By Ana Cecilia Dinerstein
In the past two decades, indigenous peoples’ movements have become more visible and stronger in the global struggle for social justice, particularly against new economic policies based on extractivism, land grabbing and the privatisation of ejidos that characterise neoliberal and financial globalisation. However, to speak of the ‘emergence’ of indigenous people as protagonists of present struggles would be misleading and better referred to as a new expression of a long-standing demand for the recognition of indigenous people’s rights to self-determination (Dinerstein 2015). Present indigenous resistances are the outcome of long-term political and legal transformations that occurred since the 1970s, when indigenous people firmly rejected their legal definition as ‘minorities’. Since they inhabited the lands that they are reclaiming collectively before the formation of the nation-states, they demanded to be considered as ‘nations’ and ‘peoples’ (pueblos originarios) (Burguete Cal y Mayor, 2010: 72). In Latin America, significant changes in citizenship regimes reshaped institutions at different points during the period between the 1930s and 1970s and had a significant impact on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the state, and the forms of organisation and mobilisation of indigenous peoples (Yashar, 2005: 60). New institutions integrated (translated) indigenous identities into peasant identities. The erosion of these corporatist regimes led to emergence of ethnic-based organisations, which explains the ‘indigenous character of the contemporary movements’ (Yashar, 2005: 66 and 68, italics in the original). Since then, indigenous communities required to be recognised as such, rather than as part of the peasant community, and negotiated their autonomy with the state.
In the late 1980s, Special Rapporteur Martínez Cobo, on the UN Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, articulated an operational definition that used the term ‘indigenous people’ to replace ‘minorities’. In his study titled ‘The Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations’, he stated:
Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them (Martínez-Cobo, 1987)
With this working definition, Martínez-Cobo was producing a crucial change in the way indigenous people were perceived up until that point. He opened a new period for the indigenous struggle for autonomy, for it gave the pueblos originarios an entity, and put their struggle for the recognition of their right to self-determination in the international agenda in the 1980s. The right to self-determination for indigenous people was finally recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, in September 2007. With this, ‘the UN took a foremost step forward in the advancement and protection of indigenous and tribal peoples’ rights throughout the world’. This general principle enables indigenous peoples to choose the kind of political organisation they prefer (Sánchez, 2010). The UN declaration that recognizes the fundamental right to self-determination is supported by ILO:
Promoting full application of ILO standards, in particular the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), and efforts to secure decent work for indigenous peoples, in line with their rights and aspirations, are the ILO’s main strategies in this regard.
While the law is an essential tool for the attainment of self-determination, the later ultimately depends on contested political processes that confront indigenous struggles with powerful political and economic interests. Indigenous self-determination is still regarded as an obstacle to governmental action or profit making. Usually, the politics of the so-called ‘ethnic minorities’ are regarded as backwards for they do not wish to progress and develop. That they are obsessed with the past rather than the future.
This is misleading. Indigenous peoples’ lived utopias do not defend the past. The ‘past’ must be understood as a memory that exists in the present, for physical existence is not the only element of reality so that ancestors live among them. As Vázquez highlights, the defence of the land is a political responsibility of the indigenous people to protect their ancestors. It is a revolutionary practice that relies on a different conceptualisation of time and being: ‘This political responsibility [is] revolutionary vis-à-vis the modern notion of time, in which the present and presence are the sole locus of the real’ (Vázquez, 2011: 38). But power is ruthless.
The example of Mexico is telling. In a recent letter to ‘those who still want to listen’, the Zapatistas tell us that they are worried for the value of life and dignity of their communities, having resisted extermination and oblivion for more than 500 years. Specifically, they are concerned about the militarisation of the Zapatistas communities in Chiapas which, in the name “seguridad” is threatening the peace of Chiapas which paradoxically is an area with the lowest crime index in the country. The reasons for the militarisation rest elsewhere: in the governmental fear of strong opposition to the legitimate resistance to Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) new projects such as the Maya Train, the transistmic Corridor and the Morelos Integral Plan among others. The Zapatistas are rightly concerned about the recent homicide of some members of the Indigenous Nacional Council and of the Governmental Indigenous Council, and that these acts of extreme violence will lead again to the extermination of indigenous people. Their fears are not unfounded. As Caitlin Manning suggests progressiveness in the present Mexican case is a mask that covers for the promotion of controversial mega projects. These plans have been courageously opposed by the Zapatistas, but also by the National Indigenous Congress (the CNI), the Movement in Defence of Land and Territory, and others. They include
‘the Maya Train, a new refinery in Tabasco along the Gulf of Mexico, the Trans Isthmus corridor and the Plan Integral Morelos, all of which involve dispossession of farmers and Indigenous communities. In some cases, construction and management have already opened to bidding by transnational corporations’
The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples aims to celebrate indigenous cultures.’ But the celebration of indigenous culture remains colonial for the appreciation of ‘ethnic minorities’ is still considered ‘residual’ to universal modernity. An appropriate celebration of indigenous cultures should acknowledge how alternatives forms of understanding and experiencing the world have been oppressed and sent to oblivion for centuries, and the outcome of this has been the positioning of Europe as central for an understanding and development of the world. An appropriate celebration should explore the forms in which the colonial persists in the postcolonial world as ‘coloniality of power’ (Quijano 2008). This is a practice that penetrates social, cultural, economic, political interactions and relations. What is race’ if not an invention that took place during the ‘conquest’ of the Americas in the 15th Century? Since there is nothing physical or intellectual that can justify the subordination of indigenous or black people to European, it is clear that the creation of the inferior ‘other’ served eager European Empires to expand by navigating the seven seas in search of new lands to conquer. The celebration of indigenous cultures without a serious revision of the narrative of progress and development is not a celebration but a confirmation of coloniality. It is time to learn from the ecology of knowledges (Santos 2008) that indigenous cultures can offer but continued to be oppressed, subjugated and obliterated in the form of xenophobia, misogyny, racism.
Indigenous cosmologies can save us from the terminal ecological and environmental crisis. There is much to learn. The ‘environment’ is not external to indigenous people’s bodies, communal life and cosmologies. Their collective being includes the mountain, the river, the animals and the plants. The notion of the defence of the environment is an alien term to them, for there is no separation between (the protection of) the environment and (the protection of) human and animal life. The environment is not surrounding them: it is them. We must learn from indigenous people. Chopping a tree is the equivalent of cutting an arm off. Millions of trees are being chopped down on daily basis. They feel the pain. Do we feel the pain? Only then we can truly celebrate the international day of the world’s indigenous peoples.
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