Skip to main content

A new dawn for native peoples

After centuries of existence at the margins of society, Latin America's indigenous peoples are now entering their countries' economic and political mainstream. The population of indigenous peoples is increasing, and the territory they occupy is expanding. They are becoming full-fledged players in their nations' economies, and in some cases, the international economy. Their languages and cultures are not only surviving, but are becoming newly invigorated.

Many countries have made constitutional, legal and institutional reforms that are reshaping the traditional relationship between indigenous communities and the nation state. The constitutions of Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay, for example, now recognize the multicultural character of states and the existence within them of indigenous peoples as unique entities with specific rights and distinct cultures and languages. In a number of countries, governments are granting indigenous communities the authority to manage their own affairs as well as the natural resources of the areas in which they live.

In addition, national institutions charged with managing relations between the government and indigenous communities are being upgraded in rank in Bolivia, Ecuador and Perú, converted into financial support agencies in Guatemala and Chile, or given juridical functions to promote indigenous rights, as in Mexico.

In country after country, traditional government policies based on assimilation and paternalism are giving way to new approaches founded on participation and consensus-building and a respect for the aspirations of indigenous peoples.

In the international arena, a new body of rules and principles is substituting the integrationist views that prevailed up until the 1980s. Examples include a convention of the International Labor Organization and the Agreement Establishing the Indigenous Peoples Fund, both of which are already in force, and the declarations of indigenous peoples' rights, which are under preparation in the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

Several specialized U.N. and OAS agencies (including the multilateral banks, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNESCO, UNICEF, the Inter-American Indian Institute and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) are adopting operating principles and rules that ensure that indigenous peoples are consulted on decisions that affect them and that their cultural rights are protected. Indigenous peoples named as beneficiaries of development projects now participate in their planning and implementation.

These developments are very encouraging. But we must now go beyond legal and institutional changes and transform the entire culture surrounding policies on indigenous people, including the attitudes of national elites and bureaucracies.

For many years development and preservation of ethnic, cultural and social identity were considered to be two conflicting objectives: attaining the first would inevitably mean sacrificing the second. Even more, it was often argued that the very culture of indigenous peoples (and of the poor in general) stands in the way of their development. As a result, programs to help indigenous peoples sought to replace their language, culture, and productive and agricultural practices.

But we are finding a better way: development based on indigenous peoples' own identity. In this view, the start-up capital for development is the cultural and social assets of native peoples, catalyzed by the addition of new mechanisms and resources.

A good example is language. Past educational policies, which demanded the replacement of an indigenous people's mother tongue with Spanish, resulted in failure for many students and considerable waste of human and material resources. Now, experience with bilingual and cross-cultural education has shown that learning Spanish as a second language builds on the students' original "linguistic capital," reducing costs and converting education into an investment.

Today, in almost all countries with sizable indigenous populations, indigenous languages are receiving recognition and constitutional protection. In Bolivia, for example, an experiment in cross-cultural and bilingual education carried out over the past six years in 114 schools is now being expanded to thousands of schools.

A second example is the acknowledgement that indigenous peoples must have the opportunity to develop autonomously. Although the word "autonomous" still triggers the image of separatism in some quarters, it actually means a community's right to manage its own political affairs and its economic, social and cultural development.

Progress in decentralized government is already being made. In Bolivia, 35 percent of the country's municipalities--some 311 in all--are controlled by indigenous peoples. The local leaders set their own priorities and administer local financial resources.

A third example is the area of environment and natural resources. A recent study by the Steering Committee of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin found that successful projects had a number of common features:

-- They aim to manage rather than exploit resources.

-- They combine local resources and external credit and assistance and aim for financial autonomy.

-- They seek a balance between family subsistence as a cultural objective and market-oriented production as an economic objective.

--They give the community responsibility for all phases of the project.

In the end, development of indigenous peoples cannot be separated from national development. Despite some radical rhetoric to the contrary, our peoples as a whole understand that their advancement is tied to that of their nations, and they are prepared to work to the benefit of both.

** The writer, vice president of Bolivia, was recently elected president of the Indigenous Peoples Fund.

Jump back to top