Indigenous Autonomy for Grassroots Development

In Latin America, as in large parts of Asia and Africa, colonial powers established an economic system by which they could extract resources and surplus production from the colonized and accumulate that wealth in Europe and the European-dominated trade centers of the world. This was held in place by the hierarchical social structure based on race, gender and the colonizer/colonized distinction. Indigenous peoples as well as African slaves were kept subservient, laying the foundation for their disadvantaged position within Latin America even as these countries were disadvantaged within the world economy. These relations are the basis of oppression of the Indian/black populations within each of those countries today.

In the Andes and Mesoamerica, criollo elites used the power they inherited from the colonial regime to maintain control over the states which emerged in the early nineteenth century. Free from the economic restrictions formerly imposed by Spain, these elites consolidated a new and profitable agrarian regime based on large estates to produce raw materials for the capitalist market. These estates grew at the expense of the surrounding indigenous communities by dispossessing them of their lands, weakening their traditional organization and incorporating their members into a rural labor force. Since World War II, this system has come under pressure from tow sources: 1) the rapid expansion and diversification of capitalist agriculture and 2) the emergence of rural political movements demanding agrarian reform.

Time and again, the indigenous population challenged colonial and republican regimes demanding their lands, political control over their resources and labor, and autonomy.

In more remote regions, two factors recently ended the isolation of indigenous populations. First, the post-World War II expansion of capitalist agriculture in highland areas uprooted thousands of indigenous peasants who were encouraged by state-sponsored programs to colonize frontier areas. Second, in their search to lay claim to the supply of the world's resources, Western countries have worked closely with Latin American states to consolidate their control over isolated regions, and to exploit the resources found there. In the curse of this process, Indian territories have been invaded and colonized, indigenous economies have been disrupted, and survival of entire indigenous economies has been seriously threatened.

Under current circumstances indigenous peoples cannot significantly change their situation of colonial and class oppression without establishing alliances with non-Indian political forces. However, it is also clear that unless Indian groups have a clear platform for their own autonomous development and insist on it as a condition for their alliance, they will end up as the subordinated partner, once again the victims of colonial domination.

During the past several decades, a variety of such platforms for long-range autonomous development have been emerging from the experiences of indigenous peoples, especially in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. through these experiences, indigenous peoples have begun to redefine the notion of development to give it a long-range projection - planning for future generations - a broader scope - ritual, cosmology, art and human relations are integrated into the process - and popular political dimension - men and women in community assemblies are making the decisions. Indian peoples in these countries, through a growing federative movement, are demanding the power to develop their societies for their future generations in the direction they choose; at the same time they are demanding a larger portion of the wealth generated by their resources and their labor.

Clearly these initiatives are coming from those indigenous communities that survived four centuries of colonial domination with relative economic independence, cultural integrity and a solid sense of WE as a people. These peoples still have the cultural and organizational resources to create alternatives for their own development and to assume control. They are taking the lead in demonstrating the possibilities for autonomous development.

I would like to lay out some of the theoretical and practical guidelines for the autonomous development of indigenous peoples as they are emerging from the South American experience. I will frame these guidelines in terms of four fundamental questions that one must ask of any development effort among indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Control of Planning

Question 1: Is the indigenous community in control of the conceptualization, planning and implementation of their development?

Autonomous development begins with the community's vision of a future it wants to build, the values it wants to promote and of the history it wants to make. It is not a program "for" the Indian communities designed and planned by outsiders; it is development by the indigenous communities within the guidelines of their own historical development. The difference is a question of power and who has it. A truly autonomous program means that indigenous communities have regained control over the course their societies and cultures will take.

This power is exercised by local peoples in assemblies or whatever form they choose to discover and express the consensus of the community. Community and federative forms of organization, both traditional and not, play an extremely important role in the decision-making process and in the implementation of specific programs and policies. Therefore, they must be strengthened and encouraged to take on new roles to both articulate the will of the community and implement programs.

Coercion by the state, religious missions, political parties, economic or academic interests undermine the community decision-making process and often divide the community, ultimately reinforcing the structures that dominate indigenous peoples. A little-noticed source of tension and conflict for indigenous groups can be attributed to the efforts of urban-based NGOs who, often with the best of intentions, establish development projects for indigenous communities. When the community challenges the wisdom or power of the NGO, as any maturing grassroots organization will ultimately do, the latent paternalism and self-interest of the NGO staff all too often comes to the fore. The ensuing struggle focuses primarily on access to and control over private funding sources form the industrialized countries. Many indigenous communities and organizations are beginning to take the important step of establishing relations directly with funding sources, rather than depending on intermediary NGOs.

However, the community must be free to consult with or to delegate specific tasks to either the appropriate state agencies, private agencies or individuals. Many aspects of the autonomous development process must be collaborative effort between the community and outsiders who can provide specific skills and/or financial assistance. However community needs to maintain control over crucial project parameters. It must move at its own pace and not at the pace of the "experts." And it must retain the final say on matters of scale. The lure of big projects, large sums of money and quick results is a sure way for the community to lose control of its own development.

In the long run a determining factor for the success of an autonomous development program is the relationship between the state and indigenous peoples. Until these relations are decolonized and the state can recognize de jure its own plural character, there will be little guarantee that successive state regimes will respect decisions for plural development patterns. The key issue here is self-determination which needs to be carefully thought through and tailored to the historical circumstances of each indigenous nation.

Indigenous Control of Land and Resources

Question 2: Does the indigenous community exercise control over its territory and over all the resources found within the limits of the territory?

Indigenous peoples cannot have control over their own development if they do not control their territory and its resources. States, therefore, must recognize indigenous land claims and cede control over the material and cultural resources fund within those territories as the inalienable property of communities. Historically in Latin America, this point has been the fundamental obstacle in the relationship between states and the indigenous peoples over which they claim jurisdiction.

In a recent week-long seminar organized by the Confederation of Indian Peoples of the Eastern Bolivian Lowlands (CIDOB), representatives of 10 indigenous groups and of Bolivia's popular organizations met to discuss CIDOB's proposal on indigenous territoriality. Two important conclusions of this historic event strengthen land rights arguments. First, indigenous territory must be socially defined; that is, its boundaries must be defined in terms of the historical limits of usufruct exercised by the community. Furthermore, each nation must define which social grouping will make the claim: a settlement, a kindred, a clan, related clans, an entire nation or a federation of related ethnic groups.

Second, a territory includes all the resources found therein. Most Latin American states recognize indigenous rights only to the surface soil while allocating either exclusive state rights or private rights by third parties to sub- and supra-soil resources.

The CIDOB meeting did not address directly the difficult issue of defining indigenous control over its territory. The fundamental question is, What are the limits of indigenous territorial autonomy within the state structure? Who arbitrates disputes between the indigenous group and the state? Does the state continue to exercise the right of eminent domain? Under which circumstances? These are other issues of self-determination are certainly central, for example, to negotiations for Atlantic Coast autonomy in Nicaragua.

Like the notion of territory, the concept of resources needs to be clarified so that community control can be more precisely defined. Bonfil (1981) suggests that resources be broadly defined into four categories: material, organizational, intellectual and symbolic/emotional. Definitions of each category of resources and suggested guidelines for community control follow.

1. Material resources include soil, subsoil minerals, water, plants and animals. Autonomous development is conditioned by exclusive community proprietorship and control over all material resources within its territory. The use of those resources within its territory. The use of those resources must be governed by custom or by collective decision to the benefit of the entire community. If equitable systems of internal control and decision-making do not exist, they need to be worked out.

As new production systems are introduced into the community, new environmental problems will emerge for which there are no local solutions. The state should encourage the community to combine its traditional conservation practices with sounds environmental management techniques to ensure that the land and its resources are not mismanaged. The development of community resources should be guided by the needs of future generations, not by the imperatives of immediate profit.

2. Organizational resources of the community include traditional forms of integrating people for a common enterprise. Within its territory, a community should be free to express its own organizational forms for political, economic and cultural purposes. Communities may choose nonindigenous forms of organization consistent with the overall goals of their development when traditional forms are inadequate.

The state and other extracommunity institutions (especially those that are partisan) often impose organization forms on indigenous communities, however, in an attempt to consolidate their control over the peoples in question. This issue is currently being debated in Bolivia, where in areas of Oruro, Potosí and Chuqisaca, the ayllu (traditional organization) Andean-Quechua community - through a complex system of elected leadership - continues to regulate social, economic and political life among Andean peoples. Some rural workers argue that the ayllu is an easily corruptible, antiquated form of organization that is incapable of defending and furthering the economic and political interests of its members. Some NGOs are working to establish alternative peasant groups as channels for external funds and for establishing political alliances. Others argue that the ayllu structure, having survived 450 years of one of the worst colonial regimes in history, is flexible and well suited to represent its members' interests and carry out programs of autonomous development.

3. Intellectual and symbolic resources are extremely important in maintaining cultural coherence. At the same time they are vulnerable to the structures of domination as they are transmitted almost exclusively through oral and ritual means in the indigenous tongue. The gravest threat to this resource base is public education and religious instruction as promoted by the state, by private religious instruction as promoted by the state, by private religious missions or by some combination of the two. Whether by design or not, both public education and religious instructions tend to supplant indigenous intellectual and symbolic resources with those of the dominant society, progressively impoverishing the former.

Autonomous development promotes the restructuring of public education in order to accomplish the following: a. The exercise of full control by the community over the content, structure and delivery of public education; and b. Transmission of useful skills and knowledge from nonindigenous formal education while retaining traditional intellectual and symbolic resources as the basis for educating each generation. Many attempts are currently being made by indigenous groups in South America to reassert influence over the education of their children. In Ecuador, the Andean indigenous movement ECUARUNARI has made this a primary political objective. The Fundacion Runacanapac Yachana Wasi of the Canton Simiatug, Ecuador, is a federation of 20 communities that has for a decade run its own community-based, bilingual school system with a central radio transmitter to broadcast both educational and cultural programs.

Indigenous Self-Sufficiency

Question 3: Does the program for development promote self-sufficiency and economic independence of the indigenous community?

Until recently, all indigenous communities had the skills, knowledge and resources to satisfy their own needs. Through the process of development and incorporation of these people into the market economy, many have lost these resources and have joined the ranks of the rural or urban poor. Autonomous development could recover these resources by strengthening the following:

1. subsistence agriculture with an emphasis on local varieties of food crops, local domesticated animals, and traditional agricultural and animal husbandry technology;

2. nonagricultural sources of food from hunting, fishing and gathering with an emphasis on traditional knowledge of local flora and fauna paired with conservation or management;

3. local manufacture for domestic use - including pottery, basket-making, spinning, weaving, woodcarving - with an emphasis on the accumulated knowledge of the materials, techniques and styles employed; and

4. the construction of homes and community buildings with an emphasis on the use of local materials, construction techniques and architectural styles.

Currently, bits and pieces of this strategy are emerging. Projects supporting traditional health practices are now becoming fairly common throughout the Andean republics. AMETRA, a Shipibo initiative in central Peru, works with health promoters trained in Western medicine and encourages them to integrate herbal medicines and ritual practices into their approach.

When community members enter regional and national market economies, attempts to increase productivity for the market should not sacrifice community control over the production and marketing process. While markets inevitably dictate the types of production that are commercially viable, communities should work toward exercising control over the resources used for production, the technology employed, the organization of production, the community labor supply, capital inputs and the marketing process.

Material Resources: Commercial production in indigenous communities is largely based on local natural resources. It is essential that the state recognize the inalienable proprietary rights of the community to all material resources within its territory.

Technology: The technology employed for commercial production should be readily available, inexpensive and understandable to community members. Thus, local crop varieties could be cultivated rather than sophisticated hybrid varieties. And local production techniques could be used rather than imported ones. Presently in the Andean highlands, state agricultural banks and extension services encourage indigenous farmers to utilize technological packages (improved seed potatoes that are dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, nematecides) developed by international research centers. This push - aimed largely at producing more and cheaper food for the urban market - pays little attention to the state of dependency, social stress and conflict it causes among rural Indian communities. Very little of the work being done in the Andean region focuses on improving the productivity of traditional agriculture.

If new tools are incorporated into the production process, they should be inexpensive and, with training, easily managed and repaired by community members. Mechanization should increase the productivity of labor rather than replace it.

Organization of Production: Currently commercial production is organized in a variety of ways within indigenous communities in Latin America. Organization is determined in part by the type of production (agricultural, cattle raising, lumbering, manufacture) and by the need to balance efficiency and high productivity on the one hand, and the exigencies of the local cultural milieu - the demands of family and community life - on the other. The choice of organizational form, with room for experimentation, must rest with the community.

Often, the orientation of the NGO, missionary or state employee becomes the rationale for imposing one of another organizational form on production within a community. The on-the-ground struggle between those who impose "private" family or individual-based production systems and those who impose "collective" community-based production systems largely reflects the ideological struggles among urban political interests rather than only pragmatic assessment of community needs.

Community Labor: Autonomous development should employ community labor to further self-sufficiency rather than to enhance capital accumulation outside of the community. Indigenous organizations must work with the state to eliminate exploitative and abusive labor practices involving indigenous peoples.

Capital Input: Because of the low level of capital accumulation within most indigenous communities, development initiatives depend to a large degree on outside sources for initial funding. Commercial loans are not feasible due to the high risk to the lender due to the lack of collateral and the high cost to the borrower. The communities, state and private funding agencies need to collaborate in the development of a source of low interest, long-term capital to fund programs for indigenous peoples.

However, an important objective must be to increase capital accumulation within the community in order to lessen dependence on outside sources. CEDEAGRO, a Bolivian NGO and the Potato Producers Association of Cochabamba, a federation of 360 potato-producing Quechua communities have been learning how to administer a revolving credit fund so that both the fund and the peasant groups are able to increase their capital. The initial capital was provided by a consortium of European and North American sources.

Marketing: Because external factors determine the price paid for products entering the market, the cost of inputs (tools, seeds, fertilizers, etc.) and of consumer goods the community has little direct control over these factors. However, a conscientious study of marketing processes can point out strategies for improving their advantage within the marketplace. For example, individual small producers can gain an advantage by buying and selling cooperatively, thus bypassing the middlemen who accumulate most of the profits from commercial transactions. Both AIDESEP of Peru and CIDOB of Bolivia have adopted this strategy and are coordinating its implementation among some of their members. The Organization of Aguaruna of the Alto Mayo (OAAM) is developing several community storage depots, including a major one in the port town of Tarapoto. OAAM will run a marketing scheme through which produce from the communities will be collected in depots and sold cooperatively in the Tarapoto market; then trade goods, also bought more cheaply in large quantities, will be passed along the chain and sold to community members. While the idea is sound, the success of the enterprise depends largely on the efficiency of its operation.

A community-controlled transport system can further increase a product's market value while decreasing the cost of the purchased inputs. The Aguaruna Huambisa Council of the Marañon River (CAH) has established a service to train and supply community mechanics to repair the many motorboats owned by CAH community members.

Indigenous Sociocultural Bonds

Question 4: Does the development process strengthen the social and cultural bonds of the community and affirm the sense of historical identity and cultural dignity of the community members?

Indigenous communities have integrative mechanisms that promote social solidarity. These mechanisms permitted societies to survive European invasion and 500 years of European domination. Reciprocity, for example, discourages individual accumulation of surplus or the monopolization of resources. Instead it encourages the redistribution of goods and resources among blood and fictive kin, thus creating bonds of mutual obligation and dependence within the community. It is a major ingredient in the glue that holds indigenous society together.

Autonomous development should emphasize the interests and long-range collective goals of indigenous societies over those of the individual by reinforcing the interdependence and bonds of the society's members.

An indigenous sociocultural system is a complex network of relationships. Current models of development tend to emphasize only some aspects of that network - most often economic production - to the detriment of others. Long after such lopsided development has taken place, evaluators lament the breakdown in community social relations, the incipient formation of class lines, the erosion of religious and moral foundations, or perhaps the physical disintegration of the community, all of which accompanied the rise in production and productivity indicators.

Community-controlled autonomous development would not willingly sacrifice some parts of the cultural whole in order to develop others. It is based on an understanding and respect for the integrative function of different aspects of a society. The great challenge for indigenous societies is to engage in a dialogue with industrial capitalism, both state-run and private, incorporating useful features of that alien system, while at the same time affirming the integrity and equilibrium found in indigenous culture and society.

Identity - the sense of who you are as an individual though inseparable part of a community - and dignity - the sense that who you are is worthy of your own respect and that of the others - are essential for autonomous development. Without them, people are not capable of assuming the power that autonomy implies. The autonomous development of indigenous peoples recognizes and promotes the importance of each people's history of itself and of each people's particular world-view. It does so by affirming the intrinsic value of each community's cultural priorities and their right to follow those within the context of the state. But it also demands that states decolonize and divest themselves of the structures of domination which restrict pluralistic creativity and growth. Autonomous development affirms cultural variation as an important national resource and local autonomy as the means of perpetuating that resource.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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