Latin America’s Left Turn Collides with Indigenous Movements
Written by Nyki Salinas-Duda
Monday, 19 November 2012 14:57
In These Times
TIPNIS marchers in Bolivia. Photo: La Razon
For a viable model of "21st century socialism," many
progressives look to Latin America's Leftward surge. But swept up in the
continent's "pink tide" are questions of indigenous land and
resource rights, which often clash with state development priorities.
From Venezuela to Bolivia to Chile, indigenous communities are charging
that they have been betrayed by the populist presidents they helped
Ben Dangl, author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and
States in Latin America, notes that the tension between indigenous
social movements and pink tide politicians stems from these governments'
reliance on resource extraction to generate income. He told In These
Times via e-mail:
For many of Latin America's new leftist governments, the logic of the
state-run extractive industry consistently runs against the rhetoric and
rights of respecting the environment and indigenous autonomy. This
contradiction has played itself out in many cases across the region, from
mining in Venezuela [under President Hugo Chavez], to oil exploitation in
Ecuador [under left-of-center President Rafael Correa].
The grandiose rhetoric of Latin American populism often fails indigenous
communities who don't see themselves as part of a national project. But
as movements ratchet up struggles against environmental and cultural
destruction, they must confront a narrative of economic
progress and, often, face down
The Isiboro S?ure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) is a
protected reserve over 10,000 indigenous people call home. Its
muddy waters and breathtaking green vistas reign over a swath of
Bolivia, home to Latin America's first indigenous head-of-state.
But after sweeping into office and taking the extraordinary gesture of
bestowing rights on "Mother Earth," Evo Morales has made a
surprising about-face by contracting the Brazilian firm OAS to build a
182-mile highway straight through the heart of TIPNIS. Heavily
opposed by indigenous movements, the road was approved last month. But
its future remains indefinite.
Carwil Bjork-James, a PhD candidate studying Bolivian social movements at
City University of New York, says that the indigenous movements that
carried Morales into office are increasingly disillusioned by the
contradiction that Morales has come to embody. Though he has called
repeatedly for greater consultation with indigenous movements, Morales
has also deployed the power of the state to repress them. Throughout the
consultation process, officials have pushed an either/or solution on
indigenous residents: either the highway project will be completed, or
the zone will be declared what Bjork-James calls an intangible economic
zone. If TIPNIS is declared as such, other activities that generate
revenue for residents - like sustainable logging and ecotourism - will be
disallowed, leaving inhabitants with even more limited options for
In 2011, when indigenous protestors took to the streets in opposition to
the highway, organizing slow pilgrimage-like marches through the region,
they relied on their "moral credibility as the original inhabitants
of the country," Bjork-James says, to garner support.
But the Morales administration soon took to the offensive. According to
Bjork-James, high-ranking members of the government accused anti-highway
activists of acting at the behest of USAID. "The government and the
movement separated," he says. "It has reached a crisis point
around the TIPNIS controversy and the events that led to that
By 2011, a TIPNIS march was met
outright repression when police tried to "arrest an entire
march. [They] arrested hundreds of people. High-ranking indigenous
leaders were severely beaten, some hospitalized. Some of the people who
were in there were indigenous members of Parliament, and they were also
arrested," Bjork-James added.
The Morales government went one step further when the President appeared
on television during the TIPNIS march to repeat the USAID accusations and
claimed the activists were secretly rightwing. "The indigenous who
oppose the road are being confused," Morales
has said, later
adding that they cannot truly be his indigenous brothers.
That moment permanently fractured the movement's ties to the government.
But shortly after the outburst, Morales put the planned road on hold,
first in October 2011 and
again in April of this year due to construction delays.
Then in early October, Morales signed a contract
authorizing the first stretch of the trans-TIPNIS highway. The
government-community consultations are now in their finals days. And
though the feasibility of the project relies heavily on the community
dialogues, Morales has said the highway is only "in pause"
mode, leaving little doubt that the government expects the consultation
process to end in its favor.
Bjork-James says indigenous movements have vowed to fight the highway
"to the death."
In Chile, indigenous Mapuche can claim a lengthy history of struggle
stretching back into the pre-Columbian period. Mapuche territory south of
the Bio-Bio River was the last bit of the coastal country to be
incorporated into the state, not becoming governable in any practical
sense until the late in the 1800s. Since that time, the Mapuche have been
embroiled in land struggles with both corporations and the Chilean
In an effort to recoup their lands from successive presidential
administrations, the Mapuche have resorted to increasingly radical
tactics such as reoccupying lands and sabotaging corporate
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a pink tide politician who
was herself detained under the Pinochet dictatorship, used a
dictatorship-era anti-terrorist law to repress Mapuche activists. The law
extends the definition of terrorism to include property violence, allows
for civilian cases to be tried in military courts and permits the use of
anonymous witnesses by prosecutors.
In the Mapuche context, the far-reaching law can be used to sentence
activists to lengthy sentence for an array of crimes that wouldn't
normally be considered "terrorism," from torching corporate
crops planted on their lands to
On October 8, current Chilean president Sebasti? Pi?ra signed an
executive order establishing an Indigenous Development Area
(IDA) defined as
"territorial areas where state agencies will focus action in favor
of the harmonious development of indigenous people and their
communities" in the town of
Erskine. Thirty-seven Mapuche communities have accepted the order, but
five are refusing to participate in the new scheme. Nine Mapuche
activists are being detained for attempted murder, illegal carrying of
firearms and other charges that their supporters say are trumped-up or
Jorge Huenchullán, spokesman, for the Temucuicui community, told
Upside Down World that the government is trying to paper over
this issue. He added that the IDAs are:
Part of the administration's strategy to cover up the real conflict,
which is the complete recovery of the lands demanded by the communities,
and to cover up a series of violent abuses and deny the protests that we
are staging here in Ercilla's Mapuche communities. We Mapuche are not
looking for handouts for our people, so we reject the ADI. It does not
apply to us.
Dangl told In These Times that he sees a radical potential in
indigenous demands. Andean indigenous movements, he explained, have long
proposed "buen vivir," or "living well," as a
solution to crisis. "The concept is roughly translated into a
respect for this rights of Mother Nature, an idea of social progress
which isn't based on greed, the depletion or national resources and the
pollution of the environment," Dangl says. The idea is supported by
the policies, if not the actions, of national governments in
heavily-indigenous Ecuador and Bolivia.
"Here is a case where a vision, history and politics of certain
indigenous movements," Dangl says, "could have an impact on
regional and even international debates around how we overcome capitalism
and move toward a more just and sustainable world."
Nyki is a contributing editor with the Public Media Institute, a fall
2012 editorial intern with In These Times and a freelance reporter. She
holds a BA in Latin American history from the University of San
Francisco, where she edited Divisadero, a journal of Latin American