Global Policy Forum

Latin American Indigenous Movements in the


Juan Houghton and Beverly Bell*

Interhemispheric Resource Center
October 11, 2004

Globalization has increased, in previously unsuspected ways, the risks for indigenous peoples living on lands that contain strategic resources for market exploitation: water, oil, gas, forests, minerals, biodiversity. Increased foreign investment and increased profit depend upon the exploitation of natural resources, and these natural resources are predominantly found on indigenous lands. As the Chilean political scientist Sandra Huenchuán Navarro says, "Though indigenous people don't know it, the most powerful determining factor of their destiny is the New York Stock Exchange or transnational companies' logic of global investment." 1

Throughout the Americas, indigenous peoples are losing economic and social ground. Their fragile control over their lands, waters, and other natural resources is loosening. Both academic researchers and indigenous organizations show that market-driven global processes are increasing environmental deterioration and poverty in indigenous communities, blocking the viability of sustainable indigenous communities and societies.2 In response, indigenous peoples are mounting new forms of resistance and organizing. While concentrating on consolidating their autonomy, the political and economic conjuncture brought on by globalization has also forced indigenous peoples to engage in new fights.

A Second Conquest

Indigenous peoples' experience of the nation-state and dominant society is one of systematic exclusion and dispossession. Globalization has greatly worsened this condition, based on agreements between nation-states, corporations, and financial institutions forged without the input or consent of civil society groups. National governments are taking it upon themselves to negotiate natural resources on the international market with little concern about whether these resources are on indigenous, black, or peasant lands. These projects are often negotiated behind the backs of indigenous peoples, in open violation of Convention 169 of the ILO that states that indigenous peoples have the right to be consulted before decisions that affect their territories or natural resources are made.

In this context, many indigenous people perceive "globalization" as a euphemism for a second colonization. The following statement from the "Abya Yala Indigenous Peoples' Mandate," from a continental congress of indigenous peoples in Quito in 2002, is typical of dozens more emanating from indigenous federations and gatherings in recent years. This one, directed to the ministers for economic issues in the Americas, states: It has come to our attention that, representing various countries, you are meeting to design a project for Latin American integration. However, we who were the first inhabitants of these lands, and therefore the hosts, have not been notified, much less consulted. Because of this, we consider your presence to be suspect and unwelcome.3

In one of countless similar examples, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) called free trade pacts "a new crusade to re-colonize our territories, our cultures, our consciences, and nature itself."4 The "Declaration of Chilpancingo," produced at the National Gathering of Indigenous Mexican Peoples and Organizations in Mexico in 2002, talked about trade pacts "which turn over our sovereignty to large national and transnational capital, turn their backs on the interests of the majority, and seek to maintain a homogeneous nation, rejecting the plurality and diversity of our peoples."4

Opposition to Free Trade Agreements

Among trade pacts, the FTAA has been the main focus of attention and opposition. The "Abya Yala Indigenous Peoples' Mandate" also speaks for much of the opposition to the FTAA:

The FTAA will lead to greater destruction of the environment [which will cause us] to be evicted from our own territories. We will be led down the path of submitting to the privatization of water and the generalized use of genetically modified foods. Labor rights and working conditions will deteriorate. The living conditions and health of our peoples will worsen as the privatization of social services is accepted and implemented. Many small- and medium-sized businesses that are still surviving will go bankrupt. Democratic rights in society will be further limited. Severe poverty, inequality, and inequity will increase. The ancestral cultures and ethical values we still have will be destroyed. They will even end up dismantling nation-states and turning them into incorporated colonies. What kind of integration are you trying to tell us about when, as your plans are carried out, we are being disintegrated and eliminated? What kind of integration are you proposing if the basis of your proposal is competition, the desire to accumulate and obtain profits at any cost, inequity, disrespect for peoples and cultures, and the desire to make us all part of the market, part of rampant consumerism? What kind of integration are you proclaiming if the first and foremost relationship of human beings is to mother earth, and you do not have such a relationship?"6

Similar statements have been made by: the National Encounter of Mexican Indigenous Peoples and Organizations,7 the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE),8 the Interethnic Association of Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) in the Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia (November 2001) and in the International Seminar Against Neoliberalism,9 the National Indian Council of Venezuela (CONIVE), Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Cuenca Amazonia (COICA), the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the General Kuna Congress of Panamá, various Chilean and Bolivian organizations, and the Pan Amazonian Social Forum.10

The Battle for Control Over Natural Resources

In most countries of Latin America, structural adjustment has meant moving economies back to reliance on raw materials, through the extraction of natural resources by multinational companies, sometimes in association with local business, and with the willing help of governments. 11 This renewed "raw materialization" of global Southern economies has meant aggressive takeover of indigenous land and resources. Green markets, carbon dioxide sinks, genetic information, oil, gas, and water are all subject to rapid privatization processes led by national governments and to sale on the stock market.

In the Amazon, wood, pharmaceutical, and oil extraction is increasing. The Plan Puebla-Panama promotes the construction of highways and railroads, the development of oil and electricity industries, and the creation of a huge free trade zone in an area throughout Mesoamerica—an area rich in resources and biodiversity.12 The highlands and eastern area of Bolivia are being affected by gas and water projects. Two million hectares of the Ecuadorian Amazon have been ceded to oil companies, and 50% of the Colombian Amazon is considered by oil companies available for direct contracting.13

In Nicaragua, the Korean transnational Kumkyung has a 30-year concession on the forest resources of the Awas Tingni indigenous people. In Madre de Dios in Peru, in the Colombia Pacific, in the southern region of Chile, at the Amazonian borders of Brazil, and in Guyana—all indigenous territories—forest plantations are growing. The increase in tree plantings is intended to maintain a stock of exploitable trees to keep world paper prices low and to continue lowering the price of vegetable oils used by transnational food companies. This, in turn, has turned entire indigenous regions previously dedicated to agriculture, as in the case of Mapuche lands in Chile, or to sustainable forest harvesting, in places like Chajerado and Embera lands in Colombia, into areas used only for short-term and intensive forest extraction.

Multinational and local companies mining for gold, copper, ferro-nickel, and other minerals, have transformed indigenous lands in Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Panama. There is a permanent war being waged by gold miners and illegal armed groups against indigenous communities residing on these and other lands, including the Yanomami, Curripaco, Baniva, and Kuna.14 The indigenous peoples are often forced to pay taxes even as they play the role of private guards for these transnational businesses.

One result is a new round of displacement of peoples from their resource-rich lands. A recent study on the impact of globalization on indigenous territories by Chilean political scientist Huenchuán emphasizes that over the past centuries many indigenous peoples were forced off of their lands and took refuge in "places that were often considered hostile ecosystems but are areas of high biological diversity and have an ecological importance far beyond their immediate boundaries." Now that many of these lands have been targeted by multinationals for resource extraction, indigenous communities are again being forcibly removed en masse.15

Plans for Displacement

The neoliberal model in Latin America has another new face that is even more painful for the indigenous: the Andean Region Initiative, also known as Plan Colombia, and Plan Dignity in Bolivia , with their exorbitant price tags. These initiatives involve wars against the opposition and a chemical war against the mostly indigenous people who grow coca and poppies for survival and, in the case of coca, for sacred purposes as well. In addition to disrespecting the cultures whose cosmologies are based on the coca leaf, t he aerial spraying of Round-Up damages environmental and human health. The spraying occurs in selective areas where the governments wish to control insurgent movements as well as indigenous lands and resources. In Colombia , for example, there has been no direct fumigation of land controlled by the death squads run by the Colombian military.

There is also a notable militarization of the entire continent with the installation of dozens of new national and U.S. army military bases on indigenous lands. Indigenous and campesino peoples and movements experience repression in the areas affected, as well as increased poverty. The so-called drug wars have been effective in accelerating displacement of indigenous peoples and campesinos from resource-rich lands. This has occurred as much through direct military action against communities as through aerial fumigation of the food base of communities whom the military wishes to push out.

Moreover, these measures secure U.S. corporate investment in the region, as U.S. initiatives provide weapons and financial resources to countries that accept a growing U.S. military presence and adopt a policy of protecting U.S. investments.16 In Bolivia, for example, Plan Dignity has been effective not as a challenge to drugs, but as a challenge to popular opposition to privatization of state-owned natural resources. The militarization of these and other countries in Latin America has paved the way for expansion of neoliberal globalization.

Reshaping Autonomy Struggles

Under the current terms of economic integration, national sovereignty itself has become virtually expendable, its power often trumped by laws of international trade pacts and the demands of international financial institutions (IFIs). The weakening of roles and positions of nation-states accentuates the internal economic crises of individual countries and the social and political instability of the whole region.

This creates a new context for self-determination for indigenous peoples. States' unwillingness to "represent" the interests of their civil societies—in this case indigenous peoples—has decreased their legitimacy and strengthened throughout the continent the idea of autonomy that indigenous peoples have been defending for centuries. As the states' inability to respond to society as a whole provokes increasing crises in their claims of representation, and ability to govern, indigenous peoples have begun an inverse process. They are relying on their history and social structure, on recent political developments, and on the clarity with which they have promoted the consolidation of indigenous governments and jurisdictions. Indigenous governments have gained legitimacy in spite of the difficulties, and laws are often enforced in autonomously run areas more effectively than where standard governmental legislation exists. Where neither federal governments nor laws protect or represent people and their lands, indigenous peoples, campesino communities, and peoples of African descent are bursting onto the scene to take on local, regional, and national power.

Indigenous peoples have historically had to build their political entities inside nation-states, which mediated and still mediate many of their relationships with the world. While a decade ago, they took their concerns only to the state, now they must also go to the international arena. At one level, the margins of their political power are expanded as they deal directly with multilateral organizations like the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), the Ibero-American Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (a multilateral organization created by the Ibero-American heads of state, also known as the Indigenous Fund), and the Andean Community of Nations, which approach them looking for consent on projects and consensus around political operations.17 They also have to deal with corporations who negotiate local investment and resource exploitation projects directly with local indigenous leaders.

Yet, because of the asymmetrical power at work, indigenous peoples find themselves subordinated to new forms of governance. Gains in autonomy are in danger of being quickly lost to the World Bank, IDB, and other multinational institutions that are now able to impose policies and initiatives directly on indigenous communities, organizations, and lands. The legal changes imposed by the trade and investment organizations are coupled with the coercive power that comes along with loans and development aid. Structural adjustment-driven decentralization has opened the door for the direct incorporation and absorption of some indigenous communities into the scenario of dependence, indebtedness, and business associations that are all increasingly threatening indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples' desire to govern their own territories, combined with their poverty and isolation, render them vulnerable to these programs, which operate on the same policy imperatives that are heavily pushed by the region's governments, and often with even more socially and economically devastating impacts.

For resources on indigenous movements see this Attachment.


  1. Huenchu án Navarro, Sandra. "Territorial Impacts of Economic Globalization in Latin American and Caribbean Indigenous Territories." Statement presented in the XXII Latin American Congress of Sociology of the Latin American Sociology Association (ALAS). University of Concepción , Concepción , Chile , 1999.

  2. See the Declaration of the Indigenous Caucus of the UN Indigenous Peoples' Working Group in Geneva, July 25, 2003.


  3. The "Abya Yala Indigenous Peoples' Mandate," from the Continental Congress to prepare the Second Summit of Indigenous Peoples' of the Americas, Quito, October 30, 2002.


  4. "Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the FTAA," National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), in Memorias, International Seminar, "The Peoples of South America Building Alternatives to Neoliberalism," Bogotá, September, 2002.


  5. "Declaration of Chilpancingo," National Encounter of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations, September 12 and 13, 2002, Chilpancingo in ALAI, Latin America in Movement, September 13, 2002. Forty-eight indigenous organizations participated in this gathering, including one of the most representative groups in Mexico (ANIPA) and the most influential regional groups.


  6. The "Abya Yala Indigenous Peoples' Mandate," Op. Cit. The summit where the statement was released took place in the context of the Continental Days of Struggle Against the FTAA on the same date. CONAIE of Ecuador, CONAMAC from Bolivia, COICA and CSUTCB from Bolivia, the Kuna Youth Movement of Panamá, ONIC from Colombia , and sectoral and regional organizations from Mexico and Chile were present at the summit.


  7. National Encounter of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations, "Chilpancingo Declaration," September 12-13, 2002, Chilpancingo, in Latin America in Movement ( ALAI) Sept 9, 2002. Forty-eight indigenous organizations participated in this gathering including the most representative organization in the country (ANIPA) and the most influential regional organizations.


  8. See Boletí­n ICCI-ARY Rimay, No. 30 - 50.


  9. National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, "Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the FTAA," in Summary of Events, International Seminar, " South American Peoples Building Alternatives to Neoliberalism," Bogotá, September 2002, and "Life and Dignity for Indigenous Peoples and Colombians," Summary of Events, Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia, 2001.


  10. A good register of statements from indigenous organizations on this topic can be found on the websites of the Latin American Information Agency, ALAI (, of Adital (, of the International Agency of Indigenous Press, AIPIN (, and of COICA (


  11. Structural adjustment refers to the series of economic reforms which are imposed by the IFIs in exchange for loans and aid.


  12. For more information, see Center for Economic Research and Communitarian Participation and Action, (CIEPAC),


  13. Colombian Oil Company (ECOPETROL) Land Map, Bogota, February 2003.


  14. For example, garimpeiros, the Brazilian term for gold miners who do semi-industrial dredging of the river beds of the Amazon and the Orinoco, were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Yanomami indigenous people in 1993.


  15. Huenchu án Navarro. Op. Cit. ONIC made a similar statement at the U' wa Por La Vida hearing in Cubará, 1997.


  16. See bulletins of the International Agency of Indigenous Press (AIPIN). 1999.

  17. IFIs, which have traditionally focused on lending to national governments, are increasing their involvement with NGOs, as well as with state- and provincial-level governments. The World Bank and IDB, especially, are developing direct relations with indigenous organizations, through such initiatives as the World Bank's consultations on political operations. Via institutions like the Ibero-American Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, the World Bank and the IDB are also giving grants and training "experts" in indigenous organizations.

Abouth the Authors: Juan Houghton is an anthropologist, writer, and organizer from Colombia. Beverly Bell is Director of the Center for Economic Justice. They are contributors to the IRC Americas Program. This report was excerpted with permission from Indigenous Movements in Latin America (CEJ 2004), which can obtained by writing: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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