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Indigenous groups find unity in diversity
Leslie Josephs
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Five Andean indigenous organizations lay groundwork for regional bloc led by Peru.

More than 500 representatives from Andean indigenous organizations crowded a Cusco auditorium for three days, laying the groundwork for the Andean Coordinating Group of Indigenous Organizations. Delegates from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru founded the first ever regional indigenous bloc after panel discussions and fiery debates July 15-17 in the ancient Inca capital in Peru’s Andes.

While the event, which opened with a spiritual ceremony, including offerings of coca leaves, candy and carnations to the Apus, or Inca gods, in the famed Sacsayhauman ruins — an Inca fortress overlooking Cusco — the group’s agenda is political.

The coordinating group will aim to fight free trade agreements and the defense of natural resources and the environment on native lands, issues that have bolstered the strength and mobilization of indigenous groups in Bolivia and Ecuador over the last five years.

"They took away our gold, now they’re taking away our gas, our oil; they want to take away our water," said Humberto Cholango, president of Ecuador’s representative organization, Ecuarunari, a member group of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, whose leader, Luis Macas, is a presidential candidate in the Oct. 15 election.

CONAIE led massive demonstrations against the free trade agreement between Ecuador and the United States and had long pushed for the expulsion of the US-based oil company Occidental Petroleum Corp.

"In Ecuador this March, when we set out to face the FTA, they said ‘these ignorant Indians know absolutely nothing about the FTA … about economy,’ but the FTA has not passed, brothers and sisters. They call us antidemocratic, destabilizers of governments," Cholango said.

Blanca Chancoso, another CONAIE leader, said that feasible economic alternatives are required in the region, stressing that international financial institutions such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank should not be the ones to design these policies.

Participants shifted between Spanish and their native tongues as fierce debates on the organization’s structure — and even its name — that started shortly after breakfast lasted until the late in the evening of July 17. But delegates agreed to form a 10-person directive council, with a male and female representative from each of the five indigenous organizations.

Peruvian representatives demanded that a Peruvian lead the directive council in an effort to strengthen the country’s weak indigenous movement, giving it prominence among its two Andean neighbors with powerful indigenous movements.

Sandwiched between Ecuador and Bolivia, whose indigenous movements are highly politicized, Peru, despite its large indigenous population, never organized so effectively.

In addition to a massive agrarian reform process under the military government of Gen. Juan Velasco, in which the indigenous population was "de-Indianized," and came to be known as campesinos. Peru’s indigenous population suffered more than any other sector of Peru during the 1980-2000 Shining Path insurgency.

"Everyone asks why the same thing happening in Bolivia and Ecuador isn’t happening in Peru," said Rodrigo Montoya, a Peruvian anthropology professor and author. "In these 20 years [1980-2000] the Ecuadorians and Bolivians were organizing their political and ethnic movements that are now in existence. In Peru, there was an extremely violent war going on."

The Coordinating Committee’s founding congress, despite some complaints from the Bolivian delegation that for the next two years, Miguel Palacín, president of CONACAMI, an umbrella group of indigenous communities affected by mining, will lead the Andean Coordinating Committee.

"This congress has to aim for unity," said Palacín, adding that its purpose "is for us to really be visible in each of our countries and on the continent."

Other countries with smaller indigenous populations and movement such and Colombia and Chile hope to propel their common agenda by participating in the bloc.

Bladimir Painecura of the Coordinating Committee of Mapuche Territorial Identities, which represents Mapuches in southern Chile said that "the struggle is the same, [the struggle] for human rights, for natural resources" are common among other Andean groups. "More than anything, this coordinating group is going to help us … here are the forums, the United Nations, and different international offices. I think that we are going to gain experience," he said.

The Coordinating Committee is still in its nascent stages, and if the frequent ideological clashes between different nationalities were any indication of the future, a cohesive movement is a long way off. Some congress members felt that all indigenous group names should be taken off the committee’s banner, claiming that Kichwa, a major highland indigenous group in Ecuador, and Quechua, Peru’s largest highland indigenous group were the same thing, and that the names only divided the movement.

But delegates did agree upon a basic set of goals. The final document of the founding congress read, "We reject the new capitalist and neoliberal colonialization strategy." Territory, natural resources and environmental rights remained firmly at the center of the group’s agenda.

"We are not poor. The wealth is on our lands. They are the poor ones," said Palacín.


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