Bolivia, a country with a majority indigenous population, now has its first indigenous president, Evo Morales. Morales, who won the December 2005 presidential election, doesn't just identify as indigenous, he is a fighter for the indigenous cause. His presidency is a massive step forward for indigenous rights — not only in Bolivia, but in Latin America, and possibly even the world.
Morales led a life typical of indigenous Bolivians. He grew up in a poor rural Andean community, where several of his siblings died at birth. He dropped out of high school because of his family's lack of income, and then migrated to the humid tropical jungles of Bolivia's Chapare province (an area of coca farming) to be a young peasant farmer.
In the late 1980s he became part of the leadership of Chapare's militant farmers' union. Working with community networks, the cocaleros (coca growers) movement held protests, marches, sit-ins and road blockades to overturn the Bolivian government's Washington-pushed policy of coca-leaf eradication.
Indigenous people in Latin America, as in the world generally, are frequently the poorest people with the least access to education and condemned to the worst living standards. They are usually marginalised and excluded from government and social participation.
Morales calls it the "500 years of damage" — 500 years of colonialism and extermination. Neoliberalism, he says, has been looting their natural resources and he told the UN General Assembly on September 19 that "privatisation of basic services is the best way of violating human rights".
Almost 90% of Bolivia's productive land is still owned by just 50,000 families, while 80% of the rural population remain in crippling poverty. Agrarian reform has been one of the new government's main priorities. On June 3, Morales decreed a national agrarian reform program, and in Santa Cruz, an eastern Bolivian city, he handed out the first titles under this program, distributing 30,000 square kilometres of state-owned land to rural indigenous communities.
The plan is to redistribute 20 million hectares (a fifth of Bolivia's total land) over the next five years. The government also wants to provide subsidies, credits and equipment to small-scale agricultural producers. Morales has pledged the government's support for "ecological products" and aims to turn Bolivia into an "organic country" that produces crops without chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
It won't be a smooth ride, however. Morales has also said he will confiscate non-productive private land for redistribution, and the large-scale landowners aren't happy. Leaders of the federation representing large landowners walked out of talks with the government in May and warned that they would form paramilitary "self-defence" groups to protect their estates.
In June, Bolivian businessperson Luis del Rio hired a group of Ayoreo indigenous people to attack other indigenous people he said were squatting on property he claimed to own in the eastern part of Santa Cruz.
Optimism towards the agrarian decrees should be cautious. The nationalisation of the energy industry which was decreed in May had to be "temporarily suspended" in August. Nevertheless, Morales's election, on the back of a mass social uprising, has inspired hope in indigenous communities across Latin America.
In his UN speech, Morales talked of a process of Bolivia gaining dignity, including not being bossed around by the US. He called on the UN to approve the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous people, which has taken the past 20 years to put together. This declaration, adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in June, but still being considered for adoption by the UN General Assembly (with Washington and Canberra likely to vote against it), recognises the rights of indigenous peoples to their land and resources and to live as they choose.
It says that indigenous people must be protected from forced assimilation and that the holders, or seekers, of commercial patents on seeds, plants and other forms of traditional knowledge must first obtain consent from the communities that discovered or developed the assets in the first place.
Even if it is adopted, the declaration is merely a recommendation rather than law, but it will hopefully be a further tool that can be used by the indigenous movement in its struggle.
The day before the UN session, Morales held a meeting with tribal leaders from North America. Among other things, they decided to work together to get the Vatican to rescind the Papal Bull of 1493, which declared them heathens and savages. Such formal relations are a positive step towards indigenous people working together globally and starting to end their marginalisation.
Another step was October 12: Previously a day of blood and genocide — marking the day Columbus arrived in the Americas, a symbolic start to the invasion and colonisation by the European powers — it has now been changed into a Day of Indigenous Resistence by the indigenous movement. As Jose Bove, of the International Movement of Farmers, said, it's a day of "visibility of resistance and solidarity in order to transform reality".
At the Second Continental Summit of the Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala held October 8-12, thousands of indigenous representatives met under the slogan "Of the resistance to the power" in La Paz, Bolivia.
The call for the conference explained: "The policies of colonisation are policies of death. The indigenous people and farmers together with the social and popular movements defend the culture of life. Mother earth is being destroyed by interests foreign to us, but we will become the watchers of the future of humanity."
It continued, "In Bolivia we have the indigenous president, Evo Morales Ayma, who, with his example of struggle and his social, political and cultural commitment, inspires the social and popular movements to follow that path and ... to take power".
At the conference, Morales proposed a document that called for the elimination of illiteracy and malnutrition and for a public system that guarantees access to health, education and drinking water and for the generation of sustainable and productive jobs.
He argued for the legalisation of the coca leaf and for fair trade that benefits all of South America. He also proposed energy integration and the creation of a Bank of the South.
The document also had a special section devoted to policies dealing with the preservation of the environment, biodiversity and alternative, sustainable management of natural resources. It strongly supported the recovery of the harmonic coexistence practices of indigenous people with nature.
The aim of the event was to create ties between a large range of indigenous people and rural indigenous organisations and to coordinate action against the neoliberal system.
Conference participants concluded that their next challenge was to create a continental organisation that builds the resistance and responds to the problems indigenous people are facing in their countries.
Rafael Joy, a delegate from Honduras, said that the example that Bolivia is giving is fundamental to the advance of the process of organisation and mobilisation. He said that a strong indigenous resurgence exists. "The indigenous people have a common history, from conquest, colonisation, the republican period ... and representative democracy. Our people and communities have maintained their culture."
Miguel Palsin Quispe, the Andean coordinator of the Indigenous Organisations of Peru, agreed that the La Paz meeting enabled the construction of a common agenda.
The conference's final declaration was strong, serious and salient. It said that despite 514 years of oppression and domination, indigenous people are still here, the colonialists or imperialists have not been able to eliminate them.
It declared that nation states must recognise that the existence of indigenous people has allowed the preservation of biodiversity. This is why they must be given the resources to independently look after themselves rather than promoting the privatisation of their resources and their traditional and spiritual knowledge. Their form of governing must be respected and recognised. If not, their marginalisation will continue.
As well, it condemned US interventionist policy and supported "the struggles of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments who defend free determination". It supported the efforts of Morales's movement to "re-found" Bolivia and called on the world to give solidarity to this process.
These important developments in the indigenous movement have had a particular impact in Guatemala, which, along with Bolivia, is one of the only two other Latin American countries that has a majority indigenous population. So when Morales spoke there recently he had the full attention of his audience (mostly indigenous leaders) in a packed room in the country's national palace.
A key demand for indigenous Guatemalans has been to reclaim their control over natural resources, so when Morales said at this meeting that he was "convinced that indigenous people are the absolute owners of this noble land and the natural resources", it had a lot of resonance.
Mayan communities have been protesting privatisation and mining in Guatemala, which have had a big impact on their lives. In mid-September, hundreds Maya Kekchi indigenous families occupied land owned by a Canadian nickel mining firm. Other indigenous communities have turned to national laws and international conventions on indigenous rights to control development in their territories.
There are 23 linguistic groups in Guatemala and cultural and political divisions have been a significant block in the creation of a national indigenous movement. This is similarly true on a larger scale across the continent.
However, Morales's victory has provided a leg-up to a movement whose real strength and unity is in its diversity. As Morales said at the October 12 conference, the Bolivian government will face many problems, because "it is difficult to change the dark history of 500 years of exclusion that indigenous people lived under". But at the same time, as, the declaration of the conference stated, "a new era has begun for the original indigenous people, the times of change have arrived".