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Indigenous Politics

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For centuries the experience of many indigenous groups in Latin America has been one of resistance.

From slavery under colonial masters to marginalisation and oppression today, indigenous peoples from Mexico to Brazil have struggled to reconcile their beliefs, traditions, and way of life with the development of modern nation states, many of which attempted to homogenise multiple identities around common language and culture, or were built to exclude indigenous interests.

There are more than 1,000 indigenous communities in the region, many with their own languages and dialects. Some want to be left to live in isolation, and others are increasingly moving to urban areas. Addressing so many indigenous groups living in different nation states as one monolithic entity is impossible, and disrespectful to the diversity of indigenous peoples, but there are some general trends that can be observed.

To this day, racism and poverty keep many indigenous groups on the edges of Latin America’s societies, and they are among the most disadvantaged in the region. While they make up less than 8% of the regional population, indigenous people represent 17% of the region’s extremely poor. Land rights and the defence of ancestral territory is a common concern among many indigenous groups, as is opposition to extractive projects which encroach on these lands or affect their traditional way of life. Climate change is also increasingly important to some indigenous groups who are being forced to adapt ancestral agricultural practices in the face of unpredictable weather patterns, and the protection of culture and language is another common goal.


Recent decades have seen the emergence of indigenous leaders and organisations that work to promote these interests. As Latin America transitioned to democracy in the 1980s, indigenous social movements and organisations started to appear, leaning heavily on the defence of land rights. However, state policies largely discouraged indigenous groups from entering the political sphere, and the organisations struggled to make headway. This political exclusion has weakened party systems, particularly in those countries where the indigenous population is sizeable.

By the 1990s indigenous movements were more developed and were able to better articulate their demands. According to indigenous politics expert Donna Van Cott, the rise of indigenous movements is also linked to the collapse of the political left in Latin America in the late 1980s and its resurgence from the mid-1990s. In the absence of viable leftist options, whether through collapse or a move to the political centre, indigenous movements in various countries were able to enter the political scene and even attract support from non-indigenous people.

As a result, indigenous groups have come to play an increasingly important role in national life, but their influence varies drastically across Latin America. In many countries social movements have been the most common vehicle for articulating indigenous demands, but electoral politics is also increasingly popular. The strategic choice to favour social movements or party politics has ignited many debates: should indigenous people play by the rules of an alien system that may have oppressed them for so long, or improve representation through social movements and hope to pressure the state from the outside?

However, in some places this choice is irrelevant as the democratic process has broadened, and some argue that indigenous political representation is democratising democracy.



Indigenous legal rights have been bolstered thanks to international laws and conventions. This includes the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 169 of 1989 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, which requires indigenous communities to be consulted before major extractive or hydroelectric projects are started, the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) of 2007, which “emphasises the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen

their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations”, and other treaties. However, there is a disconnect between signing an agreement and being able to ensure it is applied to indigenous groups. Despite a regional consensus to recognise indigenous rights and guarantee political representation, gains are fragile even in those countries where most progress has been made. The recent setbacks in Brazil, where successive governments have attacked hard-fought indigenous rights in the name of economic development, are a prime example. It is also important that indigenous actors protect democratic institutions when they do manage to gain ground, according to Van Cott. This is particularly relevant in the case of Bolivia, where the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, stoked controversy by changing the constitution in order to run for a fourth term.

At the other end of the spectrum lies Chile, which is experiencing the violent consequences of excluding the Mapuche indigenous people from its political system. Mexico, which has the largest indigenous population in the region, is also a focus due to a disconnect between President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s positive pronouncements on indigenous peoples and his backing of projects that threaten their rights. So too is Guatemala, which has the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America and is experiencing a resurgent movement following the end of a bloody civil war, which saw a former military dictator convicted of genocide against the indigenous Maya.