Indigenous Organization and Activism in South America

Published 21 Dec 2016


Indigenous peoples in South America have had a long history of struggle in terms of preserving their culture, ethnic identity land ownership and other rights which they are entitled to. The history of each of the indigenous groups and organizations have constantly tried to preserve their cultural identity amidst the policies of the State which tend to favor of commercialism, neglecting the distinct identity and needs of the indigenous peoples. Some administrations however, tried to integrate them while others simply ignored this fundamental right of being recognized by the society. This paper hopes to summarize the different experiences of Indigenous Peoples and the different policies that have been made to address the problem. The paper hopes to present its observation and reaction on the subject matter and issues presented.

The Wauja Experience

The Wauja or the indigenous peoples living in the Amazon, were said to have struggled over their land rights in South America (Ireland 3). According to Ireland’s article, they have encountered problems especially with the military government’s aim to develop the region economically and to alleviate the overcrowding cities in Brazil (4). This development scheme however not only had ecological consequences but it has threatened the existence of the Wauja (4). The traditional territory in Xingu National Park was left out and became unprotected (5). The areas which were excluded were the fishing grounds, agricultural lands and the so-called ‘Kamukuaka,’ a sacred cavern and ceremonial ground, was turned into cattle pasture (5).

This has also led to economic loss for the Wauja since the area near Kamukuaka is the only source for certain essential raw materials including ceramic pigments, medicinal plants and shells used in trade (6). Poachers also entered the Wauja waters in boats filled with heavily armed men to take commercial quantities of fish for sale in Brazilian towns which posed not only physical danger but have also continued to deprive the Wauja of the fish to which the traditional Wauja economy depended on (7). The incident in early 1989, when the chief and the other elders were shot by the poachers and in June 1990 when the new village which they built were burned although claimed to be non-violent according to the Brazilian government, were the turning point for the Wauja (7).

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The Wauja asked the government to survey the land officially outside the park, in order to have it included in the park and thereby protected (7). Because of the officials excuse that the government lacked funds for such project, the Wauja together with members of other indigenous communities and volunteers decided to survey the land themselves (7). The surveying was considered an important step in protecting it for Indian people under Brazilian law (8). It stands to set a legal precedent on behalf of all Brazilian Indians (8). Furthermore, the Wauja’s lawyers sought to challenge the administrative decree that currently prohibits alteration to existing boundaries of indigenous reserves and which denied Indians redress against boundary decisions made without their knowledge and consent (9).

The Mapuches

The experience of the Mapuches who were considered to be the largest indigenous group in modern Chile, is not far from the experience of the Wauja. According to Sznaider’s article, the military government then enacted a law in 1979 that brought about the pision of 90% of the land creating a disharmony between their traditional way of life and the new system of land tenure which also resulted in the disintegration of the communities and emigration (18). This was also the main factor for their pauperization, agricultural marginalization, resulting from the loss of control over large areas of territory, and impaired their capacity to continue raising cattle extensively (19).

There have been attempts to integrate the Mapuches into Chile’s public life such as their political participation by electing one of their members as deputy of the Chilean parliament (20). During Allende’s government there was implementation of agrarian reform laws leading to the restoration of some hectares of Mapuches land (23). The Government then aimed at combining agrarian reform with Mapuche ethnodevelopment and at improving the general standard of living of the Mapuche agrarian population (23). However, there were difficulties arising from this such as restoring the rights of the Mapuches to lands lost during the previous century, devising the right educational policies, providing technical and organizational assistance to the beneficiaries of the law and enacting judicial and administrative reforms to improve relations between Mapuches and Chilean society (24).

This law was repealed during the Pinochet period, and the implementation of neoliberal economic policies by a decree that was then enacted, led to a pision of lands in most of the Mapuche communities (24). A decree then was enacted which abolished the protection previously accorded to territories classified as indigenous lands and thus opened the areas to non-Mapuche settlement on a commercial basis such as timber companies exploiting age-old forests of araucaria(25). The free market policies of the military government was said to have resulted in the loss of land and impoverishment for the Mapuches (25). The seriousness of the Mapuche problem and the changes in the political system resulting from the transition to democracy in Chile caused it to resurface as a public issue (27).

Hence under the Aylwin administration they tried to address the roots of the problem of the indigenous peoples by reshaping the delicate balance in the 1980 Constitution and opening up the Chilean nation to redefinition (27). Law 19.253 was enacted to protect, support and develop indigenous and set up the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) (31). The law constituted a framework for positive discrimination in favor of the indigenous population of Chile (31). But despite the democratization or the return to partial democracy, the practices of dictatorship have not completely disappeared (Marhikewun 212). Chilean government’s repressive policy against Mapuche with police raids in several parts of the country (Marhikewun 211). Indigenous law said to be under siege to accommodate multinational corporation and land disputes were then still multiplying (Marhikewun 213). Hence, the problem still continued to persist.

Guarani Indians in Bolivia

There is a different experience however in Bolivia. According to Hirsch, there is a recognition of ethnic minorities within its boundaries in Bolivia (81). There was said to be an emergence of native organizations which is linked to the presence of non-governmental organizations (82). There are movements that lead to development of organizations having large constituency and receive funding to implement own projects (83). They struggle for rights leading to a process of empowerment and political vindications of native peoples leading to major transformations of the State (83). Bolivia redefined its relations with native peoples by sanctioning new laws that recognize ethnic pluralism of the country and give greater autonomy to native peoples (84). The non-governmental organizations especially in eastern Bolivia have been allowed to implement projects with somewhat little interference from the state leaving an arena for fostering political and social awareness, for training native leaders, and for the emergence of alternative political groups (84).

CIDOB, a pan-Indian confederation that groups the indigenous peoples of eastern Bolivia and the Asamblea del Pueblo Guarani, an intra-ethnic organization composed of only Guarani Indians, constitute a breakthrough in the relations between the Indian population and the State (85). Not only projects aimed at economic development but also ethnic revival and developing both new and traditional and political organizations for self-determination. CIDOB establishes and coordinates activities with popular organizations CIDOB leaders have been skillful in dealing with a variety of officials from anthropologists to World Bank representatives to advance the relationship of Indians with the society (87). Argentine Guarani thus look toward their Bolivian counterparts as model to follow in organizing ethnic lines (81).


As can be seen from the experiences of different Indigenous groups, there indeed is a persisting problem of trying to preserve cultural or ethnic identity and the land rights alongside economic development. The State or the government has often than not encountered resistance from Indigenous groups which perceived their policies as a threat not only to their economic survival but to their identity. Although there have been attempts of integrating Indigenous peoples to the society through the enactment of different laws aimed at respecting indigenous peoples rights, the implementation of these laws depended entirely on the current administration hence, there is discontinuity in terms of the policy towards indigenous groups. Law which were enacted, nevertheless fell short of the expectation. There is still a need to reinforce this, and as Marhikewun emphasized, there must be respect for the rule of law to honor agreements signed by the State (Marhikewun 214).

The only successful State which has been successful in promoting Indigenous peoples rights is in Bolivia. The non-governmental organizations helped very much in preserving indigenous peoples identity through the implementation of projects and increased access to political power, thus helping advance their cause and recognizing ethnic minorities in the region. The Indian political organizations in Bolivia has indeed led to greater participation of these impoverished and marginalized sectors of the population (Hirsch 2).

Indeed the state alone cannot help solve the unending problems of Indigenous Peoples Rights and their marginalization. With other concerns which governments have to deal with, Indigenous peoples right is only one segment of the society’s problem which the government has to deal with. The state more often than not, in trying to balance economic development with the preservation of minority groups, have policies leaning towards commercialization. The non-governmental organizations and political organizations are then groups which would constantly remind the government and lobby for the interests of indigenous groups so that economic development maybe achieved without however compromising minorities rights.

As for governments which have already made laws aimed at promoting Indigenous peoples rights, the government action should not just stop there. As R. Marhikewun puts it, authorities and political parties must accompany their talk with concrete action and with projects that may be carried out (Marhikewun 212). It should not depend on the current administration but should always be made part of the policy of the government. There should be political will to enforce these laws and the rights to which the Indigenous groups are entitled to. There is still a long way for the problem to be resolved but then if it has been successful in other States to recognize ethnic minorities with the combined role of the non-governmental organizations to advance Indigenous peoples rights then it is possible to achieve a lasting solution.

Works Cited

  • Hirsch, S. “The Emergence of Political Organizations Among The Guarani Indians of Bolivia and Argentina.” Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Eds. Languer and Mu-Oz. Wilmington Del, 2003. 81-101.
  • Ireland, E. “Neither Warriors nor Victims: The Wauja Peacefully Organize to Defend Their Land.” Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Eds. Languer and Mu-Oz. Wilmington Del, 2003. 3-15.
  • Marhikewun, R. “Indigenous Leaders Speak Out.” Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Eds. Languer and Mu-Oz. Wilmington Del, 2003. 211-216.
  • Sznaider, M. “Ethnodevelopment and Democratic Consolidation in Chile: The Mapuche Question.” Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Eds. Languer and Mu-Oz. Wilmington Del, 2003. 17-34.
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