#13 post-2015
Frederik Caselitz

Towards The Good Life?

Indigenous groups in Latin America fight for visibility and participation. They could make valuable contributions to the Post-2015 Agenda.

Alternative concepts of wealth have entered the global debate on sustainability. The question of what truly constitutes a good life is being raised with increasing frequency, and the indigenous concept of buen vivir – Spanish for ‘good life’ – is quite prominent in this conversation. Yet indigenous people number among the most marginalized social groups worldwide. They are subject to a kind of double exclusion: They have few economic resources, and also often lack access to political institutions and as such to true participation. The balance from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for indigenous peoples is correspondingly sobering. In the debate on the Sustainable Development Goals for the Post-2015 Agenda, indigenous representatives have expressed serious worry that their voices are not being sufficiently heard. This inspired representatives of indigenous groups to draft a statement at the 13th Session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York: “We remain concerned that if we are not explicitly and meaningfully referred to in the operative text of the SDGs, that we will encounter immense constraint and exclusion from the implementation and monitoring processes. Our experience with and invisibility within Millennium Development Goals supports this concern.” Ironically this statement was not read out at the plenary meeting due to time constraints.

“Indigenous organisations founded in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico have not shied away from direct confrontation with the government.”

The indigenous struggle for participation

A lack of visibility is a fundamental problem for indigenous peoples. For a long time now, they have been seriously underrepresented, if represented at all, in political debates and offices. This did not begin changing until the late 1980s, when a series of indigenous movements took root, calling attention to themselves largely through peaceful protests in the form of street blockades and marches. Indigenous organisations founded in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico have not shied away from direct confrontation with the government. Since the end of the 90s, indigenous parties have racked up successes and even been involved in government in some countries. ILO (International Labour Organization) Convention 169 represents one international milestone. The Convention endows indigenous people with a number of basic rights and supports their endeavours to retain their unique culture, way of life and organisational form. In addition to other rather abstract standards, it specifically sets out consultation and participation rights intended to guarantee that indigenous people are consulted on state decisions that affect them. This is often the case when groups live in areas in which strategically important raw materials such as oil or natural gas are located. To date 22 countries worldwide have signed the Convention – 14 from Latin America.

But formal recognition of the Convention seldom results in binding national laws. Guatemala and Honduras, for example, signed the convention in 1995 and 1996 respectively. Yet consultation mechanisms are still not anchored in national law in either country. In response, indigenous groups have initiated consultation and participation themselves, bringing their cases before the national courts where they have generally won, as in the case of Guatemala. But this turns the very concept of consultation on its head. Consultation is intended to ensure that state institutions involve to indigenous populations beforehand and consider their opinions when making decisions. When indigenous groups launch consultations after the fact, they can hardly have an effect on government policy. Nonetheless, Convention 169 has created a platform that has helped many indigenous groups increase the visibility and importance of their issues as part of the debate. Indigenous rights have become more strongly institutionalised in the UN as well, such as under the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Indigenous peoples and the state

So debate is currently underway in many Latin American countries about how to best integrate indigenous groups in state structures.

“The implementation of indigenous rights often runs up against extreme bureaucratic hurdles.”

From an indigenous point of view, the demand for self-governance or autonomy is a central issue. In Ecuador and Bolivia, both countries in which indigenous movements are very strongly represented, local autonomies are now anchored in the constitution. The concept of the plurinational state, a state that recognises indigenous groups as independent nations, is intended to ensure that indigenous peoples see themselves reflected in government structures. But even when constitutions are changed, reality does not automatically follow: The implementation of indigenous rights often runs up against extreme bureaucratic hurdles and indigenous groups lack the legal and administrative support they would need to truly participate.”

For indigenous peoples, the issue at hand is less about fighting poverty by being dependent on government programs and political cycles. It is more about determining the political and economic development of their own communities. Such demands for self-determination often go hand in hand with issues of land rights. Land is very important for maintaining indigenous traditions – and poverty often results from a lack of land.

“Whether it is a hydroelectric power station, a mine, a natural gas facility or a motorway, these construction projects are always accompanied by protests, mostly from indigenous groups.”

Although indigenous groups in Latin America are now more present in political institutions and the public eye, problems have increasingly emerged from these countries’ economic structures in recent years: Most Latin American states work from a development model based on monocultures and exploiting raw materials. Increases in global market prices for raw materials have lent this trend additional momentum. This development model also involves infrastructure projects primarily intended to enhance export of raw materials. Such projects are underway in almost every country – from Brazil to Mexico. Whether it is a hydroelectric power station, a mine, a natural gas facility or a motorway, these construction projects are always accompanied by protests, mostly from indigenous groups. The example of Panama shows that even the territorial configuration of autonomous areas that have been recognised for decades is often violated, and that the state conveniently overlooks any existing laws and agreements with indigenous groups when economic interests are at stake.

The case of Bolivia

Bolivia is a prominent example: Evo Morales, indigenous himself, was the country’s first president to emerge from the heart of the Bolivian social movements. He was a coca farmer and trade unionist who grew up in poverty. Under his leadership, the state has re-established its place at the centre of the economy.

“To promote trade, the Morales administration planned to build a motorway traversing an indigenous protected area, effectively splitting it in half.”

The so-called nationalization of the country’s gas production increased the revenues for the state significantly. Some of these revenues are spent for social programs. The government has succeeded in appreciably lowering the poverty rate in Bolivia. But Evo Morales is also pushing for integration into the Latin American market and closer ties with Brazil in particular. To promote trade, the Morales administration planned to build a motorway traversing TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure), an indigenous protected area, effectively splitting it in half. This is a step the previous governments would not have dared to take. The indigenous movement mobilised against the project and is currently divided into two camps: one that supports Evo Morales, and one that strongly criticises him. Following mass protests, the President called off the construction of the motorway, though he made it clear that the project was only posponed and not cancelled. Interestingly, he has cited the poverty of indigenous groups as justification for the project and promised that the motorway would lead to development and prosperity for the groups that inhabit the national park.

The indigenous concept of buen vivir

The indigenous movement is very sceptical of such promises. In the past, the term “development” has often meant large projects from which the promised profits seep away, leaving indigenous communities facing environmental problems and often robbed of their livelihoods. The Latin American indigenous movement is propagating the concept of buen vivir instead. This refers to a philosophical line of thought that emphasises the value of social relationships and close bonds to nature. Development is not defined as industrialisation, but rather as an attitude toward life intended to promote self-realisation. Proponents of buen vivir emphasise that it is not about living better than others, but rather about living a good life together. This concept aims at the grassroots level and started in indigenous communities. At the same time, it challenges the whole concept of growth and emphasises social values.

“All too often indigenous rights are simply left out of poverty reduction concepts and their interests are presented as hindering progress”

Given their experience with state structures, the attitude of indigenous peoples towards the SDG process is hardly surprising. They are not as concerned with fighting poverty per se. Their efforts focus on land and territorial rights and making themselves heard as part of the process. All too often indigenous rights are simply left out of poverty reduction policies and their interests are presented as hindering progress, as both the TIPNIS example and the controversy about the exploitation of the oil reserves in Yasuní National Park in Ecuador clearly illustrate.

By now debate around the growth concept has also begun in industrialised countries like Germany. A committee of inquiry was set up in the German Bundestag to explore issues of “growth, prosperity, and quality of life”. The concept of buen vivir also emerged as part of the debate. In their final report, the committee called for an alternative definition of wealth, one that takes social and ecological aspects into consideration more. The way of life practiced by indigenous peoples can clearly provide the global search for sustainable lifestyles with impulses.

“Don’t leave us behind.”

In the drafting of the SDGs, indigenous peoples have only been explicitly mentioned in two goals so far. Yet indigenous groups have a wealth of valuable experience and ideas to contribute. The representatives of indigenous groups ended their statement at the Open Working Group by asserting: “You don’t have to turn your back on us. You can still take our hand and include us in the journey of the next 15 years. We can make valuable contributions. Don’t leave us behind.”

Photo: “VIII Marcha por el TIPNIS. Autor. RAraoz” by MarielleClaudia
2011 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (2.0)

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