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Inter-American Foundation continues work despite obstacles

WASHINGTON, D.C. - For nearly 30 years, the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) has played a vital role in support of Indigenous peoples' efforts to strengthen their communities.

The foundation funded 479 grants totaling more than $64 million to Indigenous peoples throughout North, Central and South America, with projects ranging from the highlands of Chile to the lowlands of Mexico.

What is unique about this organization is that it is an independent agency of the U.S. government, and as such, has had to deal with a variety of issues from within the government itself as well as foreign governments and Indigenous communities.

The IAF was established in 1969 through an act of Congress to support international development by funding community-based projects. Its approach has not only been to deal with poverty and marginalization through resources and economics, but also rebuilding communities through culture and traditional government.

Patrick Breslin, its executive director, said the IAF is about "building bridges to people in other countries." While its path toward these stated goals has been lined with amazing accomplishments, there have been unfortunate problems, along with recent budget cuts and political issues which forced the IAF to scale back efforts.

Successes included grants such a coffee co-op benefiting nearly 23,000 Oaxacan Indians in Mexico, funding for the Maya Institute for Rural Development Studies to support training and exchanges among rural grass-roots movements, as well as projects which support the Mapuche and Aymara of Chile in efforts to deal with land and resource development by the Chilean government and multinational corporations.

The IAF record is strong when it comes to supporting Indigenous communities. It was responsible for funding the first Indian federation in Ecuador in 1975 which some claim has resulted in a major influx of Indigenous leaders into elected political office. An Indigenous woman serves as second vice president of the Ecuadoran Congress.

"The Ecuadoran Indian movement is the strongest and most sophisticated in Latin America," said Chuck Kleymeyer, an IAF representative who worked extensively in Ecuador. "There are now over 30 federations and confederations in the area."

While the IAF has much to boast about, it has been caught between the will of Indigenous communities and the U.S. government. Recently, the IAF became involved in a conflict over ayahuasca, a plant which is considered sacred to the Indigenous people of the Amazon region.

In 1996, after a Canadian environmental group discovered a California man had acquired a U.S. patent for the plant, a group of Amazonian organizations representing environmental and Indigenous interests, filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices for cancellation of the patent.

While deliberations over the right of a person to patent a sacred and medicinal plant used by Indigenous peoples took place before the Patent and Trademark Board, debate and accusations were occurring between Loren Miller, the man who received the patent in 1986, and representatives of Indigenous communities in Ecuador.

During this time, the Organization of Amazon Basin Indigenous Peoples, or COICA, released a statement that included strong language regarding Miller's safety if he were to travel to Ecuador. It declared Miller "an enemy of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin." The group later stated the organization would not be responsible for "the physical security of Mr. Miller ... ." Miller took the statements as a threat and complained to the U.S. State Department, the FBI and Congress.

Over the years, the IAF provided more than $1 million in support to COICA and now some officials within the administration and some in Congress were questioning U.S. support for an organization which they perceived as "terrorist." While COICA claimed that it was not and that the statement only underlined the seriousness of the issue, the IAF began to take the position, as a result of congressional pressure, that such statements were not acceptable.

Officials from the IAF met with representatives of COICA to ask for a retraction of the statement. COICA refused on the grounds the statement was not a threat and was formally approved by the organization. The IAF ceased all funding to COICA.

While relations between the IAF and COICA broke down, the Trademark Board agreed with petitioners and suspended Miller's patent on the plant. Then, forces within the U.S. government began to act against the IAF when Congress initiated dramatic cuts to the foundation budget.

IAF began with a congressional appropriation of $50 million as a block grant and worked unaffected by annual appropriations through its first decade of operation. However, it came under the authority of annual appropriations during the 1980s and since then funding has decreased, but not as dramatically as it did in 1999.

By then the agency's budget had been cut by a third and relations with some in Congress, like Jessie Helms, R-N.C., had become strained amid accusations the IAF supported leftists and terrorists.

Although the IAF has faced many challenges and political hurdles over the years and is working on a shoestring budget, its original goal remains and those who have worked for the foundation remain committed and stand upon the 30-year record of success.

Outlining the foundation's continuing commitment, Breslin stated in "Tribal Village to Global Village," a recent book published on Indigenous rights that, "No matter how poor their material conditions, people always have resources: intelligence, imagination, language, the skill of their hands, history, a sense of identity, a cultural heritage, pride, and a certain piece of land."

Despite unfortunate incidents like the ayahuasca patent and the Indigenous and congressional backlash, the IAF hopes to increase its annual funding and continue with the original mission "to serve communities in need," he said.