Indigenous Latin Americans were fighting for their rights in 2008. They took to the polling booths, the streets, the airwaves, the classrooms and the forests to fight for their cultures and their territories. While the details of these situations differed they had two general points in common: the protection of the land and the people.
This last year of Latin America coverage also featured stories of coalitions and alliances of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples across the hemisphere, but most of the issues covered by Indian Country Today came from a particular country or region; in 2008 ICT featured stories from Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Paraguay, Brazil and Mexico as well as pieces involving hemispheric and international gatherings. The main focus of our reporting was on the political struggles and activities of indigenous president Evo Morales of Bolivia.
For the Aymara chief executive, his third year in office was very difficult but with some successes.
In January, President Morales was able to follow through with his campaign promise of returning territories to indigenous people in Bolivia. He delivered 923,318 acres of land to some Guaranis who, for thousands of years, have resided in the regions of what are now parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
One of the other positive accomplishments for Morales and Bolivia was the founding of three indigenous universities in August. The new educational institutions will have courses taught in either Aymara, Quechua or Guarani, the country’s three most widely spoken languages.
The other stories from Bolivia dealt primarily with the frequently violent political battles between President Morales and his party and the opposition regions of the wealthy half-moon region that includes Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija.
This was an election year for all of the regional governors and the final tally kept all of the fighting parties in office. The elections kept seven oppositional governors in power and two pro-Morales officials also. Four of the seven winning governors are in the process of seeking further autonomy, meaning their regions would draft new legislation for their respective areas and would not have to abide by federal laws involving profits from mineral industries or the new constitution that is still being debated. Pro-Morales forces were able to demonstrate that opposition related groups, such as the violent Santa Cruz Youth Union, did prevent indigenous and other voters from participating in the elections. These revelations were noted by the Organization for American States (OAS) and the United Nations but these findings did not affect the final outcomes in Bolivia. Many leaders in the international community, including six Latin American presidents, expressed their support for a peaceful resolution of the conflicts as well as their position that they would not recognize or accept the proposed autonomy movements.
In another controversial referendum election held in August, the embattled president received 67 percent of the total country voting to keep him in office. Five of his opponents also won but two anti-Morales governors lost their bids to stay in office.
Less than one month later, anti-government violence erupted mostly in opposition-controlled areas, including what the United Nations has now verified was a massacre of indigenous and small farmers in the Pando region. The Santa Cruz Youth Union was also involved in attacks on Cuban doctors providing free medical care to low-income communities.
Another focus of ICT coverage was the increasing tension between Bolivia and the United States. Starting in late July, President Morales officially expelled personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for their alleged role in conspiring against his government. Journalists provided evidence of USAID funding of anti-Morales efforts as well as attempts to recruit U.S. citizens to spy on Cuban and Venezuelans in Bolivia. He then expelled U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg on Sept. 11, and the U.S. then expelled Bolivian Ambassador to the U.S. Gustavo Guzman on Sept. 12. Not long after those events, President George W. Bush suspended funding for an Andean trade agreement that provided jobs in Bolivia, asserting that the Morales administration was not complying with anti-drug efforts. The conflicts continued in December when President Morales announced the expulsion of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for their roles in a “coup plot” against his government.
In neighboring Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is not on good terms with the U.S. either and is a stated ally of President Morales but his relationship with the country’s one million indigenous is strained.
While in August Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly did vote to include the indigenous Quechua and Shuar idioms to become official national languages of “intercultural relation,” the fight to add those provisions was arduous. Native activists asserted that President Correa, who they had backed in his presidential bid, fought against the language provisions.
Even with the increasing problems between the left-leaning president and the indigenous peoples, Native voters did join the 64 percent of all Ecuadorians to pass a new constitution. The new set of laws includes increased environmental protections and some official recognition of indigenous communities and their administrations. Indigenous leaders pointed out however, that the new constitution does not: allow native communities the right to determine what happens on their land, the right of “prior consent”; provide adequate defense against large mining operations that are still causing life-threatening problems; give recognition to a plurinational state.
Ecuador’s relationship to Columbia was not too friendly beforehand but things got much worse after March 1, when Columbian soldiers crossed the border into Ecuador to kill members of the FARC rebel command. This sparked an exchange of angry accusations from President Correa and his allies.
Meanwhile on March 6 thousands of protestors still hit the streets to demonstrate against the killing of indigenous people in Columbia by that country’s army and paramilitary forces. The protests, which took place on three continents, tried to focus world attention on one detail: that Columbian military and police have killed more indigenous than the rebel groups or any other combatants. They also wanted people to know that 45 percent of all the indigenous war deaths in the last 30 years had occurred during the first Uribe administration (President Alvaro Uribe’s first term was from 2002 to 2006). International media however, ignored the anti-Uribe demonstrations and provided massive coverage of the escalating war of words between Ecuador, Columbia and then Venezuela.
Another major event involving Columbia’s indigenous people took place in October. The Minga del Pueblo, a mobilization of indigenous peoples, was put together to protest the militarization of their lands, the U.S.-Columbia free trade agreement and the failure of the Uribe government to honor many accords with indigenous people. Along with those points the mobilization also became a protest against government repression with Columbian military wounding and eventually killing some participants. The mobilization continued for more than two months and involved more than 50,000 protestors and a march from one end of the country to the other.
Indigenous Peruvians also staged massive national demonstrations, shutting down parts of the country by blocking highways and seizing refineries in August of 2008. The activists were furious over President Alan Garcia’s “forest laws,” decreed in May, which included provisions that made it easier to break up indigenous communities as well as prevent native people from obtaining titles to their lands.
Within a few weeks of the protests the Peruvian legislature overturned the Presidential decree and defeated the forest laws. While many indigenous were happy over this victory they were still facing pressures from various mining, logging and ranching businesses that were being supported by the Garcia administration.
Among the issues facing native leaders in Peru, Brazil, Paraguay and elsewhere were the problems of isolated/uncontacted peoples being forced off of their land by illegal businesses operating in each of those countries.
In June Survival International and a team of Brazilian activists distributed photos of isolated people from Peru fleeing into Brazil. This situation provoked international condemnation of the Garcia administration, who at first, denied there were any isolated people there and then, after their own investigators proved otherwise, ended the oil exploration project they had been working on in that region (although indigenous activists in other parts of Peru were still in court fighting similar battles).
Indigenous leaders have been working towards protecting isolated peoples, especially the International Indigenous Committee for the Protection of Peoples in Isolation and in Initial Contact of the Amazon, the Grand Chaco and Paraguay’s Eastern Region (CIPIACI), with representatives from Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil.
CIPIACI held a regional conference in Paraguay in November, just after it was discovered that the isolated Ayoreo-Totobiegosode people had lost 15,000 acres of their land to an illegal Brazilian logging operation.
Paraguayan officials cooperated by revoking the Yaguarete Pora Company’s permit to work in that part of the Chaco forest. CIPIACI worked with SI and Paraguayan indigenous groups on further protections; and at their conference they drafted policy proposals for each of the participating countries.
Paraguay also gained some international indigenous attention when President Fernando Lugo named Margarita Mbywangi as Minister of Indigenous Affairs. Mywangi, of the Ache Guayaki, had been a slave as a child and her story of hardship and overcoming adversity was inspirational to many native peoples.
However, a few months earlier Paraguay also earned some notoriety when one of its newspapers, “La Nacion” of Asuncion, was given “The Most Racist Article of the Year Award” for its racist and hostile depiction of a group of indigenous refugees stuck in a public park in the capital city.
Another type of media was part of an ICT story in 2008. On April 7, two indigenous radio broadcasters were murdered in Oaxaca. Native and human rights advocates called the incident an assassination, as the radio reporters were very critical of the Oaxacan regional government. The final results of the investigation have not been publicized although native activists went to the UN later in the year to seek official protections for indigenous media throughout the world.
It was also in April when Mexican authorities released 149 political prisoners from a prison in Chiapas, most of who were indigenous activists and connected to the Zapatista movement. Several of the prisoners claimed they were tortured and international human rights groups are still advocating for prosecution of the authorities involved in the abuses.
One significantly positive story also came from Oaxaca, and that was the announcement in April that Jesus Leon Santos, a Mixtec farmer and activist, won the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for sustainable development. Santos won for his innovative use of traditional indigenous farming practices and other methods to help save a devastated landscape. His planting of more than two million trees and other efforts has brought international attention to his Center For Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca.