Latin America Today
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Issue Date:  September 24, 2004

Fighting for rights after centuries of discrimination

Part Six: Indigenous people

To understand Latin America, one must dig deeper than the terrible civil wars and the international economic and political conflicts of recent decades. Deeper, still, than the versions of Latin American reality of recent centuries, back to the indigenous cultures that predated the arrival some 400 years ago of the Spanish and Christianity. Following is a detailed report on those cultures and how they survive today, sometimes mixed and blended, often exploited, and increasingly aware of their renewed importance.

Lago Agrio, Ecuador

Catholic pastoral workers were first to draw a connection between the tarry goo dumped into open pits in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest and the appearance of cancers and other illnesses that had never been seen in the area before. Now, more than a decade later, their parishioners are getting their day in Ecuador’s courts.

On a rainy morning last October, Elias Piaguaje joined several hundred demonstrators outside the courthouse in the northeastern Ecuadoran jungle town of Lago Agrio as hearings began in a class-action lawsuit that accuses Texaco, now ChevronTexaco, of poisoning rainforest soil and water by dumping 18.5 billion gallons of toxic waste into unlined pits.

Dressed in the tunic and feathered headdress typical of his Secoya people, Piaguaje listened as opening arguments were broadcast over loudspeakers in the street.

“It’s been an uphill battle against Texaco since 1993, and at times we’ve lost hope of solving the pollution problem,” he said. “I don’t know in what language we have to talk to Texaco to restore the environment and improve the quality of life of the people who’ve been affected.”

In Latin America, the clash of worldviews between indigenous peoples, with their communal, earth-centered lifestyle, and industrialized nations, with their hunger for natural resources and individual wealth, dates back to the Spanish conquest. Millions of native people lost their lives digging precious metals out of mines in Bolivia and Mexico. The legacy lives on in Potosí, Bolivia, a tiny colonial town high above the Andean tree line. Once one of the richest cities in the world, it is still dominated by Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain,” which is honeycombed with mines that date back to before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Every day, thousands of indigenous miners, some of them only children, disappear into shafts that plunge more than a mile down into the earth. Armed only with a hardhat, a kerosene lantern and a wad of coca leaves to chew to ward off hunger and exhaustion, the miners emerge a dozen hours later hauling 100-pound sacks of ore on their backs. If they’re lucky, their labor will net them about two dollars.

While colonists in what is now the United States herded indigenous people onto reservations, the Spaniards took a different approach, harnessing the local labor supply in serfdom on farms or forced labor in the mines. In some places, most famously the Jesuit missions in Paraguay, indigenous people were relocated to settlements around churches, where missionaries could evangelize and “civilize” them while taking advantage of the labor pool.

Evangelization and extermination

History is rife with accounts of benign treatment and defense of indigenous populations by the church, as well as stories of abuse. The persistent ambiguity in the church’s approach bubbled to the surface in 2002 when Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego, the Nahuatl peasant in Mexico to whom, according to tradition, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on a hill.

Critics chided the pope for canonizing a person who may never have existed. Supporters pointed out that the act was a step toward healing old wounds and underscored the church’s concern for the region’s indigenous population.

Guadalupe is the largest religious devotion in the Americas, and the legend itself is a rich tapestry that intertwines Christian symbols with those of Nahuatl mythology. In the image, Mary’s robe is blue-green, the color of the divine couple who created the world in the Nahuatl cosmovision. She is wearing a traditional maternity belt and is surrounded by golden rays that evoke the sun god, Quetzalcóatl.

But while Guadalupe solidified the Christian evangelization of the Americas, colonization took its toll on the region’s indigenous groups. According to a United Nations Development Program study, “Amazonia without Myths,” at the time of the Spanish conquest more than 400 years ago, 2,000 indigenous groups existed in the Amazon, totaling about 7 million people. Today that number has shrunk to only 400 groups totaling 2 million people. Many of those groups are small, and UNESCO classifies most Amazonian indigenous languages as “endangered.” Anthropologists say that when the number of individuals in an indigenous group drops below 250, the group is doomed to extinction within 50 years.

Many of the indigenous peoples who have disappeared were nomadic inhabitants of the Amazon basin, which is now part of the territory of nine different countries.

“For us, the original peoples, development of the Ecuadoran Amazon was a disaster,” Secoya leader Piaguaje said. “Highways were built, new people came from other provinces, our ancestral lands were despoiled and we were left just a few islands in the forest. It was a serious blow to our spiritual, cultural, economic and social lives. We nearly lost our language and our culture.”

From the time Spanish adventurers set foot on the continent, legends of lost cities whose streets were paved with gold lured them into the jungles and over the mountains. While they never stumbled on El Dorado, they and others who followed in their footsteps found other riches -- first gold and silver, then rubber and lumber, and finally petroleum and gas. The economic booms have been accompanied by the enslavement and uprooting of indigenous communities and the fouling of the habitats on which these communities depend for their livelihood.

Today, maps of oil, gas and mining concessions granted by governments make the Amazon look like a checkerboard. Even cases that are not as extreme as that of Texaco in northeastern Ecuador leave a lasting mark on indigenous communities. As settlers, loggers, miners, petroleum prospectors and gas producers lay claim to the Amazon and the fragile rainforest that extends from southern Mexico through Panama, they put greater and greater pressure on the resources that the region’s original peoples need to survive.

That makes life even more precarious for a population already living on the edge. About 34 million Latin Americans -- some 8 percent of the population -- are indigenous, and according to a World Bank study done in the mid-1990s, the majority are poor. While two out of three Guatemalan households live in poverty, that figure is nine out of 10 for indigenous families. More than 60 percent of indigenous Guatemalans have no formal education.

While about 18 percent of nonindigenous Mexicans live below the poverty line, 81 percent of indigenous Mexicans are poor. In Peru, more than two-thirds of the country’s indigenous people work in agriculture, earning just one-third of what nonindigenous farmers earn.

In the Amazon basin, where distances and transportation costs make commercial farming nearly impossible and there are few other ways to make a living, keeping woodland intact is vital for survival. In the highlands of the Andes and countries such as Guatemala and Mexico, the issue is farmland. As the generations pass, family farms are subdivided over and over until they are so small and scattered that they barely serve for subsistence. A disaster like a hurricane, a drought or a flood is enough to push a family over the brink into hunger or force it to migrate to a city in hopes of a more stable income.

Migration of that sort radically changed the demographics of many countries over the past few decades. In 1970, about 30 percent of Peruvians lived in cities and 70 percent lived in the countryside. By the 1990s those figures were reversed. In neighboring Bolivia, El Alto, the sprawling city that overlooks La Paz, was only a handful of adobe houses in the 1970s. By the early 1990s, it was the most rapidly growing urban area in South America.

Such dizzying change, echoed throughout the region, poses challenges for both indigenous people and the church workers who strive to minister to and accompany them. The new migration -- from Latin America to countries like the United States and Spain -- has created additional challenges. Retired Ecuadoran Archbishop Alberto Luna Tobar once quipped that Philadelphia should be annexed to his diocese of Cuenca, in the Ecuadoran highlands, because so many members of his mainly Quechua-speaking flock had migrated there.

Potato as face of God

In the days before the beginning of Lent, Aymara farmers in the Peruvian Altiplano go out into their fields armed with quinces and confetti. If rainfall has been normal, the high plain and hillsides are blanketed with lush, green potato plants sporting flowers ranging from white to pale blue. If it has been a good year, tubers are growing in abundance within the earth.

The farmer launches a quince into the field, reflecting the hope that the potatoes will grow to the size of that fruit. Where it lands, he digs up the potato plant and his wife receives the young tubers into her colorful woven shawl.

“May there be good production” is the oft-repeated wish, a phrase that takes on a double meaning and provokes much laughter among younger men and women participating in the ritual.

Afterward, the new potatoes are laid out on the shawls while the celebrants sprinkle them with liquor. Scattering confetti on the tubers and one another, they dance throughout the afternoon.

The coinciding of the agricultural celebration of the first fruits of the earth with Carnival or Mardi Gras, preceding the Christian season of Lent, is not a coincidence. Rather, it is one of many examples of the melding of indigenous and Christian, especially Catholic, religious traditions since the Spaniards and Portuguese arrived.

In some countries, such as Brazil and Uruguay in South America and many Caribbean islands, the slave trade put another ingredient into the melting pot, and candomblé, with its syncretism of African deities and Catholic saints, became part of the culture.

According to Eleazar López, a Catholic priest and Zapotec from Mexico, the hemisphere’s indigenous people, who lived in a world permeated by the sacred, were fertile ground for the religion brought by the foreigners. Like the Judeo-Christian tradition, indigenous religions evolved from the experience of nomadic peoples. One element that persists from this phase, in López’s view, is the reverence for the earth and other creatures as children of God.

The shift to a settled, agricultural society brought about a theological change, as well, according to López, with myths reflecting a special relationship between humans and God as sharing responsibility for creation.

A Maya creation myth tells of God, Quetzalcóatl, and his companion, Tezcatlipoca, imposing order on the original chaos and trying to hold up the heavens. Unable to do so alone, they create two human couples to help them.

“In the Aymara culture, the earth is considered the mother of all that exists -- human beings, the animals, the trees, the rocks,” Domingo Llanque, an Aymara priest from the Peruvian Altiplano, told NCR shortly before his death last October. Llanque had been an important figure in the indigenous theology movement, drawing connections between Catholic theology and the ancestral beliefs of his people. “Just as humans tend the crops that nourish them, the earth cares for the people. It’s a relationship of mutuality, not of subject and object.”

The crops that were the mainstays of these societies -- corn in Mesoamerica and the potato in the Andes -- play a special role in the indigenous worldview, with myths describing how God gave the crops to humans.

Corn is the dietary mainstay of the Maya of Mesoamerica. Their ancestors developed the corn we know today from the tiny ears of a wild variety. The sacredness of corn and its importance in the diet have led indigenous farmers in Mexico to fight the importing of genetically modified corn, which they fear will contaminate and obliterate the rich genetic diversity of their crop’s forebears.

In the Andes, potatoes are the staple crop. Thousands of varieties exist, and some communities still cultivate several hundred kinds, calling each by its own name.

“The potato represents the face of God, the face of the Mother Earth, given to us in the form of food,” Llanque said. “It is the mother seed, which nourishes us and accompanies us.”

If humans do not care for it in return, the potato can complain to God, who might take it away from them. For that reason, every part of the agricultural cycle -- from planting, when farmers ask the Earth’s permission to open the furrows, to harvest, when they give thanks -- is accompanied by ritual.

Many of those rites, like the one that takes place just before Lent, coincide with Catholic celebrations. Planting and harvest are marked by feasts dedicated to the Holy Cross.

This intertwining of ritual and daily life, which preceded the arrival of the Spaniards, made indigenous societies tolerant of the foreigner’s religious beliefs, according to López. While some people gave up their ancestral religion for fear of punishment, most simply wove the Christian symbols and practices into their worldview. Crosses were erected on sacred hills, and the Virgin Mary became associated with the earth, the nurturing image of God.

Thus, according to López, instead of replacing indigenous religions, Christianity became an overlay. As the indigenous movement gained momentum over the past several decades, Maya people in Central America and Mexico, Quechuas and Aymaras in the Andes and Mapuches in southern Chile have begun to practice their ancestral religion more openly, sometimes rejecting Christianity altogether, sometimes combining the two. At the same time, a handful of bishops, such as Samuel Ruiz García in Chiapas, Mexico, and Leonidas Proaño in Riobamba, Ecuador, spoke out strongly in defense of the rights of indigenous people, especially the right to land.

Theologians could not ignore the trend. When an initial regional conference on indigenous theology was held in 1990, many of the participants were nonindigenous theologians who had worked for years in predominantly indigenous areas. Nevertheless, indigenous theologians such as López and Llanque rapidly came to the fore.

While Vatican II, Puebla and Medellín had paved the way for interreligious dialogue, the idea gained new impetus at Santo Domingo, where the region’s bishops called for deeper dialogue with the region’s non-Christian religions, especially indigenous and Afro-American religions, “which have long been ignored and marginalized.”

The indigenous theology movement is ecumenical, with Catholic and Protestant theologians working together to lay the theological foundation under what has long been common practice. The movement has evolved from a focus on the right to maintain indigenous traditions to embrace social and economic issues affecting indigenous people and to tackle more difficult theological questions, such as the form that Christology takes in the indigenous worldview.

It also faces challenges, such as nurturing indigenous spirituality among indigenous people who have migrated from the countryside to the cities, attenuating their rural roots.

“Because of formal education and migration from rural areas, much of the religious tradition is being lost,” Llanque said.

Reclaiming indigenous identity

Besides the indigenous theology movement, the 1970s and 1980s brought a resurgence of other movements that raised the banner of indigenous identity and pride. The church often played a vital role, lobbying for land reform and civil rights for indigenous people. Church leaders also denounced human rights abuses against impoverished indigenous people, especially during the civil wars of the past few decades.

Most of the 200,000 people who were killed or “disappeared” during Guatemala’s armed conflict were Maya villagers, a fact underscored by the Catholic Church’s Project to Recover the Historical Memory (REMHI). Juan Gerardi Conedera, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, was brutally murdered just two days after announcing the findings of the church’s comprehensive -- and scathing -- study.

Rigoberta Menchú, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, also became a symbol of the Maya people’s resistance in the face of the atrocities committed during the war. Menchú, a Quiche Maya, was active in church-based social justice activities and the women’s movement. After her parents and a brother were tortured and killed by security forces, she fled Guatemala and spoke out around the world about the torture and killing in her native country.

Further south, Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its two-year mandate last year, reporting that 75 percent of the victims of the political violence that wracked the Andean country in the 1980s and 1990s spoke a language other than Spanish as their native tongue. Most were Quechua-speakers from the highlands, but others belonged to Amazon tribes. A full 10 percent of the Asháninka people, who live in the central jungle, were wiped out by the Maoist Shining Path.

Perhaps most telling of all was the final number of victims, nearly 70,000, far above the 30,000 that human rights groups had previously estimated. Experts attributed the underestimating to the number of indigenous farmers and members of Amazon groups who lack identity documents. For the government, they did not exist. When they were “disappeared,” they showed up in no official statistics.

In Chiapas, Mexico, the crushing poverty of the Maya people made a lasting impact on Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, who underwent a Romero-like conversion after being appointed bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas.

Events in Chiapas demonstrated that the issues facing indigenous people are not only cultural or environmental, but are also economic. It was not a coincidence that on Jan. 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, an armed rebellion catapulted the Zapatista Army of National Liberation out of the obscurity of Chiapas into international headlines. It also cast a spotlight on Ruiz, who had made a preferential option for the region’s indigenous people.

A worried Vatican sent in a coadjutor, who also changed his views, coming down strongly on the side of his indigenous neighbors. While not condoning violence, the bishops of Chiapas have been outspoken in their support of indigenous rights.

The Zapatistas’ demands centered on social, cultural and economic equality for Mexico’s marginalized indigenous population, and their short-lived armed action forced the government to sit down at the bargaining table. But although Zapatista and government negotiators hammered out a far-reaching peace agreement known as the San Andrés Accords, approval stalled in the national legislature.

In 2001, the Zapatistas marched from Chiapas to Mexico City to plead their case. Cheered along the way and welcomed by crowds as they entered the capital, they even addressed the national Congress -- although fewer than half the legislators attended the session. In the end, the progress made in San Andrés petered out, with a watered-down indigenous rights law finally passed after a tedious process of state referendums. With their most important proposals effectively derailed, the Zapatistas returned to the southern jungle and lapsed into silence.

May 14 Part 1 Introduction: Power or credibility?
June 4 Part 2 Economics: Little relief in sight for poverty, debt and unemployment
July 16 Part 3 Development: Lasting change by helping the poor without paternalism
Aug. 13 Part 4 Immigration: Opportunity and challenge for Latin America's poor
Sept. 10 Part 5a
Part 5b
Truth: an essential ingredient for reconciliation
Reconciliation from the grass roots up
Sept. 24 Part 6a

Part 6b
Part 6c
Indigenous people: Fighting for rights after centuries of discrimination

Health worker brings education back to his people

Vanishing forests threaten indigenous groups 
 Part 7 Women In Latin America: The gender gap kills
 Part 8 Children: Poverty cuts children’s chances for a future; interview with the Bishop of the Gangs
 Part 9 Church: Despite crisis, Latin America's grass-roots communities remain strong model for effective church
 Part 10 Solidarity: Church groups find countless ways to put faith into action

In the political arena, Ecuador’s indigenous movement has been perhaps the region’s most successful. It burst onto the scene in 1990 with a levantamiento or indigenous uprising that paralyzed the country for two weeks. The government was finally forced to negotiate with indigenous leaders over plans for agrarian reform.

The same year, indigenous groups from the tropical lowlands of northern Bolivia set out on a 420-mile march to La Paz -- from sea level to an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet -- to demand rights to their territory. They were met with an outpouring of support from communities along the route that provided them with food or joined them in the march. That public backing forced the government of President Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-93) to act on their demands, granting the first titles for what the government calls multiethnic indigenous territories.

Those gains gave the indigenous movement new impetus throughout the region, although governments responded slowly. Bolivia has yet to title some indigenous territories in the Amazon. Those that remain are the scenes of conflicts over rights to mineral, hydrocarbon and timber reserves.

The greatest progress has been made in Ecuador, where indigenous organizations staged strikes and marches approximately every two years during the 1990s to press their demands. After helping to force the resignation of President Abdalá Bucaram (1996-97), they pressured for a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. The result was official recognition of Ecuador as a multiethnic, plurinational state, with recognition of the communal rights of its indigenous peoples.

In January 2000, indigenous organizations once again played a key role in a political drama, throwing their weight behind efforts by midlevel military officers to overthrow President Jamil Mahuad. For a few hours, the trio of Army Col. Lucio Gutiérrez; Antonio Vargas, leader of the country’s largest indigenous confederation; and Carlos Solorzano, former Supreme Court president declared itself in charge of the country. By the next morning, however, reportedly after a stern warning from the U.S. ambassador, the military had installed Mahuad’s vice president, Gustavo Noboa, as chief executive.

Gutiérrez and Vargas were arrested, but soon set free. Two years later, Gutiérrez made his own bid for the presidency, once again backed by the indigenous movement, which had formed a political arm, the Pachakutik-New Country Movement, in association with community and grass roots groups. Gutiérrez, who campaigned on a populist platform that reflected his allies’ anti-free market views, won the presidency.

When he took office in January 2003, Gutiérrez appointed several indigenous leaders to his cabinet -- including Nina Pacari, a lawyer who had been an adviser to the indigenous movement in its formative moments, to the crucial post of minister of foreign relations. Gutiérrez quickly learned political expediency, however. On his first trip to Washington, he declared Ecuador the Bush administration’s best ally and backpedaled on his less-than-neoliberal campaign pledges.

The break with the indigenous movement was only a matter of time. The allied parties traded words in public, Gutiérrez fired several indigenous government officials, and by August the Pachakutik movement had officially withdrawn from the government.

Soul-searching set in among leaders of Ecuador’s indigenous movement, with many questioning the foray into electoral politics. Old-guard leaders admitted to having distanced themselves too much from their grass-roots constituents, and a new generation of hard-line leaders took control of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the country’s largest indigenous organization.

Despite the ill-starred alliance with the national government, however, indigenous leaders have gained a great deal of ground -- and respect -- at the local level. Political analysts say they have a more participatory style of government, involving citizens in drawing up budgets and local development plans. Another benefit of the foray into politics has been an increase in collective self-esteem and the respect that indigenous groups in general have earned, despite persistent discrimination.

“National society looks with pride on the fact that indigenous people are putting forward proposals and providing opportunities,” Pacari said, adding that many of those proposals -- such as a more participatory model of government or the fight against the lifting of fuel subsidies -- benefit all Ecuadorians, not just the country’s indigenous people.

Nevertheless, as the Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples -- declared by the United Nations in 1995 -- draws to a close this year, Latin America’s original peoples continue to suffer the region’s highest rates of poverty, illiteracy and maternal and infant mortality.

And in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador, half a million people who live downstream from the Texaco waste-water dumps wait for the courts to decide if the petroleum giant must clean up the land around their homes. Not all are optimistic.

“It’s been 10 years and we haven’t been able to talk to the company face to face,” said Secoya leader Elías Piaguaje as he stood in the crowd of protesters outside the court building in Lago Agrio. “Look what’s happened today -- the lawyers are meeting inside and we’re out here in the street. I only hope that someday justice is done, that we break down the old barriers, so that no one is excluded and we can talk to one other as equals.”

Barbara Fraser worked in Peru for 14 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner. She now lives in Peru as a freelance writer. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary who lived in Central America for two decades. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.
An accompanying article to this story, “Vanishing forests threaten indigenous groups.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004

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