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Movement Pachamama: Indigenous struggles in Latin America

Francesca Fiorentini
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

(Pachamama = Mother Earth in Aymara and Quechua)

It is no accident that most of the remaining natural resources are on indigenous land. First the white world destroys their own environment, then they come asking for the last pieces of land they have put us on, the earth we have protected.  —Luis Macas, former president of The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador

On April 17, in the city Port of Spain of Trinidad and Tobago, thirty-four well-groomed heads of state smiled and posed for pictures, all but one dressed in suit, tie, or a tasteful skirt as apart of the 5th Summit of the Americas. The one happened to be Aymara Indian President Evo Morales. He and his navy native print coat were perhaps as close as the summit got to representing the millions of indigenous peoples living and struggling in the Americas. Coming together under the slogan “Securing our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy, Security, and Environmental Sustainability” the summit mentioned indigenous peoples a few times in passing; something about “voluntary” corporate responsibility when dealing with native “groups.”

Just days before, the Third Indigenous Leaders Summit met in Panama, after being told there was no venue for them at the Summit of the Americas. There, the 91 participants representing four regions, drafted a Declaration and Plan of Action that outlined key steps for states to take to ensure the implementation of indigenous rights. A delegation of ten indigenous leaders then arrived in Port of Spain, in hopes of presenting this plan of action to the convened Organization of American States. Instead, having been given no formal representation as delegates unlike other members of “civil society” and the private sector, nor allowed entry as observers, the delegation was never able to present their proposed plan and were all but ignored.

Looking at Latin America specifically, many have praised leaders of the center-left political wave that has washed over the region, who were on full display at April’s summit. Yet for the majority of Latin American governments, addressing issues facing the region’s 40 million indigenous peoples has been a politically correct afterthought; a sweet-sounding doublespeak to ease a steady historic process of erasure. Some of these administrations speak strongly about the emergence of a “multi-polar world,” their rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the insidious role of international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Yet on the frontlines of neoliberalism—on the mountain ranges, along the rivers, deep in the jungles, and in the fields—the rhetoric has not changed the age-old battle for survival and conservation.

In the face of agribusinesses’ ever-concentrated land grab, extractive industries—state or international, and local and national government collusion, indigenous people all over Latin America are all living varied versions of the same ecological and social nightmare. Through environmental destruction like deforestation and pollution, direct violent eviction and territorial encroachment, or manipulative and coerced removal, indigenous communities are left without their traditional means of subsistence and thus are forced to join the overwhelmingly indigenous and mestizo urban poor or, well, die.

On the move

Yet in the long uphill battle for recognition, respect, autonomy, and territory, a peak seems to have arisen. As the world confronts international food crises, viruses from industrial livestock production, climate change, its last drops of oil, and a scarcity of basic natural resources like water, it comes as no surprise that movements of the best conservationists are gaining ground. As economic collapse has further tainted trust in the world’s political and economic “leaders,” and thrown a culture of individualism over collectivity into question, it is no wonder that communities who believe in small-scale collective ownership and self-government might start to sound not utopic, but practical. After all, unlike history textbooks would have us believe, the indigenous of the Americas—their traditions and forms of living—are no distant myth; they are alive and fighting.

In Latin America, most indigenous communities are struggling on a local and regional level, fighting in courts as well as in streets to maintain land against a slew of multinationals and hired thugs. Communities often do not hold legal titles to their ancestral lands, though are legally entitled to them in some Latin American countries such as Argentina, where constitutionally communities are said to have “pre-existed” the modern state.

Many indigenous movements also invoke two important international declarations on which to base their organizing: International Labor Organization Convention 169 that establishes a system of protections for native people and consultation about developments that affect their territory, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007—an enormous victory after years of pressure and organizing. Article Four of the UN Declaration goes as far as to say “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.” 

Though 14 Latin American countries have ratified Convention 169, getting governments to adhere to these declarations is, with little surprise, another story. State interests often follow the twisted capitalist logic that tearing apart subsistence-based communities for a mine that will  “create jobs” is a good thing, and local elected-leaders are comfortable (and well-paid) in the pockets of multinationals. Despite the collapse of the FTAA, bilateral trade agreements between the US, Canada, and countries such as Peru or Chile, steamroll ahead, ironing out pesky legal wrinkles related to the environment and native communities along the way. In the case of Peru, after US Senate approved the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement in December of 2007, President Alan García enacted 102 legislative decrees that trample indigenous rights and environmental protections, 40 percent of which the Peruvian Congress’ Constitutional Commission has deemed unconstitutional.

Still, beyond the local resistance, indigenous communities within Latin America are coordinating and building regional solidarity. The Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas (Coordinating Committee for Andean Indigenous Organizations or CAOI) formed in 2006 and convenes six national networks of indigenous groups in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. The Cumbre Continental de los Pueblos Indigenas del Abya Yala or Summit of Indigenous Peoples of the “Continent of Life” (in the Kuna language) that gathered for the fourth time at the end of May, brings together both CAOI as well as the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) and the Indigenous Council of Central America (CICA). These formations are demanding an end to criminalization of indigenous protest, a respect for national and international law, and environmental defense and protection.

But more fundamental than these demands, is their unified vision—articulated over and over again—for self-determination and autonomy, or as CAOI states, “for the reconstitution of political, economic, and cultural identity within the balance of Mother Earth” and a “transformation of the singular nations toward plurinational nations, societies, cultures, and the overcoming of all forms of exploitation, oppression, and exclusion.” 

And there’s the rub. The chill under the collars of the composed heads of state. Because a call for autonomy and a recognition that within one’s borders exist not just different ethnicities but different nations built on different values, managed by different structures of government, and on top of all that, living off the land and not a national economy, is perhaps the biggest threat of all. But for indigenous and non-indigenous people fighting daily for social justice and with dreams of a different world, this vision has been and could continue to be, our biggest inspiration.


Over the years, Left Turn has devoted many pages to social movements and politics of Latin America, and has analyzed and praised the progressive shifts within the region. We have often looked to Latin America for hope, and lifted up autonomous movements against neoliberalism such as the Zapatistas in Mexico –a movement made up of indigenous Maya.

This section is a look, and by no claim exhaustive, at indigenous communities in resistance, specifically in Mexico and South America. We hope Left Turn readers are ignited by its contents, and that we as a magazine continue what it begins in issues to come.