Latin America’s Left Turn Collides with Indigenous Movements

Source: In These Times

For a viable model of “21st century socialism,” many progressives look to Latin America’s Leftward surge. But swept up in the continent’s “pink tide” are questions of indigenous land and resource rights, which often clash with state development priorities. From Venezuela to Bolivia to Chile, indigenous communities are charging that they have been betrayed by the populist presidents they helped elect.

Ben Dangl, author of Dancing with Dynamite, notes that the tension between indigenous social movements and pink tide politicians stems from these governments’ reliance on resource extraction to generate income. He told In These Times via e-mail:

For many of Latin America’s new leftist governments, the logic of the state-run extractive industry consistently runs against the rhetoric and rights of respecting the environment and indigenous autonomy. This contradiction has played itself out in many cases across the region, from mining in Venezuela [under President Hugo Chavez], to oil exploitation in Ecuador [under left-of-center President Rafael Correa].

The grandiose rhetoric of Latin American populism often fails indigenous communities who don’t see themselves as part of a national project. But as movements ratchet up struggles against environmental and cultural destruction, they must confront a narrative of economic progress—and, often, face down harsh repression.

The Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) is a protected reserve over 10,000 indigenous people call home. Its muddy waters and breathtaking green vistas reign over a swath of Bolivia, home to Latin America’s first indigenous head-of-state. But after sweeping into office and taking the extraordinary gesture of bestowing rights on “Mother Earth,” Evo Morales has made a surprising about-face by contracting the Brazilian firm OAS to build a 182-mile highway straight through the heart of TIPNIS. Heavily opposed by indigenous movements, the road was approved last month. But its future remains indefinite.

Carwil Bjork-James, a PhD candidate studying Bolivian social movements at City University of New York, says that the indigenous movements that carried Morales into office are increasingly disillusioned by the contradiction that Morales has come to embody. Though he has called repeatedly for greater consultation with indigenous movements, Morales has also deployed the power of the state to repress them. Throughout the consultation process, officials have pushed an either/or solution on indigenous residents: either the highway project will be completed, or the zone will be declared what Bjork-James calls an intangible economic zone. If TIPNIS is declared as such, other activities that generate revenue for residents – like sustainable logging and ecotourism – will be disallowed, leaving inhabitants with even more limited options for generating income.

In 2011, when indigenous protestors took to the streets in opposition to the highway, organizing slow pilgrimage-like marches through the region, they relied on their “moral credibility as the original inhabitants of the country,” Bjork-James says, to garner support.

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