latin American governments planned celebrations, another campaign was mounted to celebrate 500 years of indigenous resistance. What the Organization of American States euphemistically referred to as the "encounter of two worlds," many indigenous leaders described as genocide. Indigenous groups, building upon previous decades of activism, created international networks and held continental gatherings throughout the Americas to protest the celebrations.
During this quincentennial year, diverse communities met, often for the first time, and engaged in endless debates about what it meant to be indigenous. U.S. native groups who consider themselves sovereign nations met with indigenous activists who had risked their lives in land invasions. Evangelical indigenous missionaries united with Chilean Mapuche who were early supporters of President Salvador Allende. Isolated Amazonians who had never before left their jungle homes shared strategies with jet-setting native lawyers. The diversity among a thousand tribes of over 40 million people is complex, yet the common experience of five hundred years of exclusion helped to encourage a common political identity. For many, the quincentennary was a benchmark year, after which indigenous struggles became a defining presence in Latin America.
The Latin American framework for indigenous self-determination is defined not only by their shared colonial and post-colonial history but also by other shared social conflicts. The same circumstances commonly affecting poverty communities in the region have led to indigenous mobilizations, with their specific characteristics. Peasant struggles for land, for instance, take on new meaning when indigenous communities claim the rights to their ancestral homelands.
One of the most important factors today is the pervasive unsustainable development crisis. The dominant model of natural resource extraction-driven development is creating an ecological crisis that has particularly detrimental effects on indigenous populations. The Amazon basin, comprising the rainforest in eight Latin American counties and French Guyana, is the most prominent venue in this crisis of unsustainable development for indigenous peoples. The more than one million indigenous people living in the region are struggling to obtain legal title to their ancestral homelands. Even where they do have title, governments often do not have the legal capacity or the institutional reach to protect them. Indigenous people are rarely consulted regarding development projects. More often, they are just witnesses to the environmental havoc. Framing their concern for their natural resources in environmental terminology has allowed indigenous Amazonians to forge unprecedented alliances with international actors in support of their demands for territorial rights, resulting in some impressive achievements.
The current pattern of unsustainable development has served as an impetus for rising demands for self-determination outside of the Amazon basin as well. Indigenous communities want the right to convey their prior and informed consent before public or private projects change their way of life in the name of development. That right is enshrined in international laws such as the Convention on Biodiversity and the International Labor Organization Convention 169. Most importantly indigenous people want the right to say no before they are relocated for a dam, for instance, or before their homeland is auctioned off to a mining company. Given that in many areas the communities do not hold legal title, the struggle for self-determination is complicated by tortuous matters of legality and ethics. Other related questions that arise with increasing frequency include the following: Do international laws requiring prior and informed consent supersede state claims to resources? Do multinational corporations and development agencies have a responsibility to support indigenous self-determination? Does the U.S. have any obligation to respect indigenous rights in Latin America?
New Strategies
Indigenous people continue the daily fight for survival in the face of discriminatory economic and social policies, but they have added new strategies to their organizing efforts. Legal recourse, for example, is emerging as one of the most important tools of this century. Echoing international treaties, many countries now have legislation that supports certain indigenous rights. A strategy for many indigenous groups is to sue the government for the implementation of those laws, particularly regarding land titles, in both domestic and international courts. The Inter-American Human Rights Court recently ruled against the government of Nicaragua, for example, in the case of the Awas Tingni community. This precedent-setting ruling requires Nicaragua to establish land titles for the Mayagna people and to consult with them regarding the use of their natural resources. Beyond the legal arena, strategies range from increased participation in elections to armed indigenous insurrections.
One of the most important resources for the growing indigenous movement is the international human rights system, in particular the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It is ironic that the United Nations, the institution that upholds the relatively new nation-state system in which native people claim to be unrepresented, provides a key refuge for indigenous concerns. Since 1982, representatives from around the world have met annually at UN offices in Geneva to participate in a working group on the rights of indigenous people. The working group has produced a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people, which is now under consideration by representatives of member governments. Last year, in an important triumph for the working group, a permanent Forum for Indigenous People was established at the UN.
Another oft-used point of leverage within the UN system is Article One of the International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as the better-known Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: "All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." Referring to this language, indigenous organizations insist on being recognized as "peoples." Many powerful states, including the U.S., argue against the use of the term "peoples" to refer to indigenous groupings. This contention is the subject of heated debate at the UN, although it is commonly accepted that these covenants were written in reference to emerging nation-states, without indigenous people in mind.
In Latin America the Organization of American States (OAS) has responded to vigorous indigenous lobbying by developing its own declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. Initiated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the draft is scheduled to go before the OAS general assembly in 2002. Indigenous lobbyists won an unprecedented voice in the internal deliberations of the draft, but they face opposition from many countries that feel their sovereignty is threatened by granting indigenous peoples specific rights. The U.S., which has recognized a measure of autonomy for indigenous nations internally, is less clear about supporting indigenous autonomy overseas.
Similar debates are proceeding within each Latin American country. Indigenous groups, along with other social movements, have influenced relevant legal language to different extents through broad-based constitutional assemblies in most countries. Some of these legal changes include: rhetorical recognition by states of multicultural citizenship, the corresponding right to bilingual education, and the recognition of traditional authorities and traditional justice systems. Of course, as in all legal frameworks, the actual application of laws protecting indigenous self-determination is difficult to enforce.
In Colombia, for example, which is only about 3.5% indigenous, specific indigenous rights are firmly established in the 1991 Constitution, which generously recognizes traditional authorities and justice systems and guarantees indigenous representatives in Parliament. But as indigenous people declare their independence from both the government and the guerrilla groups, they find themselves targeted by both. Last year 365 indigenous Colombians were assassinated, according to the national indigenous organization. Local civilian courts (Tutelas) have passed judgment in favor of indigenous land rights, as in the case of the U’wa against Occidental Petroleum, only to be overruled by state-controlled higher courts.
When a national government has not been receptive to indigenous rights, indigenous groups have continued to protest or have even resorted to armed struggle. Protest usually takes the form of land takeovers (in indigenous movement parlance, people are "taking back" their land) or mass uprisings that adapt traditional means of protest to the modern context. For instance, the Incas were known to block the roads of the Spanish colonists with boulders and logs, a practice that Andean indigenous protestors currently employ.
In a few cases, indigenous groups have taken up arms in the name of self-determination, most notably in Nicaragua and Mexico. Miskito, Sumu, and Rama communities received military and financial aid from the Reagan administration to take up arms against the left-wing Sandinista government in the 1980s. This selective U.S. support for indigenous peoples was part of a wider U.S. campaign against leftists in Central America rather than an indication of a broad U.S. commitment to indigenous causes.
In Mexico, the Chiapas-based Zapatista National Liberation Front (EZLN) claims to be struggling for the rights of all indigenous peoples. It has been engaged in negotiations with the government since shortly after its first armed insurrection of January 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. The Zapatistas, who have become heroes of the movement against economic liberalization, arose from indigenous communities struggling against stifling economic and political conditions. The link to NAFTA was instrumental, however, in garnering crucial international support. Months of multisector discussions led to the widely supported San Andrés Peace Accords, which were presented to Congress by President Fox in a legislative proposal to support a wide range of indigenous rights, including autonomy. Unfortunately, despite an impressive show of popular support when the EZLN made its historic visit to Mexico City to pressure Congress in March 2001, the final legislation was extremely weak. As a result, negotiations between the government and the EZLN have collapsed.
Indigenous activists have also begun to pursue electoral strategies. Indigenous individuals regularly sought elected offices as democratic institutions took hold in Latin America during the 1980s. However, there is widespread indigenous sentiment that political parties do not represent indigenous interests and that governments are extensions of colonial oppression. Thus, there is ongoing internal discussion regarding the relative advantages of participating in elections.
In 1993, with the election of Aymara leader Víctor Hugo Cárdenas as vice president of Bolivia, the indigenous movement began to reconsider the potential gains of an electoral strategy. Elected leaders have claimed to be marginalized within political parties, however, so a strategy surfaced to form indigenous-based parties while strengthening links with other social sectors. An indigenous party emerged in Chile in 1989 followed by others, including the Movimiento Indígena Colombiano in Colombia in 1993, Pachakutik in Ecuador in 1995, Asemblea de la Soberania del Pueblo in Bolivia in 1995, Pueblo Unido Multiétnico de Amazonas in Venezuela in 1997, and more. Some observers believe that only through electoral participation will indigenous people be able to benefit from citizenship. Others believe that participation in elections signifies the abandonment of the principle of self-determination. It is too early to suggest any conclusions; there are both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, indigenous organizations that have contributed to electoral campaigns have lost many of their leaders to state entities. On the other hand, the legitimacy of elected leadership has given the indigenous movement a stronger platform from which to make demands on society.
New Models of Self-Determination
Whether through political participation or violent struggle, indigenous people are developing new models to articulate some degree of self-determination within Latin American nations. Indigenous political demands for self-determination range from indigenous representation in national government to autonomy or self-government, depending on the specific context. In the Andes, where the indigenous population is often a majority, the demands tend more toward representation in government. In Mexico, where the indigenous communities occupy the fringe both geographically and otherwise, demands are for autonomous regions.
Self-determination is impossible without control over the necessary economic resources. That control is nearly impossible in the current context of natural resource exploitation, in which benefits are extracted to cities or foreign banks and not reinvested in the exploited territory. That is why most demands for indigenous rights include language calling for changes in the economic model, such as granting subsoil rights to the affected communities.
The meanings of the proposed solutions are still largely contested, but there are three general models: constitutional reform, pluri-nationalism, and autonomy.
In the eyes of many indigenous advocates, it is a mistake to talk about an indigenous problem when what needs to be resolved is in fact a societal concern. The advent of indigenous political parties, the development of new Constitutions throughout Latin America, and the gradual if tortuous establishment of the rule of law in the region all contribute to the common model of establishing a legal framework for the promotion of indigenous rights within the existing national regime. Countries that recently reformed their Constitutions to enshrine notable indigenous rights include: Argentina (1994), Bolivia (1994), Colombia (1991), Ecuador (1998), Nicaragua (1995), Panama (1994), Paraguay (1992), Peru (1993), and Venezuela (1999). A constitutional amendment in Mexico, the 2001 Indigenous Rights and Culture Law, remains contested.
Constitutional rights sought by indigenous people include recognition of the multiethnic nature of society, guaranteed bilingual education, and recognition of collective property rights, among others. Many indigenous groups also include the right to practice aspects of their own political and judicial systems within proposed constitutional reforms, and to varying degrees this has been granted. The current challenge facing indigenous groups is to pursue the implementation of these measures.
Pluri-nationalism–a term formulated in the Andean region to signify political recognition of the multicultural character of these societies–provides another potential model for indigenous self-determination. It can be particularly useful in bridging the inequality that generally is found among different indigenous groups in a country. (In Ecuador, for example, Quichua people dominate the movement, as the Miskito have in Nicaragua.) Although based on similar principles of decentralization, pluri-nationalism focuses on the survival of indigenous cultures within existing nation-states. In countries with a large indigenous population, like Bolivia and Ecuador, indigenous calls for self-determination can be especially threatening to the institutionally weak Latin American states. Yet, the concept of a pluri-national state is fast becoming a part of the political landscape of the region. In fact, a declaration from the meeting of the presidents of the Andean nations last year included a commitment to: "Continue to develop political strategies to recognize and value the ethnic plurality and the multicultural identity of the Andean Nations."
The concept of autonomy is a very important tool, although there are few models of how indigenous autonomy can be implemented. The Nicaraguan case is one of the most important experiments. The Nicaraguan autonomy law–ratified in 1987 and negotiated between indigenous rebels and the Sandinista government as part of the peace accords–was grounded in a series of consultations with communities. The result was a decentralized representational framework that respects local authorities yet guarantees indigenous representation at the national level. However, the sticky questions of who controls natural resource extraction and who polices the communities and the borders were never resolved to the satisfaction of the indigenous leaders.
Similar propositions for autonomous indigenous governments have been hammered out in peace talks in Guatemala and Mexico, but their implementation has been blocked in both cases. In Mexico peace talks collapsed, and in Guatemala the proposals were largely rejected in a public referendum. In Brazil, indigenous groups participated in constitutional reforms and won the right to demarcated indigenous areas as well as the right to defend their borders, though they often lack the resources to do so. One of the most successful examples of autonomy is that of the Kuna in Panama. The Kuna, with informal U.S. support, revolted against the Panamanian government in 1925. As the result of a negotiated settlement, the independent Kuna Congress now exercises full authority over its area. Each indigenous situation is unique, and the practical implications of autonomy need to be worked out both within each national framework and among the indigenous groups who propose it as a model.
From constitutional amendments to demands for autonomy, there is a wide range of proposals attempting to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples in contemporary Latin America. Whether or not self-determination is the most practical solution, it certainly underlies all of the proposals under discussion. The delicate balance between the independence of indigenous nationalities and their existence within nation-states is one of the most important political challenges in the region today.
Implications for U.S. Policy
If the U.S. is seriously interested in promoting the rights of indigenous peoples in Latin America, there are ways that it could be extremely influential. The question posed earlier in this essay remains: What obligation, if any, does the U.S. have to respond to the indigenous call for self-determination in the region? The current U.S. State Department position is that it respects the political rights of indigenous peoples everywhere in the world, just as it respects the autonomy of indigenous people in the Unites States. This policy, left over from the Clinton era, has been upheld in international negotiations by the current administration regarding the Organization of American States. Washington’s position would be even more influential if the U.S. would ratify any of the international treaties that uphold the rights of indigenous peoples, such as the Convention on Biodiversity, the 1991 International Labor Organization Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ratified by 14 countries to date), or even the new UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The U.S. could take advantage of the new constitutional frameworks embracing ethnic diversity to promote indigenous rights in Latin America.
The multilateral development banks most active in the region (World Bank and IDB) have developed guidelines suggesting that development practices need to be approached differently in projects affecting indigenous peoples. In addition these banks propose special indigenous development projects to create indigenous-controlled wealth. Properly implemented, such policies could be important tools for change in the region. The important U.S. leadership at the banks could be key to strengthening and implementing those guidelines. Most importantly, the U.S. could provide an example of democratic pluralism by respecting the rights of indigenous peoples in all of its economic and political dealings in the region and by holding U.S.-based corporations to the same high standards.
Thanks to a little-known law called the Cranston Amendment, the U.S. State Department is required to report on the human rights situation of indigenous peoples receiving aid from the United States. Since these reports are barely monitored, they are usually completed to meet the minimal reporting required by law. This year’s report cited continued human rights violations of indigenous people in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia in particular. Taken more seriously, such reports could become an important tool for accountability to the international human rights regime.
The future of political and economic development in Latin America is increasingly tied to the aspirations for more control voiced by indigenous communities. Massive indigenous uprisings and strategic political and legal maneuvers by indigenous leaders have challenged not only political exclusion but also economic globalization in the region. Popular Latin American political leaders such as Presidents Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Víctor Toledo in Peru won elections with the direct support of indigenous voters. Toledo, in fact, claims indigenous identity.
It will be incumbent upon national political leadership to find ways to respond to indigenous calls for self-determination. This may be achieved through legal frameworks that recognize indigenous rights in national constitutions, through indigenous representatives in government, or through different types of autonomy. Most important for the success of any of these models, however, will be demonstrating to indigenous people that the national government not only represents but is equally loyal to all of the ethnic groups in the country.
Melina Selverston-Scher < melinas@igc.org > is a consultant in Washington, DC, where she is currently monitoring multilateral development bank policies affecting indigenous peoples. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.

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Distributed by the Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). Originally published by the joint IRC-IPS Foreign Policy In Focus project. ©2002. All rights reserved.
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/briefs/2002/0205selfdet.html



1 Comment

  • Valerie Garrido-Lowe
    Posted April 16, 2012 1:48 pm 0Likes

    I am an indigenous Parliamentarian in the tenth Parliament of Guyana, South America. My people here needs to be educated in both academics and skills, have proper housing and water and to have viable economic projects in their villages to sustain them besides agriculture and craft. I am working towards helping them acquire these necessities and would appreciate any advice that will assist us.

    Exposure to the different Indigenous conferences and summits would also be a good thing for us.

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