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Language of space Politics of indigenous people removal and the ethnopolitics of resistance: The post-colonial diaspora

Stefano Varese

The Oaxaca paradigm

The transnational migration of indigenous people from the Mexican state of Oaxaca to the United States has been increasing at a stable rate since the expansion of globalization at the end of the 1970s. In Mexico, globalization reveals itself through constitutional and institutional state reforms that imply the progressive dismantling of the welfare state, growing pressure toward privatization of the productive infrastructure and the lands of “social interest” (established by the 1917 Agrarian Reform), lands of indigenous communities and ejidos, the annulment of government agricultural credits, and the radical shrinking of the state’s role in rural development. One of the expected results of these state reforms and of their impact on indigenous and rural sectors is the commoditization of lands, territories, and communal resources through the allure of its privatization and sale. Since the reform of article 27 of the Constitution of Mexico and its political and economic implementation beginning in 1997, however, the expected process of privatization and sale of indigenous and rural lands has not come about. The Maya Zapatista insurgency of 1994 sent the clear and loud message that the indigenous people of Mexico (and Latin America) were ready to defend their sovereignty with armed resistance.

The indigenous communities of Oaxaca have responded to the economic, political, and structural attacks by holding on even more tightly to communal property and reaffirming their communal citizenship, which is founded on the collective possession and administration of the territory and the right to exercise communal jurisdiction over it.

How to explain then that in the face of these renewed attacks on indigenous lands and resources over the many decades, there has been an increase in indigenous rural-urban and transnational migration? Can we assume that collective control over the territory is becoming weaker and more vulnerable because of these massive outgoing movements of indigenous people? On the contrary, it seems that migration is increasingly becoming part of community’s survival strategy, which does not imply the structural abandonment of the territory or a permanent deterritorialization of the migrants. The temporary absences of indigenous transnational migrants seem to reinforce, instead, the sense of territoriality and communal-territorial citizenship as much in the migrants as in those that remain behind. There are no obvious indications that the transnational migration is causing the territorial-structural dissolution of the community. This new “distant belonging” of individual and social identity is a hypothesis that should be empirically investigated. Nevertheless, all qualitative approaches to this issue indicate that transnational migrants remain strongly attached to their community and tend to practice circular migration in seasonal cycles tightly intertwined with agricultural and ceremonial activities that take place in the sending community.

The Law on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples and Communities of the State of Oaxaca (Decree N. 266 of July 17th, 1998) is proof of the success of the indigenous peoples' persistent struggle to maintain or regain control over their territory and resources, as well as their full jurisdictional powers. The law on territorial protection and indigenous self-determination was achieved as a result of the organized political struggle of the indigenous communities and people during a period in which the level of migration to the United States and to the urban and agro-industrial zones of Mexico was in full expansion (Varese, Witness to Sovereignty 239-240).

The indigenous community as a place in the universe

Any discussion on indigenous communities and the territorial basis of their sovereignty raises some old sociological questions regarding the definition and scope of community, as well as more recent debates on the function of location/ placement in the social construction of ethnic identity. The classic sociological distinction put forward by F. Tonnies between Gemeinschaft (the community of close, intimate relationships, where kinship, a bound and shared territory, and a common culture dominate the social relations) and Gesellschaft (translated in English as “society,” where relationships are impersonal, contractual, transitory, and calculative rather than affective) has been enriched by British anthropologist Peter Worsley, who has emphasized locality as a constitutive condition of any definitional undertaking. Even for those contemporary communities whose members are scattered around the world and are defined as a type of relationship where communality is expressed as a sense of shared identity rather than a localized social system, the question of locality and spatial location of “community members” may rise time and again as an organizational and political challenge (the Jewish community comes to mind) (Worsley 238-245)?

The preeminent role of space/land/territory in communal definition is particularly tine in the case of the indigenous people of Latin America. For the 50 or so millions indigenous people (Psacharopoulos and Patrinos; Varese, Think Locally), belonging to more than 600 major ethnolinguistic groups, living in thousands of rural communities spread throughout all sort of geographical and environmental zones, issues of territory, land, resources, nature, and the world are intrinsically tied to the cultural conception and social practice of community.

The community is in the first place the village, the geographical space where one was born or where one’s parents and ancestors were born and are buried.

This communal space with names, stories, history, and cosmological references is where the individual and collective identity is constructed in a tight web of meanings expressed in a specific ethnic language or in a local variety of the national language. It is essential to recognize that for indigenous people, the territorial, spatial, locational, and land issues remain at the core of any discussion about meanings of community, ethnicity and politics of cultural identity, cultural reproduction, and autonomy. Consequently, I am addressing my commentaries to the centrality of the notions and practices of space jurisdiction and cultural jurisdiction in indigenous communities as well as the related issues of intellectual sovereignty and epistemological autonomy, which, as I have intended to demonstrate somewhere else, are a set of tightly interwoven questions (Varese, Local Epistemologies).

Recently, the question of Latin American indigenous people's land/terri-tory has been revisited by anthropologists Diaz Polanco, Hale, and Kearney, “Borders and Boundaries,” and by Kearney and Varese, lAReconceptualizing the Peasantry, with a broader more ethnopolitical approach and a less peasant pro-ductivist focus, which has been the dominant mode of study of Latin American indigenous communities since the founding analyses of K. Marx and V. I. Lenin., A.V. Chayanov, J.C. Mariategui, T. Shanin, and the analytical school initiated by E. Wolf (Sons of the Shaking Earth and Peasants). During at least the last eight decades, indigenous people of Latin America have been treated by social scientists as peasants, that is to say that they have been put symbolically in the proverbial “sack of potatoes” of K. Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and have become thus prey of convoluted debates between economic theorists and anthropologists, revolutionaries, and developmentalists. Questions about the cultural and economic autonomy of peasantry, the independent nature of their mode of production, their crucial or marginal role in peripheral capitalism, and the immanent or transitional character of their historical presence have obscured other important cultural and political characteristics of the indigenous people such as their “long historical duration” (in a Braudelian sense) as “autonomous” ethnic entities that have survived and reproduced themselves during millennia throughout different larger social formations (precolonial and colonial states, and contemporary republican nation-states of all political coloring).

It is well known that the extreme civilizational and ethnic diversity of precolonial Native America was reduced by European colonialism to the homogenized and generic sub-alternity of “indios” for purpose of labor control and ideological and political domination. The process produced ruralization, “campesinizacion”/ peasantization of the Indians but also proletarization (through labor in mining, “obrajes” or sweatshops, haciendas, and plantations) and the concurrent phenomena of Indian urbanization. These new multiple indigenous ethnoses that reconfigured themselves throughout the last five centuries of colonial and neocolonial occupation (and that we could define as permanent processes of ethnogenesis) have a series of cultural and social characteristics that understanding goes well beyond limited, if not simplistic, economic analyses framed in terms of EuroAmerican and Eurocentric perspectives and interests.

It is obvious, for instance, that the Formalist-Substantivist debate of the early 1960s about precapitalist societies, the Neoclassical-Marxist ongoing dispute about Third World rural development/revolution, and even the more updated contributions of the “Moral Economy” a la James Scott (The Moral Economy and Weapons of the Weak) and “The Rational Peasant” a la Samuel Popkin are all analytical approaches that privilege a fundamentally Western (and philosophically Enlightened) conception of individual social life and economy: “value” as determined by labor and exchange is at the ethical center of life in civilized society.3 The axis around which the whole society rotates is production of value for exchange. The language of this system is the language of individualism, and increasingly the language of profit; its ethos, its moral code is, since Max Weber-told us in 1905, the spirit of capitalism. The cultural language of this system is also spatially disembodied, it is valid and performable anywhere, in any deterritorialized space. Increasingly, the space of the "exchange value” is uprooted, ungrounded, ethereal, or “cyberial” as Arturo Escobar would say. Indigenous communities and peoples scrutinized with this cultural lens make very little sense. In fact, this type of analysis constitutes a splendid instrament for increasing the frustration of economists, social scientists, and institutions involved in indigenous people' development.

An indigenous epistemological and axiological approach to the relation between individual and society uses instead, to paraphrase Lakota scholar Elisabeth Cook-Lynn, the “language of place”: a language embedded in the locality, in the concrete space where culture is grounded and reproduced in a familiar landscape where naming of things, space, objects, plants, animals, living people, and the dead, the underworld, and the celestial infinity evoke the total cosmic web as an awesome and mysterious social and divine construction. The indigenous cultural language is constructed around a few principles and a cultural logic or a cultural topology that privileges diversity and heterogeneity over homogeneity, eclecticism over dogma, and multiplicity over bipolarity. This is why a paradigmatic shift that accentuates “topos” rather than “logos” is needed to understand indigenous people. This is also why I believe that the beauty of our particular discipline, our intellectual endeavor, is that it does not solve all mysteries: it announces them.

The local and the global

One initial central idea that needs to be clarified is that globalization, for the indigenous communities, is not a new political, economic, and cultural phenomenon, but rather a five-century old arrangement of the world imposed by Europe and Euro-America upon the multiplicity of local social and cultural expressions as a permanent attempt to configure and reconfigure people and resources into an acceptable and naturalized order of things easily exploitable.

A corollary of this remark is that the analytical frame for understanding the local people of this continent - the indigenous people in all their various localized/com-munal/territorial expressions, who since the sixteenth century have succumbed under Euro-American expansionism - must be a global and a hemispheric one.

The local (each indigenous people, culture, ethnohistorical formation) acquires full meaning as long as it is perceived as dialectically constructed within the structure and configuration of colonial and neocolonial power, which since its inception manifested itself as a program of global domination. As a consequence, while the theoretical need for a global approach to the study of indigenous people has its foundations on the logic of the political economy of power (fundamentally the understanding of the role played by indigenous people’s labor, culture, science, and technologies in the monumental accumulation of wealth and power of the Euro-American élites), the need for a hemispheric approach is based on the recognition that the Native People of the Americas in all their cultural diversity share and are part of a common and unique civilization. The most obvious analogy that can be made to illustrate this statement is one drawn out of the cultural history of Europe and the Mediterranean area where many local cultures developed historically within one civilizational matrix (S. Amin). In the Americas, like in the Mediterranean, many peoples and many cultures shared one civilizational unity grounded in millennia of codevelopment.

I would like to expand on this idea of unity and plurality, commonality and diversity among indigenous people by providing some observations with a few strokes of a broad ethnohistorical brush. While polyculture (the practice of biodiversity in agricultural production) seems to be found prevalently in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, it is among the indigenous people of the Americas of different and varied ecosystems where this technology has reached an astounding level of refinement. The Andean and Amazonian chacra and conuco, the Mesoamerican milpa, and the “three sisters” or “sacred triad” of Eastern and Central North America and the South West constitute some of the expressions of a common indigenous conception, throughout thousands of miles and hundreds if not thousands of ethnic groups and cultures. This conception holds that concentrating, nourishing, and developing diversity in the reduced space of human agricultural intervention, as well as in the larger space of economic activity of the entire group, is the most appropriate way of dealing with land, water, animal, botanical, and “resources” conservation, and in general with the preservation and reproduction of the environment and the nurturing of nature.

Clearly, Native American agricultural biodiversity and environmental management are millennial practices and sciences that resulted from early intentional and planned domestication of plants such as corn, beans, squash, chiles, potato, mani-hot, sweet potato, amaranth, peanuts, coca, tomato, avocado, tobacco, and thousands of other cultigens and semi-domesticated plants. What needs to be pointed out is that the extreme variety of indigenous cultigens and semi-domesticated plants is matched by an equally diverse and multiple use of the environment and a systematic cultural preoccupation for maintaining and increasing the diversity of the biosphere. Polyculture and the intentional maintenance of biodiversity are historical realities, but also metaphors of the indigenous people’s cultural gravitation toward diversity rather than homogeneity, eclecticism rather than dogma.

Polyculture, the nurturing of biodiversity, and the multiple use of the environment seem to constitute the crucial conception of what has been called by James

Scott (Scott 1976) the “moral economy” ofpeasants-indigenous people. This axial cultural notion, which operates along the “principle of diversity,” accompanies and shapes the whole cosmology of innumerable Amerindian societies that place at the center of the universe not the man (the anthropocentric, patriarchal, dominant character of both the sacred and secular history of Euro-America) but rather diversity itself expressed in the multiplicity of deities with their polymorphic characteristics and at times contradictory functions. The ancient Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl is serpent, bird, and human at the same time. He is historical cultural hero on his way back to repossess the stolen Indian world and he is Morning Star. He is also the fragile and vulnerable humanistic holy principle that privileges the sacrifice to the gods of jades and butterflies instead of human offerings. He certainly does not stand at the center of the Mesoamerican Indian cosmologies because there is no center but rather an intricate polyphony of symbols and values, a “spiritual polyculture,” a “sacred milpa,” a “holy chacraf and an infinite domain for the encounter and interaction of diversity.

The Biblical and Judeo-Christian foundations of the anthropocentric Mediterranean and Euro-American worldview that establishes a confrontational relation between humans and nature, men and animals, forests, mountains, jungles, and deserts have been analyzed thoroughly by recent studies (Amin and Sale, among others). This representation of the world and the resulting human positioning in it demands the homogenization of the surroundings and of nature in order to control, subjugate, and exploit both. Even Marxism, as the secular revolutionary version of the Judeo-Christian utopian thought, pays homage to this dichotomous view of the world where humans are separated from the rest of nature and struggling to control it. Recently James C. Scott has explored extensively the cultural obsession of homogenization in societies ruled by élite classes engaged in statebuilding projects. The simplification, and thus the legibility and possibility of administrative manipulation, of nature and society is a sine qua non condition of every political system that aims at centralization and concentration of power and the concomitant subjugation of local autonomy and epistemological sovereignty. Precolonial indigenous states such the Mexica-Tenochtla, the Mixtecs, the Zapotees, the Maya or the Inca, just to mention the most renowned, do not show indications of having had interest in homogenizing the occupied natural and social space. In fact, it has been well documented that precolonial indigenous tributary states practiced a sort of cultural, ideological, and spiritual inclusive eclecticism that contributed to the constant growth and increasing complexity of their multicultural societies (Clendinnen and Murra).

In contrast to Euro-American anthropocentrism, the indigenous people of the Americas for millennia seem to have constructed cosmos-centric and polycentric cosmologies based on the logic of diversity and the logic of reciprocity. A diverse cosmos, in which no center is privileged, no singularity is hegemonic. A world that is constantly enriched by the interaction of each of its elements, even those that are antithetical, requires a moral code (a customary code of behavior) based on the logic of reciprocity. Whatever is taken has to be returned in similar and comparable “value.” Whatever I receive (good, gift, service, resource) I willhave to reciprocate at some point with similar and comparable value. What I take from Earth has to be returned, what I give to Earth or to the gods or my human counterparts will be given back to me. Sociologist of religion, G. Van Der Leeuw synthesized splendidly many decades ago this civilizational logic with the Latin formula: “Do ut possis dare,” “I give so that you can give.”

It would be simplistic and reductionist to argue that this whole millennial civilizational proposition of the indigenous people of the Americas could be condensed in the descriptive equivalence that these are “agrocentric societies” that have historically favored agricultural development at the expense of other areas of social and cultural growth. I am suggesting, instead, that both the principles of diversity and the principle of reciprocity have been and are present in the economic, social, political, and cultural life of indigenous societies that have established their ethnic distinctiveness on foraging activities (gathering, hunting, and fishing), or in more recent colonial and neocolonial times in a “mixed” economy that has combined wage labor, petty mercantile activities, and sub-subsistence horticulture. At the end of thousands of year of evolvement and their incorporation into social and cultural formations that advance opposite values, the majority of indigenous people of the Americas that have not been totally destroyed by the dominant national societies (and their capitalist Weltanschauung') are still struggling to live their social lives guided by these principles.

Obviously, for contemporary indigenous people, life in the midst of a permanent contradiction between the “culture of use value,” guided by the logic of diversity and reciprocity, and the “culture of exchange value,” guided by the logic of homogenization and individualistic profit, is fraught with tremendous ambiguities and conflicts. This tension between two logics - two sets of principles, which can be summarized as culture of economy of use and culture of economy of profit - characterizes the social, economic, and cultural life of the great majority of indigenous people and communities of Latin America. The acrid polemics that for decades have torn apart Substantivists and Formalists, Marxists and neoclassical economists, and that are now confronting the Mayan Zapatistas of Chiapas with neoliberal bureaucrats turned into aspirant bankers, reveal at a magnified scale the degree of penetration of capitalist Weltanschauung into every interstice of world’s societies.

There are currently in the United States thousands of indigenous migrants from Latin America, and especially from Mexico. For transnational Indian migrants who are coming from Mexico and Central and South America to the United States, the issue of “communal citizenship” is of vital importance. Indian migrants can spend many years as farm workers or cooks in California and keep their social position within their home community in Mexico as long as they contribute annually with the communal well-being by participating in the ceremonies of reciprocity.

Reciprocity may consist in performing different annual social and political tasks, sponsoring one of the Patron Saint “fiestas,” participating routinely in communal public service (tequio or faena in Mexico, minga in the Andes) or carrying out civic responsibilities within the organization of the community (the Cargo System). None of these activities is paid for, on the contrary each activity and commitment may cost a small fortune to the community’s member. Why does a Mixtec or Chinantec or Zapotec living in California feel obliged to return to his/her community in the Southern state of Oaxaca to perform an onerous, burdensome, and expensive duty? What is at issue here is the moral strength of the collective demand of being an active participant in the life of one’s own community. Indian communal citizenship has to be renewed and nurtured by its carrier through a series of ritualized acts and social functions that are based on the logic of reciprocity. Each member of the indigenous community is aware of the link that exists within all its members and wants to ensure that everyone else recognizes his/her contributions to the well-being of the collective body. Here the logic of reciprocity overrules the opposite logic of individualism and accumulation/ profit that leads and regulates social life outside the indigenous community.

There are some central questions that require further analysis: How much of these indigenous civilizational principles and logic are still present in contemporary indigenous peoples? How has the expansion of capitalist economy and worldview affected the various indigenous people? Can we naively assume the existence of numerous indigenous people-communities relatively unadulterated by the opposite logic of individualism, profit, commoditization, and primacy of "exchange value” over "use value”?

Let us assume the hypothesis that the thousands of indigenous communities of Latin America (40 to 60/70 million indigenous people and hundreds of ethnolin-guistic groups) can be divided in the following schematic typology: (1) agrarianpeasant communities, increasingly relying on external wage labor and circular migration; (2) indigenous communities of horticulturists who rely still very much on foraging, hunting, and gathering; and (3) proletarianized rural and urban indigenous people who rely mostly on wage labor at the level of sub-employment and/ or temporary employment.

Clearly, a class analysis must be introduced in this typology to disclose the presence, in most of the indigenous ethnic people, of a small élite of intelligentsia and professionals, a petty bourgeoisie linked in most cases to nation-state bureaucracy and services, and in some cases of a flourishing bourgeoisie (some clear examples are to be found among the Isthmus Zapotecs of Mexico, and the Guajiro of Venezuela).

How did the process of transformation of the indigenous people take place during the last few centuries? and how are the transformations produced today by the globalization and the induced transnational migration and diaspora affecting the indigenous people’s relation to their territory, their homeland? Obviously, these are questions that would require much more space and time that the one I have in this opportunity. I postulate, nevertheless, that a historical analysis within a Ferdinand Braudel’s perspective of the “Longue Durée”/Long Duration is absolutely indispensable if we are to understand not the “eventful history” but the more permanent cultural and social characteristics of indigenous societies.

As we consider indigenous people, we are looking at millennia of accumulated history, trends, cultural characteristics that have survived and have adapted to many radical, social, and economic changes occurred through millennia of the

Language of space 177 precolonial time, centuries of colonialism-imperialism (which produced fragmented mosaics of territorialized “Indian community,” the early Indian diaspora, and Indian proletariat), more than one century of nationalism (which accentuated the expansion and penetration of capitalist market in indigenous territories), and finally, a few more decades of the transnationalism and globalization (which is inducing Indian neo-diaspora, transnational migration, and processes of cyclical deterritorialization).

In this schematic chronology, I think it is important to emphasize the understanding of formative period of millennia of pre-Colombian, pre-European, preinvasion, preconquest, or "independent indigenous evolvement” as that of construction of polycentric cosmology as well as polycentric social practice that Eurocentrism would later call polytheism and misinterpret by confusing diversity with chaos and disorder. This is the complex of bio-cultural diversity that has been attributed by anthropologists to early indigenous social formation of foragers, hunters and gatherers, horticulturists, and agrarian societies that evolved in the tropics. Is biodiversity an exclusive function of the tropics? It is evident that there is more biodiversity in subtropical and tropical zones; however, even in temperate climates and sub-arctic regions, biodiversity seems to be the central characteristic of indigenous people’s culture.

Reciprocity is the associated and homologous social and cultural principle of biodiversity. A principle that supports the whole logic of social interaction as well as the whole moral of cosmic transactions, those arrangements that take place between humans and the rest of the tangible and intangible universe. American Indian languages are repositories of these intellectual and practical constructions and hundreds of terms can be found in Amerindian semantic fields that refer to reciprocal social and cosmic transactions. The Zapotec guzt'in y guelaguetza, the Nahuatl tequistl, tequio, the Quechua mit’a, ayni, and the Ashaninca ayumparii are only some examples of terms that refer to elaborate cultural institutions of diversity and reciprocity. Even in historical societies that were organized hierarchically in social classes like those of Mesoamerica and Andes, the logic of reciprocity was at the basis of every exchange of goods, services, labor, tributes, and gifts. The tributary system was based on the principle of reciprocity, which could be symmetrical, asymmetrical, and/or differed. In any case, complementarity is the logical and practical concurrent principle of diversity and reciprocity that allowed, for instance, the Andean peoples to build the elaborate and monumental agroecological system based on the combined vertical use of different ecosystems or “ecological floors” distributed at different altitudes of the Andes (Murra, and Dollfus). In the case of the Amazon region, a similar principle made it possible for indigenous people to establish a macro-system of horizontal complementarity in a large geographical area in which scarce and scattered resources such as salt, stone axes, or the hunting poison “curare” could be circulated and exchanged by larger numbers of people separated by thousands of miles (Varese, "Los grupos etnolinguisticos”). Mesoamerica expressed the same principles of reciprocity, diversity, and complementarity through the “solar market system,” which articulates the people of numerous and diverse villages and regions inperiodical encounters for the exchange of goods, ideas, ceremonies, and culture (Wolf).

Spatial jurisdiction and the right to remain home

Indigenous communities, throughout the Americas, are an essential component of civil society. In fact, indigenous citizens/communities are one of the most critical elements of civil society since they are the permanent testimony of the strength and endurance of alternative and diverse cultures and civilizational projects. They are the evidence that even the most oppressed and exploited sector of civil society can enrich the political counterculture and the popular counter-hegemonic social project. The political society, on the other hand, has been a banned territory for indigenous people in colonial and neocolonial situations. This political territory is where the rules of the game are established, where rewards and punishments are determined, where the hegemonic societal vision is generated and imposed as the exclusive social truth. It is within this polar and dialectical context that the issue of indigenous sovereignty and the prerogative of exercising territorial jurisdiction must be analyzed, especially in relation to the protection mechanisms that must be in place to safeguard the powerless from the powerful.

It is obvious that the fundamental conditions for the full exercise of indigenous sovereignty lay, in the first instance, in the collective ownership of the land/terri-tory and jurisdictional control over that territory/land. Political self-determination, social autonomy, and economic independence are the requirements of indigenous sovereignty and frill jurisdiction.

As far as I know, there are, in Latin America, only a few clear-cut cases of state legislation that recognize indigenous territorial jurisdiction, one is the Bill of Rights of the Indigenous People and Communities of the State of Oaxaca, Mexico (enacted by the State Congress in June 1998). This law resulted from the straggle of indigenous organizations and the Oaxaca State government’s preoccupation after de Maya Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas (1994). The Organization of American States (OAS) during its 95th Regular Session of February 1997 proposed the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in which the rights to self-government and the application of indigenous legal system within their territories is recognized and recommended to nation-states. The OAS Declaration cannot be enforced nor can the International Labor Office (ILO) Covenant 169, even when ratified by various governments of Latin America. It is only under specific national legislation (or State legislation in case of countries with federal governments like Mexico) that indigenous communal-territorial titles can be given with the clause that the title includes community jurisdiction.4

A major question remains: What political institution (national, international, global) is accountable for the safeguard of the indigenous people rights to sovereignty? The neo/post-colonial nation-states in Latin America were built on the ethnic-assimilationist assumption and the explicit goal of homogenizing all the citizens included within their boundaries in one national culture, one national language. Two hundred years of failed attempts have modified some of the tenets of the Latin American nation-state. Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia are beginning to rethink their Constitutions, opening some space for a new more inclusive and pluralistic definition of the nation-state that allows for the expression of ethnic diversity within the nation and its institutions. The challenge to the implementation by the nation-state of policies of multiethnicity is coming now from the increasing trend of globalization and its manifestation at the national level: the dismantling of the welfare state, the growing political intrusion of transnational corporate interests, and the diminished accountability of national and local government vis-á-vis its multiethnic communities. As the nation-state is reconfiguring itself to finally accept the multicultural composition of the various peoples that form the nation, the same state is being transformed and minimized in its protective role to serve the interests of a neoliberal global project that requires uncontrolled, de-regulated, subservient national administrations with no power to protect and safeguard the diverse communities and citizens of the country. I want to make it clear that the dismantling of the protective state does not mean the reduction of its repressive apparatus, in fact this may even increase, sometimes through the privatization of police force and even the army.

At this point of the journey, it seems that the defense of the indigenous peoples’ rights is left to themselves and to broad-based pan-indigenous alliances with the national and “global civil society.” That “globalization from below” (mentioned by international legal expert Richard Falk), which is emerging with increasing force in grassroots movements and organizations in the northern hemisphere but also, once more, with revolutionary strength in what used to be the periphery or the Global South, is probably the new scenario of indigenous organized resistance. The nation-states - and their international political organizations such as the UN or financial organizations such as the WB, the IMF, the WTO, etc. - have systematically failed to respond to indigenous peoples’ historical claims of territorial recognition and their demands for stricter enforcement of human, political, and cultural rights. After many years of debates at the UN, within the Sub-commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, on October 28, 1994, the indigenous peoples presented the Resolution 1.994/45 Project of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. In yet another demonstration of their unwillingness to recognize any specific cultural rights and degrees of autonomy for the indigenous peoples, the English-speaking nation-states (United States, Australia, New Zealand and, until recently, Canada) have rejected the project and have not ratified the ILO Covenant 169 for the protection of the human and political rights of indigenous peoples. The time seems to be appropriate, and some of the signs are visible, for the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the world (all the stateless peoples) to begin to organize a global united indigenous people organization that can counterbalance the authoritarian international political society with a democratic and multiethnic civil society that represents, defends, and secures indigenous sovereignty.

In a world where outgoing migration or forced expulsion from the land of the community and the commons seems to be the alternative of choice of dysfunctional and absentee governments, the right to stay put, to remain in the land of the ancestors, has to be protected and defended as the most precious possession of indigenous peoples for their own survival as testimony of millennia of civilizational promise.


  • 1 This chapter is based on previous published and unpublished works in which I dealt with themes of territoriality, ethnic/cultural identity, forced removal of indigenous peoples, migrations, and ethnopolitical reconfigurations; see Stefano Varese “Identidad y destierro"; Pueblos indios. Soberanía y globalismo; “The Territorial Roots of Latin American Indigenous Peoples”; Stefano Varese y Sylvia Escárcega, La ruta mixteca; and Varese, Witness to Sovereignty.
  • 2 See also Jameson, and especially Appadurai.
  • 3 This is the line of thought established by Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) and followed by Karl Marx’s Capital (1867-1894).
  • 4 There are in Latin America a series of legislative initiatives that are aiming at correcting the long-standing tradition of Eurocentric legal system that tends to exclude people and communities that are perceived as alien and inferior. Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia are at the forefront of some of these reformist initiatives that are supported - if not promoted - by the United Nations, the International Labor Office, and in a few cases even by the Organization of American States and legally enforced - in some cases - by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.


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