Along the mountainous western spine of South America, in regions once mainly part of the Inca Empire, there are a number of countries with significant Amerindian populations who speak native languages. And it has given these nations a decidedly left-wing cast.
Quechua speakers make up a large part of the population of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. The language spoken by some 10 million people in South America, it was the one used by the Incas. With some five million speakers in Paraguay, Bolivia, and elsewhere, Guarani is another major South American language.
A quarter of Ecuador’s population of 15.7 million is native, while another 65 per cent is mestizo, having mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Almost all of the indigenous population are Quechuas living in the valleys of the Sierra region.
Indigenous peoples in Peru make up about 45 per cent of the total population of 30 million, with most living in the Andes mountains. There are a large number of distinct ethnic groups, with about 3.5 million speaking Quechua. Mestizos account for another 37 per cent.
Amerindians are the majority ethnic group in Bolivia, accounting for 62 per cent of the population of 10.5 million. An additional 30 per cent is mestizo. Here too the predominant native language is Quecha. Along with Aymara, Guarani, and Spanish, it is an official language of Bolivia.
Paraguay was established in colonial times as a refuge for native peoples. In 1609 the Catholic Jesuit Order created the Jesuit Reductions in Paraguay, which lasted from 1609 until 1767, to prevent the exploitation of the Indian peoples. By 1732 there were 30 Guarani missions in the colony; however the Jesuits were expelled by the Spanish crown in 1767 and the missions rapidly declined.
Today, while only a small per cent of Paraguay’s population is fully indigenous, with most of them living in the remote Gran Chaco region, almost all of the country’s other 6.8 million citizens are partially of native heritage. Along with Spanish, Guarani is one of the official languages of Paraguay, spoken by the majority of the population.
These countries all now have organizations dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), formed in 1986, has pursued social change using a wide range of tactics. In 2005, CONAIE participated in an uprising, which ousted President Lucio Gutierrez, whom they accused of betraying native peoples on behalf of foreign corporations. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon represents people in the Amazon region of the country.
The Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), comprising 57 organizations, is the primary indigenous rights movement in Peru. The Movement in the Amazon for Tribal Subsistence and Economic Sustainability (MATSES) is another rights organization that is working for the cultural survival of indigenous people.
In 2009, opposition to oil development in the Amazon region, led by AIDESEP, led to months of civil disobedience, including the closing down of roads and rivers to traffic. The protestors feared the toll it would take on the environment. Intervention by the military resulted in dozens killed.
Then president Alan Garcia charged AIDESEP’s leader, Alberto Pizango, with sedition and called the organization part of an “international conspiracy” backed by Bolivia and Venezuela to destabilize his regime.
Bolivian social movements developed primarily due to the failure of the political party system. These movements emanated in conflicts against privatization of vital resources such as gas and water, and they coalesced into a larger struggle for justice by adopting a radical reform agenda.
The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, founded in 1982, is now the representative umbrella organization of 34 native groups in the country. Since 1990 it has organized major marches demanding indigenous autonomy, territorial protection, more seats in the national legislature, and indigenous control over natural resources in their territories.
Paraguay has two main native groups, the Co-ordination of Indigenous Peoples of the Cuenca of Pilcomayo River, and the Native League for Autonomy, Justice, and Ethics. The indigenous communities, who live in poverty and face discrimination, have been chased from their lands as a result of deforestation for livestock and agriculture.
Some groups have turned to violence in reaction to the poverty and oppression suffered at the hands of dictators and economic oligarchies.
Peru, in particular, endured a decades-long insurrection by a Maoist guerrilla movement based mainly in the native-populated rural highlands, known as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which became notorious for its use of terror.
Formed in the 1970s in the impoverished region of Ayacucho by Abimael Guzman, its militants fought a vicious war against the ethnically Spanish-dominated regimes in Lima. By the time of Guzman’s capture in 1992, at least 70,000 people had died, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
A smaller group, the Cuban-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was also active at the time. Named for the last indigenous leader of the Incas, it was led by Victor Campos and its stated goals were to establish a socialist and anti-imperialist state. In December 1996, fourteen of its members occupied the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, holding 72 hostages for over four months until killed by the military.
In Paraguay, the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) is a Marxist rebel group that has recently stepped up attacks in areas where the guerrillas are thought to draw support from impoverished farmers chafing at the expansion of large-scale soybean farms and cattle ranches. The group, which adopted its current name in 2008, proposes the destruction of “imperial-bourgeois democracy.”
It’s an uphill road, but Amerindian peoples are making progress. Bolivia and Peru have even in recent years elected presidents of indigenous heritage.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.