LATIN AMERICA: Indigenous Leaders Say World Bank Should Take Its Own Advice

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 20 2005 (IPS) - The World Bank should follow its own advice and modify its policies and prescriptions for Latin America, indigenous leaders told IPS.

The World Bank should follow its own advice and modify its policies and prescriptions for Latin America, indigenous leaders told IPS.

They were referring to a new report by the international lending institution, which points out that despite an increasingly active political role played by indigenous communities, there has been little change in the extreme poverty and marginalisation in which a majority of Latin America’s indigenous people are steeped.

With this report, "the World Bank is trying to whitewash its image, but we all know it is partly to blame for many of our problems, and for numerous human rights violations," said Rafael González, spokesman for the Committee for Campesino Unity in Guatemala, a country where indigenous people make up a majority of the population.

The study, "Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Human Development in Latin America: 1994-2004", released Wednesday, focuses on the five countries in the region with the largest indigenous populations: Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. Overall, indigenous people account for around 10 percent of the population of Latin America.

The report states that the political influence of indigenous communities, in terms of indigenous political parties and elected representatives, constitutional provisions for indigenous people or health and education policies specifically tailored to the indigenous population, "has grown remarkably in the last 15 years."

But it underlines that their income levels as well as human development indicators "have consistently lagged behind those of the rest of the population."

In the five countries studied, to be born indigenous virtually amounts to being condemned to poverty, the report notes.

Indigenous lawmaker Ricardo Díaz from Bolivia told IPS that the study is "absolutely credible" and should be taken note of by the World Bank itself and by governments in the region.

"But I highly doubt that they will listen to themselves, because it is clear that the Bank continues pressuring governments to privatise, that it is still under Washington’s thumb, and that it maintains harsh policies against indigenous people," said Díaz, a representative of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), Bolivia’s strongest opposition party, which is led by indigenous legislator Evo Morales.

Critics of World Bank investments in timber, mining, and extractive industries say the projects damage the way of life of many indigenous communities.

Roads constructed for timber and oil companies, cattle ranchers and miners, and funded by international financial institutions like the World Bank have opened up vast areas for outsiders to exploit and have made possible the destruction of millions of hectares of rainforest and other areas traditionally inhabited by indigenous people, say activists.

For example, they say indigenous people are threatened by the Camisea Natural Gas Project, currently under construction in the Peruvian Amazon and aimed at gaining access to natural gas and liquid petroleum gas (LPG).

With respect to political influence, González said in an interview with IPS that "It’s true that indigenous people have gained political power, but not as much as we could or should have."

"The real power remains in the hands of the traditional politicians and the economic elites, which have exploited, killed and marginalised indigenous people," added the activist.

Since 1994, indigenous movements have brought down governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, and the poorly-armed indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has gained a strong foothold in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Indigenous people have also had a strong influence as legislators, mayors, ministers, governors and even vice-presidents, as in the case of Aymara Indian Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, vice-president of Bolivia from 1993 to 1997.

According to studies by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), there are between 33 and 40 million indigenous people in Latin America, belonging to around 400 different ethnic groups, each of which has its own language, social organisation, cosmovision, economic system, and production model adapted to a specific ecosystem.

The 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the Americas in 1492 prompted the international community to put a special focus on indigenous people.

Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and the United Nations declared the International Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004).

But last year, Menchú told IPS that she was disappointed with what the International Decade had achieved.

In Bolivia and Guatemala, where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, at least 75 percent of indigenous people live in poverty, says the World Bank report.

In the case of Ecuador, 96 percent of the largely indigenous rural population is poor, while in Mexico, the extreme poverty rate is 4.5 percent higher in indigenous municipalities than in non-indigenous areas.

And in Peru, nearly half of all poor households are indigenous.

"If we are not taken into consideration, there are really going to be a lot of problems in the future, and there could even be violence," warned Díaz, whose leftist party, the MAS, is fighting hard against foreign oil companies’ control over Bolivia’s rich natural gas resources.

He added: "In Bolivia, indigenous people comprise 60 percent of the population, but we only hold 27 of the 130 seats in Congress. Something’s not working, wouldn’t you say?"

The World Bank study would seem to back him up.

"The portion of national legislatures that is indigenous, in every country, remains far below the portion (of the population) that is indigenous, implying that indigenous people remain underrepresented in national lawmaking bodies," says the report.

It adds that "International organisations and national governments have passed progressive policies and important constitutional resolutions for indigenous peoples, but the rights guaranteed in those documents are often unrealised."

The World Bank recommends stronger policies in favour of indigenous peoples, to help pull them out of poverty and boost their political representation.

But while González and Díaz both hoped the document would have some effect on World Bank policies and strategies, they said they weren’t holding their breath.

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LATIN AMERICA: Indigenous Leaders Say World Bank Should Take Its Own Advice

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 20 2005 (IPS) - The World Bank should follow its own advice and modify its policies and prescriptions for Latin America, indigenous leaders told IPS.

Republish | | Print |

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