Latin America: Indigenous People Gaining Ground (On Paper)

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 5 (IPS) - For the first time ever, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has devoted a chapter to indigenous peoples in its annual Social Panorama report on the region.

In it, countries are urged to recognise the individual and collective rights of ethnic groups, including the right to self-determination.

"Although most of the States in Latin America have made constitutional and legislative changes to recognise indigenous rights, the balance of the last few decades is critical, with evidence of rules being either ineffective or breached," the U.N. agency's Social Panorama of Latin America 2006 report concludes.

"The data available show evidence of structural discrimination against indigenous people that takes the form of marginalisation, exclusion and poverty and places indigenous people systematically in the lowest income quintiles in each country," said the document, which was released Monday in the Chilean capital.

In Latin America, there are 671 indigenous peoples recognised as such by states, and according to census information collected in 2000, the number of people identifying themselves as indigenous was over 30 million.

Peru, Mexico, Bolivia and Guatemala have the largest indigenous populations, ranging from 4.6 to 8.4 million people. Next, there is a group of five countries, including Chile, that have indigenous populations of between 500,000 and one million. Finally there is a group of eight countries, like Nicaragua or El Salvador, with less than half a million indigenous people each.

Most indigenous people live on their ancestral lands in rural areas, but a series of factors such as poverty, land degradation, "invasions" by outside settlers and the interests of local and transnational companies are driving them to migrate to other rural or urban areas.

In general, indigenous populations are young or very young, and have higher fertility rates than the rest of the population, notes the report. It also points out that original peoples have burst on to the scene as social and political actors in the last 20 years.

"The stand taken by the indigenous movement towards the development agendas and official policies brought about in recent years a whole series of constitutional changes and advances in legislation" which were of major importance for the ethnic groups, Fabiana del Popolo told IPS.

Del Popolo is an Argentine expert at the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre (CELADE), part of ECLAC's Population Division.

Two of these advances are the International Labour Organisation (ILO)'s Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, and the recent Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, drafted by the new Human Rights Council in June 2006, which has not yet been approved by the U.N. General Assembly.

These treaties establish the rights to self-determination, non-discrimination, cultural integrity, own, use, control and have access to land and natural resources, development and social welfare, and political participation.

To date, 13 Latin American countries have ratified Convention 169, but this has not necessarily resulted in improvements to the quality of life of indigenous peoples.

"Paraguay is one of the countries that has recognised, and recognises, virtually every treaty in defence of indigenous peoples, but when you look at the gaps in infant mortality, fertility and so on, it has some of the most blatant inequalities. In contrast, Chile, which has not ratified Convention 169, is one of the countries with the lowest levels of inequality" between indigenous peoples and the rest of the population, del Popolo said.

"This is not to say that the Convention is irrelevant. We think that countries that have made progress in recognising indigenous people's individual and collective rights have better foundations for making faster progress in other areas," the expert said.

"Chile does not even recognise the term 'indigenous people', which is fully accepted in the U.N. Perhaps this is due to fears in certain sectors that this would imply the creation of states within states, but that is not, as a rule, one of the demands of indigenous people. States will continue to be national states," del Popolo explained. According to the ECLAC researcher, ethnic groups are fighting for true respect for the rights enshrined in these international instruments. "Several cases of violations of indigenous people's rights have already been taken before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the indigenous organisations have won," she said.

"At the beginning of the twenty-first century, new obligations are arising for states in terms of recognising, promoting and guaranteeing the individual and collective human rights of indigenous peoples in line with international standards," said the Social Panorama report.

"This process has just begun in Latin America, and there's no turning back. Everything to do with recognition and fuller participation is going to make increasing headway," del Popolo predicted.

The report also deals with other issues affecting Latin American countries: poverty and income distribution, the growth of steady employment and public policies, and changes in family structure.

"In the last four years (2003-2006), Latin America has turned in its best performance in 25 years in economic and social terms;" the report states.

According to ECLAC's estimates, 39.8 percent of the region's population had incomes below the poverty line in 2005, and 15.4 percent were suffering extreme poverty or indigence. The countries with the best results in this field were Argentina and Venezuela.

For the third year in a row, indicators of poverty and indigence have both fallen, and this year a further drop is expected. The regional poverty indicator is forecast at 38.5 percent for 2006, and extreme poverty is expected to drop to 14.7 percent.

According to José Luis Machinea, executive secretary of ECLAC, the decline in poverty rates can be attributed to high gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates in the region in recent years, a steady increase in employment, and in some countries, incipient improvements in income distribution.

While this progress is encouraging, poverty levels remain elevated in the region. There are 209 million poor people and 81 million who are extremely poor.

ECLAC also monitored the region's progress towards the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG), which is to halve the proportion of extremely poor people by 2015, from 1990 levels.

So far, the region has achieved 69 percent of the target, which was adopted in 2000. "It may thus be said that the region as a whole is on track towards meeting its commitment," the report says. Two countries, Brazil and Chile, have already achieved the goal. (END/2006)

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