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Political awakening emboldens Indians
Question of the Day
JESUS DE MACHACA, Bolivia
In Ecuador, the Shuar are blocking highways to defend their hunting grounds. In Chile, the Mapuche are occupying ranches to pressure for land, schools and clinics. In Bolivia, a new constitution gives the country’s 36 indigenous peoples the right to self-rule.
All across Latin America, and especially in the Andes, a political awakening is emboldening Indians who have lived mostly as second-class citizens since the Spanish conquest.
Much of it is the result of better education and communication, especially as the Internet allows native leaders in far-flung villages to share ideas and strategies across international boundaries.
But much is born of necessity: Latin American nations are embarking on an unprecedented resource hunt, moving in on land that Indians consider their own and whose pristineness is key to their survival.
“The Indian movement has arisen because the government doesn’t respect our territories, our resources, our Amazon,” says Romulo Acachu, president of the Shuar people, flanked by warriors carrying wooden spears and with black war paint smeared on their faces.
Last month, the Shuar put up barbed-wire roadblocks on highway bridges in Ecuador’s southeastern jungles to protest legislation that would allow mines on Indian lands without their consent, and put water under state control. On Sept. 30, an Indian schoolteacher was killed in a battle with riot police.
“If there are 1,000 dead, they will be good deaths,” says another Shuar leader, Rafael Pandam.
The Shuar won, at least this round.
A week after the killing, President Rafael Correa received about 100 Indian leaders at the presidential palace and agreed to reconsider the laws. Mr. Correa had earlier called the Indians “infantile” for their insistence on being consulted over mining concessions. But he didn’t need to be reminded that natives - a third of the population - helped topple Ecuadorean governments in 2000 and 2005.
Indians make up one in 10 of Latin America’s half-billion inhabitants. In some parts of the Andes and Guatemala, they are far more numerous.
Yet they remain much poorer and less educated than the general population. About 80 percent live on less than $2 a day — a poverty rate double that of the general population, according to the World Bank — while some 40 percent lack access to health care.
The threats to Indian land have grown in recent years. With shrinking global oil reserves and growing demands for minerals and timber, oil and mining concerns are joining loggers in encroaching on traditional Indian lands.
“Indians have been progressively losing control and ownership of natural resources on their lands,” says Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a prominent Mexican sociologist who spent most of the past decade as the U.N.’s chief advocate for Indians. “The situation isn’t very encouraging.”
Hence the revolt rippling up and down the Andes.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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