Different Drummers: indigenous rights and corporate free trade in South America

Indigenous rights renewal in Latin America flourishes in some quarters, but there are many reminders of the continued misery of first peoples at the hands of propertied and commercial classes.

In Brazil, especially in Mato Grosso do Sul, murders of indigenous people increased 58 percent last year over 2006, according to Catholic missionaries. They said the cause was confinement, not enough land for Guarani people “to sustain their traditions.” In the Dourados reserve, 12,000 people live on less than 7,000 acres.

The hunger strike of indigenous prisoner Patricia Tronoso in Chile signals oppression. As of Jan. 25, she had fasted 106 days and was near death. She and four other Mapuche activists were sentenced to ten years in jail for allegedly burning company-owned forests; they began fasting Oct. 10. They were protesting mistreatment of other indigenous prisoners and supporting the Mapuche campaign for return of land stolen by corporations. Her companions ended their fasts several weeks ago.

Critics accuse the Chilean government of complicity with landowners in relying on Pinochet-era antiterrorist laws to suppress Mapuche demands.

Indigenous grief is often tied to environmental abuse. Interviewed by journalist Greg Palast, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa detailed his recent trip into the Amazonian jungle to investigate an outburst of cancer among indigenous children living in areas abandoned by foreign oil corporations. Sink holes filled with oil sludge dot nearby forests. A community leader told Correa that his son’s vomiting of blood and subsequent death were related to immersion in contaminated water.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales last week demanded that a group of exploitative landowners in the drought-stricken Chaco region provide land for 1,000 enslaved Guarani families with neither income nor land. He threatened the landowners with expropriation.

The unprecedented rise of Morales, an indigenous labor leader, to Bolivia’s presidency is taken by many as a harbinger of a new day for Latin America’s indigenous people. They take hope from his government’s progress toward public control over hydrocarbon resources and a proposed new constitution protective of indigenous rights.

A Jan. 15-17 international conference in La Paz, attended by indigenous people from 11 countries, heaped praise on “brother President Evo Morales” for “standing up to “the fascism of the right,” as one speaker put it. Another inveighed against “homogeneous societies” that make “regional, environmental, and cultural difference invisible.” A final conference declaration called for “inclusion and construction of multinational states.”

But a handful of Bolivian delegates denounced their country’s proposed new constitution for relying too much on political parties and not enough on “the direct participation of the original peoples.” Entering his third presidential year, Morales announced new priorities for “structural change” and “decolonization” of the state, according to Bolpress.com. He proposed a “National Coordinating Agency for Change,” with overview of his cabinet and independence from his own ruling party.



The experience of Quechua labor leader Sylvia Lazarte, however, hints at a rough road ahead. The heroic 44-year-old indigenous and woman’s rights campaigner served as the elected president of Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly that concluded recently after almost 18 months. She guided it through what Prensa Latina described as a “pandemonium of racism, violence and ridicule.” Lazarte experienced physical threats and racial abuse as paramilitary youth formations, proxies for whites and local oligarchs, took over the streets of Sucre.

Indigenous reactions to Ecuadorian President Correa are not all favorable. The important Ecuadorian indigenous federation known by its Spanish initials CONAIE convened Jan. 10-12 in Santo Domingo for a national congress. Some 1,300 delegates from “14 nationalities and 18 peoples” were on hand. Speakers criticized the Correa government for rejecting as allies longtime foes of transnational corporations bedeviling Ecuador. One accused the government of “basing its process of citizen revolution on the fortress of the state, not on people’s organizations.”

Founded in 1986, CONAIE led nationwide protests that helped bring down Ecuadorian governments. The recently concluded Congress elected charismatic 32-year-old Marlon Santi as the new CONAIE president. To an interviewer, Santi pointed out that “Proposals from the indigenous movement and other social sectors … are not present on the national government’s political agenda.” He called upon Correa to recognize “the demands of indigenous nationalities and peoples, and he should do so.” If not, “the bases will respond with action.”