The significance of indigenous mobilisations

Groups protesting across Latin America have been changing the politics of ‘business as usual’.

Indigenous people of the Amazonia march
Indigenous mobilisation has brought environmental politics to the streets [AFP]

Miami, FL – Indigenous politics tend to be understood as local anecdotes, rather than political events of international significance. So it is of little surprise that the funeral of Bernardo Vásquez in San José del Progreso, Oaxaca, Mexico, generated little international attention. Vásquez was the second anti-mining activist shot dead in the past two months in the small Zapotec community, while many other opponents have been seriously injured in the Ocotlán Valley.

Mine-related violence is certainly distressing but far from rare, extending from Chile to the Arctic. What is less ordinary is the extent and intensification of anti-mining mobilisation across Latin America. The past month in particular has seen a swell in protests defending land and water resources. Between World Water Day, annually celebrated on March 22, and the International Day of Peasant Struggles on April 17, this spring has seen resistance against mega-projects gain solid ground.

The incidents in Ocotlán, simultaneous with larger mobilisations in other locations, are indicative of a broader turn in which indigenous movements are leading coordinated efforts to defend natural resources. Indigenous movements may be locally rooted, yet as its contest reframes governmental agendas, it ineluctably impacts transnational politics as well.

‘Conga won’t go’ in Peru

On World Water Day, thousands of people gathered around the Blue Lagoon in the Peruvian highlands of Cajamarca to protect their water resources from mining exploitation and contamination. The Conga Mine, a $4.8bn project involving US-based Newmont Mining Corporation and Peruvian company Minas Buenaventura, would be the second largest gold mine in the world and affect five sources of drinking water.

Residents of Cajamarca have been insistently protesting the Conga Mine project, approved in 2010. Neither President Humala’s 60-day state of emergency and increased military presence nor the external review of the environmental impact study were able to undermine the intensifying civil unrest. In fact, mobilisations gained momentum since Cajamarca’s regional vice president, César Aliaga Díaz, issued regional ordinance 036, declaring the Conga project unviable, thereby lending official support to the mobilisations. The uncontroversial alliance between local protesters and Cajamarca’s government against the Peruvian state and international mining interests suggests a multi-layered, and certainly transnational, political scenario.

Resilience in Ecuador

Ecuador’s March for Life, Water, and the Dignity of Peoples was as extensive as it was enduring, gathering marchers for more than 400 miles from International Women’s Day (March 8) to World Water Day. When CONAIE’s [Esp] president Humberto Cholando led thousands of indigenous peoples into the capital on March 22, thousands of non-indigenous protesters had also joined in. The government, in turn, organised pro-government countermarches, accusing the march of being fomented by prior coup participants, and to be supported by the country’s right for electoral motives.

Despite obstacles and shortcomings, this national mobilisation symbolises the re-unification of all indigenous groups in Ecuador around one common political agenda, echoing the massive mobilisations of the 1990s. Using the same slogan as the anti-Conga movement: “Life is worth more than gold,” the march emphasised protecting water and opposing mega-mining projects. The 19-point demand, however, was broader and included other issues, including opposing the expansion of oil frontiers and demanding labour rights as well as the respect of sexual rights.

This march did not achieve formal negotiations with the state. Yet it did achieve another important goal: to demand – and to practice – the de-criminalisation of social protest. In that sense, this mobilisation represents the resilience as well as the agility of an indigenous movement that has remained the leading force of opposition over the years, surviving political censorship and intimidation, as well its own internal fractures.

Thousands enter Guatemala City

Days after Ecuador’s march, more than 10,000 people entered Guatemala City – an impressive crowd for a capital of about one million inhabitants. The march lasted nine days, covered much of the country, and involved a diverse array of social sectors. Called the “Indigenous, Campesino, and Popular March for the defence, dignity and of the Earth and Territories”, this mobilisation was explicitly national and geared to address social concerns beyond indigenous concerns. The agenda encompassed land rights and territoriality as well as fundamental civil rights such as a Law for Community Media to legalise community radios. Just like in Ecuador, Guatemala’s anti-mining march is relevant because it is embedded in politics at large.

Leaders issued a declaration of the march for resistance and dignity in defence of the earth and territory, in which they demand, among others things, the cancellation of concessions for mining, petroleum and hydroelectric plants, and mono-culture agriculture – as well as the end to persecution and criminalisation of indigenous people fighting for their rights (eight indigenous women in San Miguel Ixtahuacán have arrest orders against them for speaking out against the Marlin Mine). Such forceful mobilisation convinced President Otto Perez Molina to negotiate the demands posited in the protesters official declaration.

TIPNIS redux

In Bolivia, indigenous mobilisation is also at a peak. The protests that brought international attention to the construction of a highway through the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) are far from over. The 61-day march in the autumn of 2011 generated widespread support for originary peoples, pushing the government to abide by a law protecting the TIPNIS and interrupting the construction more than once. As conflict over the TIPNIS holds, political strategies grow increasingly complex, intricate, and transnational. The UN offered to mediate the stand-off, whereas the Brazilian National Bank for Social and Economic Development (which is financing most of the project) is demanding that the construction firm and the Bolivian government reframe the contract.

Despite political retaliation against protesters and harassment against leaders – such as against the president of the Bolivian Confederation of Indigenous Peoples (CIDOB), Adolfo Chávez, and the president of the TIPNIS, Fernando Vargas – coordination strengthened and even expanded to urban areas. In fact, Bolivia’s IV Indigenous National Commission just ratified the start of the IX March in Defence of the TIPNIS for April 25, from Chaparina to La Paz. It will reiterate resistance against the road construction through protected territories, as well as to defend natural resources at large, respect for constitutional rights, and insist on the democratic practice of consultation.

The various marches in defence of the TIPNIS evolved beyond a mobilisation for and by indigenous interests. It made tangible a national political discontent beyond protected territories, bringing international visibility to the internal fissures of the Morales government.

The smaller and larger indigenous mobilisations taking place simultaneously across Latin America are inevitably local, in that they contest projects in their communities, but they cannot be trivialised as isolated or anecdotal incidents. These mobilisations are of international relevance because they have successfully mobilised thousands of peoples, indigenous and non-indigenous, over long periods of time and across territories, crafting political demands, and often forcing governments to reframe policies. Most importantly, indigenous mobilisation has been able to bring environmental politics to the streets, turning natural resources, water, and consultation into public political issues. The growing constellation of mobilisations across the region points towards deeper societal changes in the making.

President Dilma Rousseff recently declared that people protesting the construction of dams in the Amazon lived in a state of “fantasy“, and fantasy had no space to be discussed at the Rio+20 UN summit in June. The millions of peoples across the Americas who seem to think otherwise may have a couple of opportunities beforehand to convince her of the contrary.

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.