Political awakening emboldens Indians

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In Peru, south of the Shuar’s lands, the government has divided more than 70 percent of the Amazon into oil exploration blocks and has begun selling concessions. Fearing contamination of their hunting and fishing grounds, Indians last year began mounting sporadic road and river blockades.

On June 5, riot police opened fire on Indians at a road blockade outside the town of Bagua, where jungle meets Andean foothills. At least 33 people were killed, most of them police. The Indians were unapologetic for resisting.

“Almost everything we have comes from the jungle,” says one of the protesters, a wiry elementary school teacher from the Awajun tribe named Gabriel Apikai. “The leaves, and wood and vines with which we build our homes. The water from the streams. The animals we eat. That is why we are so worried.”

Farther south along the world’s longest mountain chain, Chilean police are protecting 34 ranches and logging compounds that Mapuche Indians have targeted for occupations or sabotage.

The Mapuche, who dominated Chile before the Spanish conquest, now account for less than 10 percent of its people and hold some 5 percent of its land among of the least fertile.

Mapuche activists agitating for title to more lands and greater access to education and health care stepped up civil disobedience this year. In August, riot police mounting an eviction killed one Mapuche, and eight were injured.

“If the government and the political class doesn’t listen to our demands the situation will get a lot more difficult,” Mapuche leader Jose Santos Millao told the Associated Press in Santiago. He rejects as a “smoke screen” President Michelle Bachelet’s creation of an Indian Affairs Ministry in September.

Nowhere is Indian power so evident as Bolivia, which elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2006. Mr. Morales dissolved the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and Original Peoples, calling it racist in a country where more than three in five people are aboriginals.

In February, voters approved a constitution that creates a “plurinational” state and accords Bolivia’s natives sovereign status.

In the capital of La Paz, “cholitas” — Indian women in traditional bowler hats and embroidered shawls — now regularly anchor TV newscasts. “Miss Cholita” beauty pageants are in vogue and native hip-hop stars headline at nightclubs.

“There is no way to return to the past,” says Waskar Ari, an Aymara who changed his name to Juan in the 1970s so he would be accepted to a private high school in La Paz. Now a University of Nebraska professor, he likens his country’s “rebirth” to the casting off apartheid on another continent two decades ago.

“Finally,” he says proudly, “Bolivia is no longer the South Africa of Latin America.”

Still, Indians remain second-class citizens in much of Latin America.

No indigenous representative has ever been elected to the national congress in Brazil, where Indians occupy vast areas of the Amazon though they account for less than 5 percent of the population.

In Guatemala, where nearly half the population is of Mayan descent, not a single Indian has ever made it to national office.

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