Self-Determination and Autonomy in Latin America: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By Laura Carlsen

In Mexico, as in many countries in Latin America, the struggle to transform the legal framework for indigenous rights has become the center of native autonomy movements. The shift to the legislative arena has its roots in the 1970s, specifically in the work of the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. A common point of reference is the 1977 meeting organized by the United Nations in Geneva that led to the establishment of the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in 1982. This group opened up an international forum for discussion and stimulated contacts between indigenous peoples throughout the hemisphere.

The Working Group on Indigenous Peoples was formed to study conditions and draw up a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In this process, the leadership of the U.S.-based Indian Law Resource Center (offices in various cities, including DC) and various Canadian groups was key to developing the concepts of indigenous self-determination and autonomy in legal terms. Later, the discussion and subsequent formation of autonomous regions on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua convened experts and groups to hammer out national policies for autonomy.

The draft declaration of the working group (not accepted by national governments, as discussed below) and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (approved in 1989) continue to be benchmarks in the international movement for self-determination of Indian peoples. Both documents substitute the term indigenous "peoples" for the concept of indigenous groups as ethnic minorities. The term "peoples" appears in Convention 169 as: "tribal peoples in independent countries, descended from populations that inhabited the country or geographical region at the time of the conquest or colonization and establishment of current borders; who conserve their own social, cultural, economic and political institutions; and are totally or partially ruled by their own customs or traditions or by special legislation." It adds that self-identification or "consciousness of indigenous or tribal identity" is also considered a fundamental criterion.

In international law and government policy, all ethnic groups--including indigenous ones--had been previously understood as "objects of protection, integration and, finally, dissolution" under state tutelage. The term peoples implies recognition of the rights of indigenous groups that existed prior to colonization and the formation of the modern state. Thus, these documents, and the constitutional reforms that followed, elevated indigenous people around the world to the status of subjects of internationally recognized rights. At the same time, they established collective rights stemming from indigenous people's status as original inhabitants and their uninterrupted social organization within colonized lands. This recognition of indigenous collective rights moves beyond individual guarantees and defines a new category of relationship vis-à-vis post-colonial states.

The right of indigenous groups to self-determination as peoples is not directly stated in Convention 169, but the convention lists many enabling mechanisms that mandate practices of autonomy. Within this new legal framework, Indian leaders and legal experts have evolved the concepts of self-determination and autonomy. The right to self-determination was first described in the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights (1966) as a people's right to establish their own political, social, economic, and cultural development. The designation of indigenous groups as "peoples" rather than national minorities permitted, for the first time, an interpretation of self-determination that applied to subgroups within a nation and led to a new analysis of their relationship to the nation-state. It also opened a debate on the nature of the nation-state itself. Indeed, the debate on the single word "peoples" has been the major sticking point in securing approbation of the declaration of the working group. Developed countries--led by the U.S.--refuse to accept a concept that transcends a liberal model of individual rights and recognizes Indian peoples as more than just the losers in the wars of colonization.

In Latin American countries with sizable indigenous populations, the 1970s saw local and regional indigenous movements begin to coalesce nationally around the demand for self-determination and autonomy--the latter defined as the exercise of self-determination. By the late 1980s, groups were presenting proposals for national legislation as they intensified community work to build and consolidate de facto autonomy within their communities.

These movements turned national institutions on their heads. Indigenist policies of the past came under fire by indigenous movements demanding not assimilation into a fictitious mestizo state but rather full and differentiated citizenship with collective and ancestral rights and, above all, self-determination as peoples. Compliance would force the state and legal system to view their roles not as simply guarantors of individual rights and paternalistic policies but as the common ground of a multiethnic society. Such a radical shift in paradigms would clearly require a new legal framework.

Constitutional Reforms
A survey of indigenous documents of the 1980s reveals that in nearly half of the declarations studied there was no mention of legislative questions or the administration of justice. Today, the vast majority of documents refer to legal changes and the application of laws. Despite setbacks and a lack of assurance that legal reforms will translate into practical gains, indigenous movements continue efforts to build the foundation of a pluriethnic state on constitutional grounds.

By the new millennium, many countries in the hemisphere had reformed their constitutions to recognize aspects of the rights of indigenous peoples (Guyanas and Honduras-1982, Nicaragua-1987, Brazil-1988, Colombia-1991, Paraguay and Mexico-1992, Bolivia-1994, Ecuador-1998, Venezuela-1999). The majority of the reformed wording characterizes these nations as "multicultural and pluriethnic," an important step in ending assimilationist policies and redefining national unity on the basis of diversity. The reworded constitutions also recognize the historic existence of Indian peoples. In some constitutions this leads to a definition of collective rights, but in others, such as the Mexican Constitution, the acknowledgement remains rhetorical. To varying degrees, the reformed constitutions recognize the right to indigenous languages and bilingual education. The two areas of greatest debate are territorial and resource rights, and the extent of autonomy.

In Mexico, hopes for constitutional reform were pinned on the Cocopa Initiative. Named for the congressional commission charged with drafting the legislation stemming from the San Andrés Accords, the proposal integrated elements based on the gains made internationally and on decades of work by Mexican indigenous leaders and advisers. The accords and the Cocopa proposal are the outcome of negotiations between the federal government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a process that included indigenous leaders, advisers, and experts from all over the country. The end result reflects the give-and-take of any negotiation but contained important gains: it recognized indigenous populations as peoples, established the right to municipal self-government (with certain limitations), and gave indigenous peoples decisionmaking powers over natural resource use in their lands and territories through the gradual transfer of administrative and planning functions.

But shortly after a nationwide endorsement of the Cocopa Initiative at the Fifth Assembly of the National Indigenous Congress and only a month after the historic appearance of EZLN representatives to argue their case in Congress, the Mexican legislature voted into law a counter-reform that dashed hopes of legislating indigenous rights. The law was signed by President Fox on July 18, 2001, and was published in the Diario Oficial one month later.

President Fox--eager to assuage criticisms of his failure to resolve the Chiapas conflict--has repeatedly proclaimed the new law on indigenous rights and culture "the most advanced, and a vanguard in the world." However, Mixteco lawyer and indigenous rights activist Francisco López Barcenas calls it "the most backward law that has been formulated in the past years in all of Latin America." A brief comparison of the Mexican law with regulations in other Latin American countries reveals that Fox's enthusiastic assertion responds more to political motives than to a real assessment of the law.

The reform departed from the San Andrés Accords on several major points. These points are highly indicative of current political obstacles to indigenous self-determination. First, the Mexican counter-reform changes the Cocopa definition of indigenous communities as "subjects of public rights" to "subjects of public interest." This formulation denies the concept of Indian peoples as part of the state structure, with collective rights and defined areas of jurisdiction. Compare this to the Ecuadorian constitution, considered among the most advanced in indigenous rights and a relatively recent achievement of that nation´s dynamic indigenous movement. That text describes indigenous peoples as "self-defined as nationalities with ancestral rights" and legally ascribes to them 15 specific collective rights (Art.84: 1-15), including the conservation of community territories; participation in use, administration, and conservation of renewable natural resources; consultation in programs for the use of nonrenewable resources; collective intellectual property; and representation in official agencies mandated to apply the law. The Brazilian constitution also recognizes indigenous populations as collective subjects (Art.232): "The Indians, their communities and organizations, are legitimate parties to act in judgment in defense of their rights and interests…".
Second, traditional forms of self-government have been severely constrained under the Mexican counter-reform. Indigenous common law, based on communal normative systems, differs substantially from Western positivist law based on individual limits and responsibilities. The Mexican reform limits the exercise of autonomy and self-government to the community level and requires local decisions to be "validated" by the courts. Moreover, the establishment of specific norms for the exercise of autonomy was remitted to the states, where the power of caciques--or rural bosses who have historically been adversaries of indigenous rights--is notorious. This measure not only contradicts the purpose of establishing national norms through constitutional reform, but it also assures an uneven application of autonomic rights and subordinates indigenous normative systems even within indigenous territories. Government officials in the state of Oaxaca, which has the most advanced laws recognizing indigenous rights, have voiced concern that the constitutional reform will actually strike down some of the gains represented in their state laws, such as the election of local authorities through "usos y costumbres" (traditional practices) in community assemblies.

The definition of indigenous communities as "subjects of public rights" in the Cocopa Initiative would have set the stage for creating a pluralist legal system that would recognize the existence of indigenous norms and could develop mechanisms for harmonizing indigenous normative systems with positivist law. Other Latin American countries have advanced in this direction. The Ecuadorian constitution includes the phrase "Ama quilla, ama llulla, ama shua"--do not be idle, do not lie, and do not steal--in its section on the rights, guarantees, and duties of citizens. This comes directly from Quechua common law and has led one analyst to conclude that "its inclusion as a principal organizer of the state implies considering indigenous law commensurate to dominant law."

The most important modifications in Mexico's reform, however, are the mechanisms and jurisdictions for self-determination. The exercise of autonomy requires specific norms and a delineated area for the application of legal jurisdiction. Without these legal clarifications, it remains empty rhetoric. The Mexican law purposely omitted any such legal definitions. Whereas Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador all define autonomous indigenous territories, the Mexican law grants indigenous peoples the possibility to "accede to the preferential use and enjoyment of natural resources in the places the communities inhabit and occupy." Legal analysts have pointed out that "preferential use" is not a guaranteed right, and what is recognized here is essentially a privilege that any civil entity already has under national laws. The wording of the Cocopa Initiative was quite different: "Accede in a collective manner to the use and enjoyment of the natural resources of their lands and territories--understood as the totality of the habitat that indigenous peoples use and occupy--with the exception of those whose direct dominion corresponds to the nation."

Mexico's new law lacks specific obligations to consult with indigenous peoples on development projects, resource use in their territories, or changes in land use. The counter-reform notes that land tenure and land use decisions will remain as stated under the constitution. The Mexican constitution already reflects neoliberal objectives that dismantle revolutionary and pre-colonial collective structures and that privatize rural holdings. Article 27 of the constitution was modified in 1992 to permit the privatization of ejido land, which constitutes 61% of land tenure in heavily indigenous communities.

The Colombian constitution, on the other hand, specifically defines indigenous lands as "territorial entities" with autonomy that includes the right to self-government and the administration of resources. The territories (called resguardos) are defined under the law as inalienable collective property (Arts. 286-288 & 329).

Latin American Indigenous Autonomy: The Gap Between Theory and Practice

On February 16 of this year, indigenous leaders and Indian rights supporters took the floor of the Mexican Congress to mark the six-year anniversary of the signing of the San Andrés Accords on Indian Rights and Culture between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the federal government. Since Congress had passed a counter-reform on April 25, 2001, the San Andrés Accords had slipped further than ever from becoming the law of the land. The indigenous rights group, along with 168 legislators, demanded that the original initiative be reconsidered in the legislature.

The Mexican experience demonstrates the pitfalls of the indigenous struggle for legal recognition, particularly in the context of globalization. What Mexico's twelve million indigenous people got was far less than what they expected and less than what the government itself had committed to at San Andrés. In late 1996, Indian leaders expected the constitutional reform to pass and planned to devote their energies to the next task--the "reconstitution of the peoples," consisting of a wide range of local and regional projects aimed at strengthening self-government, integral sustainable development, women's rights, and cultural expression.
Instead, the new law made a strong statement that indigenous rights should remain folkloric; Mexico would recognize the more colorful aspects of Indian culture and customs but not interfere with dominant interests.

As the battle for legal reforms continues, the relationship between constitutional rights and socioeconomic well-being has not been borne out except in a few cases. In a recent report, the Latin American Council of Bishops concluded that there is a "general tendency that these norms remain a dead letter" and noted that standards of living have not improved. In Mexico, according to the President's Office on Indigenous Affairs, 91% of the economically active indigenous population lives below the poverty line. In every country, Latin America's 60 million indigenous people occupy the bottom rung of just about every social index--income, health, education, housing--and rank high in emigration, human rights violations, and violent deaths.

The reluctance to recognize Indian dominion over land and territories lies at the heart of serious obstacles to self-determination encountered in many Latin American countries. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution in 1979 sparked a movement for autonomy and development on the long-neglected Atlantic Coast that resulted in major reforms to the constitution in 1987. However, since conservative governments took power in the 1990 elections, they have failed to pass the supporting legislation and implementation measures necessary to firmly establish autonomic practices on the Atlantic Coast. Thus, indigenous lands have suffered increasing illegal incursions by transnational companies that bypass the consultation and participation required under the autonomic regimes.

In August 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the Nicaraguan government and in favor of the Awas Tingni community of Sumo (Mayagna) Indians in a case involving logging operations on communal lands by the Korean transnational Sol del Caribe, S.A. The government had permitted the concession in spite of efforts by the Regional Council of the North Atlantic Coast Autonomous Region to stop the logging.

In Brazil, the demarcation of indigenous territories was mandated to be completed in 1993, but by the end of 2001 only 360 of 580 Indian territories had been formally demarcated. A court ruling now allows third parties to challenge demarcation, so new territories are frequently contested in the courts. Individuals charged with marking boundaries often face heavily armed resistance from local landowners and corporate interests. Aided by international environmental groups, the process continues but faces mounting obstacles, as lands already defined as indigenous territories suffer continual invasions by private interests.

Indian land rights and decisionmaking regarding natural-resource use threaten the mobility of capital and access to resources that is key to transnational-led globalization. In general, globalization has sharpened national conservative opposition to indigenous rights by adding the business injunction to "make the world safe for investment". The World Trade Organization, free trade agreements, and transnational corporations are openly hostile to any legislation that could create barriers to investment or the unlimited exploitation of natural resources on Indian lands.

In Mexico, it was never in doubt where opposition to indigenous rights came from or why the reaction was so virulent. Under the leadership of Fox's right-wing party, the National Action Party (PAN), conservative legislators set out to strike all clauses that threatened business interests. Business leaders, for their part, issued outraged declarations to the press that expressed a mixture of racist fears and self-interest. The new law on "indigenous rights"--devoid of practicable collective rights, meaningful autonomy, secure forms of collective land tenure, and decisionmaking power over land and resource use--left business satisfied that it had overcome a serious threat to private property. Claudio X González summarized the issue: "The legal regimen (of property) is very important, because it is very difficult to have investment if there isn't clarity. I think the legislators interpreted this well."

Faced with staunch opposition from the world's most powerful forces, Latin America's indigenous movements recognize a clear need to build social consensus around legislative reforms to gain and protect their rights. In Mexico, as in many other countries, this has entailed scores of regional and local forums for discussion, broad-based mobilizations, and alliance building. The process is complex, because it must simultaneously confront over 500 years of racist and colonialist culture, on the one hand, and contemporary vested interests on the other. In Guatemala, a huge and vicious campaign led by business and conservative political forces defeated a referendum to elevate the indigenous rights agreed to in the peace talks to the level of constitutional law. As Latin American societies become increasingly polarized by the unequal distribution of wealth and power, consensus building becomes more difficult.

It also becomes more urgent. A clear relationship can be said to exist between legal recognition of indigenous rights and peace. In Guatemala, the Accord on Identity and Indigenous Rights signed in March 1995 was a key step toward the peace accords negotiated a year later. On the other hand, the failure to incorporate indigenous rights into the constitution has left construction of a lasting peace on shaky grounds. In this context, Rigoberta Menchú recently called for a permanent UN monitoring force on human rights, due to an escalation in assassinations and other violations.
The counter-reform in Mexico has ruined hopes for a lasting peace in the Chiapas conflict. Peace talks with the EZLN were immediately suspended after passage of the law, and members of the National Indigenous Congress have bitterly criticized the government for expressing a willingness to resolve indigenous demands while actually burying them. The result is a situation characterized by an increased military and paramilitary presence in Indian territories, particularly, but not exclusively, in Chiapas. The EZLN has declared that it will not continue the peace talks until the government complies with the San Andrés Accords by legislating the gains represented in the pact.

Although a fragile truce still holds, Chiapas is neither at peace nor at war. Instead, Indian communities suffer constant hostilities, mostly from revived paramilitary forces, in an escalating pattern that many experts have identified as classic "low intensity warfare." The region reports a constant violation of human rights and multiple (often deadly) skirmishes disguised as agrarian conflicts, intercommunity clashes, or religious differences. These may appear isolated but are generated at root by the politics of "divide and conquer" imposed in the area. Human rights experts have once again red-flagged the state. They warn that too often a steady increase in human rights violations, as seen in Mexico and Guatemala, proves to be a prelude to more open conflict.

In Colombia, Indian communities have mobilized to reject the presence of both guerrilla and military/paramilitary forces in their lands. In Cauca, Indians physically blocked the entry of guerrilla forces into their community with songs and ribboned staffs. Frequently the victims of the violence, they have also been a force for peace. But if indigenous autonomy promotes peace, violence undermines autonomy. The war has stalled recognition of indigenous territories in the Naya region of the country and has thwarted development of programs in other regions.
Plan Colombia, slated to receive some 98 million dollars in President Bush's 2003 military budget, is viewed as a direct threat to indigenous self-determination. In the words of U´wa traditional authority Roberto Perez: "Plan Colombia is a death sentence for us… The money the U.S. is spending on Plan Colombia will go to protecting the international companies by purchasing arms and more sophisticated equipment and constructing military bases in the richest zones." He adds that aerial fumigation to eradicate coca production pollutes rivers and fields essential to indigenous ecosystems and agricultural production, thus cutting indigenous peoples off from their principal livelihoods.

Where indigenous rights have been recognized, a huge gap exists between theory and practice--a gap that appears to be widening rather than narrowing, as economic pressures generated by globalization and increasing violence erode indigenous rights. A 1999 document by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) sums up: "Internationally, the rights won by Colombian indigenous peoples have been held up as an example by both governments and indigenous peoples, but we see there is a huge distance between the word and the reality. For Colombian indigenous peoples, the constitution has become more like a plan of action, in that initial illusions have given way to a real-life situation where rural bosses and transnationals continue to run things, and their henchmen block the rights acquired, starting with the right to live."

New Challenges for Indigenous Communities in Latin America: Control of Natural Resources and the Impact of Neoliberalism

The main purpose of adequate indigenous rights legislation is to provide a platform for the larger process of "reconstituting the peoples"--fortifying indigenous peoples from within based on practices of self-government and autonomous resource development. The other objective is to attain, after 500 years, full citizenship and a voice in the conduct of national policy. Self-determination can only be practiced if a people have a physical location with a resource base and can exercise control over their territory and habitat. Full citizenship can only be exercised under a pluralist regimen of law that recognizes not only equal rights but also different and collective rights. Thus, constitutional reforms are crucial.

But the existence of advanced legislation is obviously no guarantee of living happily ever after, since even the most advanced laws still have holes in them. Moreover, the application of laws is generally uneven, and globalization has exacerbated social and economic problems. And the reforms have not necessarily resolved the problem of political representation. In Colombia, where the reform created special districts with guaranteed indigenous representation, participation in formal politics increased. On the other hand, despite its advanced constitution, Ecuador currently has no indigenous representatives. Moreover, constitutional reforms need implementing legislation and secondary laws that specify both the obligations of the state and the intended forms of legal application. Many countries have not finished this process. In this context, two major areas of conflict have arisen: the battle over land and resources in Indian territories and the confrontation with neoliberal policies.

Natural Resources Battles

Battles over indigenous land and resources are, of course, nothing new. Since the resistance to colonization, Indians have fought to protect their dwindling territories and their right to manage natural resources there. But in this millennium, the battle has intensified and taken on distinctive characteristics. For one thing, many of the natural resources found on Indian lands have become more valuable in the context of the global system. Several factors have spurred renewed interest in natural resources on Indian lands in Latin America, among them the mobility of capital, ecological limits to growth in developed countries, lax environmental restrictions in underdeveloped nations, lower transportation costs, advances in biotechnology, cheap third world labor, and national privatization policies. Limits to logging in developed countries have led timber transnationals overseas. Increased demand and prices for minerals have generated the reopening of mines and the proliferation of small-scale mining operations. Rivers are coveted for their hydroelectric potential, and bioprospecting has put a price tag on biodiversity. Originally considered lands unsuitable for productive activities, the resources of Indian lands are currently the resources of the future.

Even nonrenewable resources legally defined as national property--and therefore exempt from indigenous laws recognizing the right to resource control--have sparked conflicts between transnationals and Indian peoples. Pollution from oil exploitation routinely destroys local ecosystems in Indian territories and deprives communities of traditional economic activities, as spills kill off fish populations and contaminate farmlands. Recently, Colombian U´wa Indians have threatened mass suicide in an effort to suspend the oil exploration by Occidental/Shell Oil on traditional U´wa lands in the eastern Andes. Citing the "threat to our home, the animals and plants we eat, the water we drink, and our culture, which is based on the forest," the U´wa have taken their case to the Organization of American States. After the Colombian Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling in their favor, spiritual leaders announced last October that they would walk off a cliff before allowing oil exploration on their lands. Members of the community did just that to avoid colonization by the Spanish in the 17th century.

Although the Colombian constitution requires consultation with indigenous communities before natural resources are exploited on traditional lands, the U´wa claim that the government granted the Occidental/Shell license before consultation was finished because of Bogotá's desire for foreign investment. The conflict between attracting foreign investment for dollar-hungry governments and protecting natural resources on Indian lands has been a recurring theme in Latin America over the past decade. The Rarámuri of northern Mexico recently registered a complaint before the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation claiming that the government has ignored its own laws to promote transnational logging on indigenous lands.
Land battles also focus on changing land use patterns in indigenous regions. Advanced technological changes, such as genetically modified plants, and intense global competition between giant food and agriculture conglomerates and have transformed agricultural practices. These factors work to expel subsistence farmers and replace the sustainable farming methods that are the backbone of indigenous communities with monopolized chemical and biotechnological packages. A growing alliance between Indian and campesino organizations has begun to identify the threats and make common cause in defense of the campesino economy.
Indigenous leaders have also taken the lead in the fight against the patenting of life forms. In Mexico, the Council of Traditional Medics and Midwives of Los Altos in Chiapas recently forced suspension of a bioprospecting project between the University of Georgia, the transnational Molecular Limited, and a local academic institute. International indigenous forums and conferences on the issue of biopiracy and bioprospecting have resulted in major declarations protesting the practices and the intellectual property regimes that give rise to them. In the Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples, drawn up in June 1993 in New Zealand, indigenous delegates from 14 countries declared their right to self-determination and proclaimed indigenous peoples as the exclusive owners of their cultural and intellectual property. On July 25, 1999, indigenous groups meeting in Geneva released a document criticizing Art.27.3bi of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The document, entitled "No to Patenting of Life!" concludes: "it [TRIPs] will lead to the appropriation of our traditional medicinal plants and seeds and our indigenous knowledge on health, agriculture and biodiversity conservation." The indigenous groups demanded systems that: protect the knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples and farmers, allow seed saving and sharing and the free use of medicinal plants, prevent the theft and piracy of indigenous materials and knowledge, and integrate the principle and practice of informed consent and the right of indigenous peoples to veto any bioprospecting activity.
The Indigenous People's Seattle Declaration, on the occasion of the Third Ministerial Meeting of the WTO in December 1999, also condemned the patenting of life forms.

Most Latin American countries are just beginning to hammer out regulations regarding biodiversity and indigenous rights. Many have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, which obligates companies that utilize plant material for profit to share benefits with some nations and communities. Ecuador and Venezuela grant indigenous peoples collective intellectual property rights under their constitutions, and the Mexican National Indigenous Congress recently supported a nationwide call for a moratorium on bioprospecting activities.
Development "megaprojects," aimed at more fully integrating indigenous lands into the international economic system, constitute the final point in this brief overview of resource conflicts. Currently being implemented in most Latin American countries as precursors to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), these projects imply monumental changes in land use, resource exploitation, and social organization-changes that threaten the cohesion of indigenous peoples, their cultural survival, and their physical well-being, and that frontally contradict Indian values. In many Latin American countries, there has been a proliferation of environmental conflicts in opposition to plans for economic integration based on creating links to the global economy. In the absence of strong environmental movements, these small-scale protests are frequently led by indigenous peoples in defense of their communities. Highways that attempt to connect communities to nodal points of international commerce rather than traditional markets (often destroying vast tracts of forest or farmland in the process) have met with unexpected resistance, as have transnational logging activities, massive water projects, and industrial corridors. Indian communities are explicitly rejecting transnational penetration into their lands and are instead placing a higher priority on the environment, cultural preservation, and traditional economic organization.

A classic example of megaproject logic is Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP), which encompasses nine southern Mexican states and Central America. The imposition of this plan has provoked opposition from a growing network of peasant and indigenous groups. These groups claim that the plan will cause environmental damage, break up collective land use patterns, transform traditional farmers into maquiladora workers, and spur emigration. Indigenous autonomy is anathema to the PPP. Legal expert Magdalena Gómez concludes: "Noncompliance with the San Andrés Accords is not a coincidence, since (compliance) would imply the need for a major reform of the state and changes in the Plan Puebla Panama, which is the paradigm for the current government."
Luís Enrique Chávez, president of the UN Working Group, notes that the major point of contention that has obstructed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is Article 13, which recognizes Indian lands, territories, and sacred sites. Third parties (property owners and transnational interests) have urged governments to reject the declaration--especially the recognition of these rights--in a showdown on how far the global system is willing to accommodate indigenous demands. The fact that these third parties have blocked the declaration for a decade and a half indicates that the answer is "not far at all."


The Ecuadorian indigenous movement, more than any other in the hemisphere, has identified the neoliberal model as its nemesis. On January 20, 2000, the movement, along with renegade military officers, brought down President Jamil Mahoud. Only intense pressure from the U.S. and fractures in military support turned power back to the vice-president, Gustavo Noboa.
Noboa seems not to have realized the nature of resistance among the nation's three million indigenous peoples. A year after his predecessor was booted from office, Noboa complained: "In a globalized world, there are people in Ecuador so ignorant that they just don't understand that that's the way it is." But instead of accepting the status quo in the stereotype of the submissive indio, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has intensified its struggle against neoliberal measures. In February, nationwide mobilizations coordinated through CONAIE helped to thwart a government initiative to privatize the electric sector, warning that privatization would "lead Ecuador into the same tunnel as Argentina, and that would be disastrous for the poor."
International organizing against IMF austerity programs, free-market policies, Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), and the Free Trade Area in the Americas has galvanized alliances between indigenous movements and other social sectors, although still on a small scale. Central American and Mexican Indian peoples have participated in numerous forums to protest the PPP, and Amazon peoples have been meeting to oppose infrastructure projects that destroy wetlands, forests, and river basins in that region. As those most affected by global efforts to exploit biodiversity and impose megaprojects, indigenous peoples have recognized the radical nature of their demands regarding globalization and have played an increasingly important role in the global justice movement.

In Latin American, autonomy struggles currently contest a global system that has shown its unwillingness to allow even the most remote corner of the earth to remain outside the realm of the international market. In this context, the insistence of indigenous cultures on nonmarket values such as solidarity, community, sustainability, and ties to the land constitutes a radical challenge. Therein lies these cultures' appeal to the broader global justice movement. The Zapatista uprising stands as a beacon to that movement, and the utopia offered by Indian traditions and resistance to mercantilist thinking provides a blurry kind of model for the more human-oriented alternatives being explored by those who insist that "another world is possible." The links being formed with the global justice movement have been critical in three areas: creating national coalitions on issues of common concern, whether specifically indigenous or not; publicizing and supporting indigenous groups in defense of their lands and rights; and funding autonomous development projects.

Indigenous Campaigns in Latin America in the Wake of Zapatismo

Throughout Latin America, indigenous groups and their supporters have taken their demands to the national legislatures. In some countries, indigenous peoples have organized to represent their interests through participation in local and national elections. In Ecuador, the national movement formed its own party, the Pachakutik, winning 17% of the presidential vote in 1996 and many provinces and mayorships in 2000. In Ecuador, after analyzing its experience with representative democracy, CONAIE has called for the formation of "parliaments of the peoples--autonomous civil society organs that make use of their constitutional sovereignty to decide how to benefit the people." These comprise representatives of both indigenous and nonindigenous grassroots organizations of the same community, parish, or province. Other countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile, have also formed indigenous political parties.
Despite these efforts, formal political representation has remained low. Political parties in general have not been sensitive to indigenous demands. In several countries, indigenous autonomy movements have contributed to democratization by challenging the notion that politics is the exclusive domain of political parties. Although a party itself, Pachakutik candidates included a large number of nonaffiliated Indians. But many electoral systems--including Mexico's--still do not permit independent candidates, and entrenched parties have shown little willingness to open their doors to indigenous candidates.
The Cocopa Initiative included a section on political representation that mandated that the location of indigenous groups be taken into account when forming electoral districts, in an effort to assure representation and political expression of collective indigenous interests. The new law contains no such assurances.

In the various elections held since the 1994 uprising, the EZLN has at times called for abstention, claiming that the military occupation of their communities prohibits free exercise of the indigenous vote. At other times, the organization has left people to decide for themselves whether to vote. The Zapatistas have neither endorsed nor sponsored candidates for public office, and their relations with all political parties have been strained--if not downright adversarial--as is the case with the conservative party of President Fox.
The EZLN has specifically recognized the limitations of a formal liberal democracy, citing vast areas of democratic practice that fall beyond the electoral realm. "In a government of transition, political participation would not be limited to the electoral aspect, because there are realities in our country that have no legal terms to recognize their right to exist. Realities like the forms of self-government in indigenous communities, like the growing political participation of nonpartisan groups, like the need to consult the whole society about issues that affect the interests of the nation…"

Regrettably, the "government of transition" that the Zapatistas envision above is no more tangible than before the elections that ended the PRI's domination. In fact, one of the great disappointments of the Fox government is that the grassroots effervescence created following the Zapatista uprising--the National Indigenous Forum, the National Democratic Convention, the San Andrés negotiations, the Inter-Continental Conference, and the plethora of publications rethinking the values and commitments of the nation-wasn't revived following the regime change in December 2000.
Meanwhile the Zapatistas have focused on the consolidation of self-government in the autonomous municipalities. In the autonomous townships of Chiapas, communities have opted for strengthening autonomous schools, health services, cooperatives, productive projects, women's organizations, human rights, and organic agriculture. They have developed these programs with little or no government support, based on networks of national and international solidarity.

Renegotiating the Social Pact

Inspired by the worldwide resonance of the Zapatista uprising, indigenous autonomy movements set out challenges within societies to redefine everything from national identity to economic policy. This has been a breath of fresh air for Latin American politics. Among their most significant contributions, indigenous autonomy movements have infused cultural issues into politics, forced Latin American societies to acknowledge racism, opened up debate on gender equity, and challenged clientele relations with the state.
But most importantly, these movements challenge basic definitions of state and society. UN Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen has noted: "Ethnic conflicts often revolve around the self-perception of an entire people within the framework of the modern nation-state, and therefore their dynamics involve competing concepts of the nation and contrasting ideas about the very structure of the state itself." As such, resolutions of ethnic conflicts usually require more radical solutions than traditional power bargaining.
The demand for autonomy implies a profound renegotiation of the social pact. It simultaneously redresses historical wrongs by recognizing original rights while promoting a social model for the future--the pluriethnic state. It goes beyond demanding attention to the grievances, both historical and contemporary, of Indian peoples. Under a new social pact based on autonomy and respect for differences, all kinds of rights--human, civil, legal, and political--find shelter under the concept of the multiethnic nation.

The idea of breaking through the shell of democracy inherited from colonial times--monoethnic, classist, hegemonic--to create a real democracy in the hands of the people is at the heart of the demand for a multiethnic state. In no Latin American country has the indigenous movement called for secession, despite the fact that fear of "the Balkanization of the nation" is a common argument against recognition of indigenous rights and autonomy.

Today indigenous autonomy struggles in Latin America seem to move one step forward and two steps back. Rapid economic integration is producing stark conflicts of interest, pitting indigenous peoples seeking to protect their rights and natural resources against transnational corporations backed by national governments. The legal reforms achieved have been met with growing resistance on the ground and in the courts and legislatures. Although national indigenous movements have found new allies within the global justice movement and now have Internet tools to fight their isolation, opposition has consolidated along the mantras of free trade and foreign investment.
Due to the profound implications of the demand for indigenous autonomy, Indian peoples have found both new enemies and new friends. They have also found new strength in a world where their discourse of pluralism, equity, solidarity, and community gains renewed vigor and offers an alternative vision to a market-blindered system.

Laura Carlsen is a researcher affiliated with the Center for Rural Change in Mexico located in Mexico City and has written extensively on the Mexican Indian movement.