This post was produced for the Global Economic Symposium 2013 to accompany a session on “Social Norms and Moral Principles to Reduce Poverty and Improve Equity.”
Latin America is a region marked by cultural diversity, which is often revealed in unexpected ways. Visit any of Colombia’s cities, for example, and you won’t notice very many indigenous people – just the occasional group looking for handouts on a street corner perhaps. Make your way through Cuzco, Quito, or La Paz, however, and you can’t help but notice their robust presence. The flavors and colors of these places let you know immediately that you are in the land of Quechuas, Aymaras, and countless other indigenous populations that have inhabited these lands, leaving an invaluable historical and cultural legacy.
And although indigenous concerns have been widely discussed at the international level (even the UN has a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues), one has to wonder if the indigenous people themselves are really being included in the decision-making processes of South American governments. Do the worldviews of indigenous populations align with the policies and ideas for development that are promulgated by the (so-called) majority?
The indigenous relationship with the Earth, or Pachamama in Quechua, is a mother-child relationship. What happens, then, when that Earth, which indigenous peoples see in a spiritual and symbolic form, is seen by others as a resource synonymous with development and material enrichment and, above all, unowned and free for the taking?
The indigenous property system is communal, without private property, making it difficult to reconcile with the Western concept that resources are to be owned and traded. Because communal welfare trumps that of the individual in indigenous cultures, the concept of equality both in the creation and distribution of wealth differs from Western thinking.
Governments in South America too often seek to give their countries a financial foothold by clearing areas of their original inhabitants for the sake of business deals. In Colombia, for example, indigenous people in the Department of Cauca have struggled for decades to negotiate numerous land claims processes and avoid the crossfire between the army and guerrillas. Special legal regimes created in Colombia’s constitution allow the country’s indigenous people their own justice system and the freedom to provide healthcare and education in accordance with cultural traditions, yet they still have to appeal to the government to be allowed to live in peace according to their customs and ideals.
Likewise, in Peru, native peoples in Bagua, Cajamarca, and Espinar, to cite the best-known examples, have struggled for years. They have been repeatedly forced to resist the privatization of their land and to cope with the contamination, disease, and loss of land that has accompanied the arrival of multinational companies, especially those in the oil and mining industries.
It is difficult to discuss equality when the values reflected in the laws and protocols to protect indigenous peoples are not respected and when perspectives on development differ so drastically. Initiating meaningful discussion about fairness and equality starts with establishing common ground in the value systems of all of South America’s constituencies. Progress for some cannot constitute a roadblock to others in the building of a better life. In short, all references to “us” and “them” must be removed from the official dialogue to create a platform in which economic growth does not come at the expense of the ancestral legacy of our countries.