Global Policy Forum

S. America's Indigenous Uproar


Sunday's Bolivian vote divided indigenous groups;
elsewhere natives battle for control over resources.

By Lucien O. Chauvin

Christian Science Monitor
July 20, 2004

Back in April, indigenous people in Ilave, on the shores of Lake Titicaca in southern Peru, lynched the town's mayor after accusing him of corruption, leaving the area in turmoil ever since. That same month, across the Andes in Brazil, a dozen indigenous people in the Amazon massacred 29 miners who were believed to be illegally extracting diamonds from their land. Next door in Bolivia, tens of thousands of indigenous protesters took to the streets last October to protest the government's energy policy, ultimately forcing the president to resign. They also killed a mayor for alleged corruption. And to the north in Ecuador, indigenous groups are asking the UN to step in to avoid bloodshed in an escalating conflict that they say is being stoked by the president.

Across South America, some of the region's 55 million indigenous people have been making noise lately - sometimes violently - fighting against abject poverty, inequality, and scant political representation in. While the problems vary from country to country, they reflect the difficulties facing indigenous movements here as they attempt to translate gains made over the past decade into lasting political victories. "The challenge of the indigenous movement is to understand what it means to have political power, what we can do with it," says Tarcila Rivera, a Peruvian indigenous leader and chair of the Fourth International Meeting of Indigenous Women, held recently in Peru.

The indigenous movement in Bolivia, for example, has been unable to coalesce around an individual leader or common agenda. While the two main indigenous parties were able to elect more than 30 lawmakers to the 130-member House of Representatives two years ago, they were on opposite sides of the aisle over Sunday's referendum on the future of the country's vast natural gas reserves. The referendum asked voters whether Bolivia should allow private energy companies to continue exporting its natural gas.

Evo Morales, a native Aymara and former coca grower who leads the Movement to Socialism (MAS), campaigned in favor of the referendum, while former Rep. Felipe Quispe, also an Aymara, and his Pachakutik Indigenous Movement called on voters to boycott the vote and demanded nationalization of the energy sector. The government's plan, which includes export of the country's 55 trillion cubic feet of gas, won by a large margin, even in the heavily Aymara highlands around the capital where Mr. Quispe and his party are based. Despite losing by margins as great as 9 to 1 on one of the five questions in the referendum, Quispe told the Bolivian media that the fight was not over.

Quispe preaches a blend of Marxism and indigenous nationalism, calling on his followers to reestablish the Aymara nation that existed before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. It is by far the most radical approach of the different indigenous movements in the region. Mr. Morales, though also a leftist, is looking to build a more traditional political base ahead of the 2007 presidential elections.

Alvaro Garcia, a sociology professor at the San Andres National University in La Paz, says the fight between the two parties is a reflection of a fragmented indigenous movement that has different visions for the future of Bolivia. "What we are seeing is a moderate indigenous movement with the MAS building a political movement on one side, and a radical indigenous movement led by Mr. Quispe on the other. Mr. Quispe wants to continue the process of last October [when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was ousted], leading an insurrection that brings him to power," Mr. Garcia says.

In Ecuador, the country's indigenous movement, one of the strongest in the world, could be splitting. In the 14 years since the first nationwide uprising in June 1990, which protested the use of natural resources, Ecuador's indigenous movement helped overthrow two presidents - Abdala Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000 - and usher in important constitutional changes guaranteeing respect for their rights.

In 2002 the movement was instrumental in electing current President Lucio Gutierrez. But indigenous leaders have since broken with Mr. Gutierrez citing his failure to follow through on campaign promises, such as scrapping the US dollar as its currency and returning to the sucre. The country's principle indigenous groups are now calling for outside monitors. They have accused the government of instituting plans to divide their organizations and fuel violence. "Lucio Gutierrez took advantage of all the sacrifices made by the indigenous movement and then betrayed us. I believe that his goal is to eliminate the indigenous movement," says Luis Macas, a longtime indigenous leader who served as agriculture minister in the Gutierrez administration.

Authorities in Peru are closely watching Bolivia, fearing that an uprising by Quispe could influence the already turbulent political situation in Ilave and other highland areas. Indigenous leaders in Peru blame President Alejandro Toledo for promising much and delivering little since campaigning as a champion of indigenous peoples in 2001. Even his creation of a National Commission of Andean, Amazonian, and Afro-Peruvian Peoples has failed to appease indigenous leaders. Most groups have pulled out of the commission and many have demanded that it be completely overhauled or simply shut down. Peru's indigenous leaders say the commission reflects the general way governments throughout the region have treated them since European conquerors arrived more than 500 years ago, appointing someone to speak for or represent them instead of respecting their rights.

"We are tired of people speaking for us. We need to overcome the paternalism of the political system," says Abel Chapay, vice president of the newly formed Indigenous Parliament in Peru.

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