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Survival in the Amazon--Indigenous Groups and the Right to Self-Determination

by Betsy Murphy


        “Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest have lived on land that has been deemed by modern society as frontier land--largely unclaimed, unowned, and unexploited" (Burger 1987, 44). Yet governments and corporations increasingly view Amazonian lands as locations of the earth’s last undiscovered wealth, and they are exercising eminent domain in order to expropriate indigenous lands for national development (Wilmer, 1993, 2). In the name of progress and modernization, national and international concerns are causing indigenous peoples to lose their lands, their cultures, and even their lives. 
        Yet indigenous people have resisted conquest for hundreds of years, and recent protests over injustices endured for centuries are beginning to bear fruit.  The movement for self-determination among the indigenous groups of the Amazon basin is indeed gathering momentum.  Indigenous groups “have slowed down, and in some cases arrested, the pace of economic development projects which would have, and have in the past, resulted in their physical relocation and complete cultural, social, and economic disruption of their way of life" (Wilmer, 1993, 2).  Comprising less than 1 percent of the population in Brazil to a clear majority in Bolivia, indigenous peoples have begun a successful collective campaign to gain recognition of their status, to lay claim to the right to participate in world politics, and to strongly reaffirm their right to self-determination (Wilmer 1993, 1-2). 

Self-determination in the face of development 
       Indigenous movements embody three goals--land rights, social equality, and self-determination (Wilmer 1993, 131-135). The first goal, the fundamental need for control over an economic and territorial base, is often the driving force for action.  However, because indigenous peoples often experience a declining quality of life as a result of development, access to social programs and help in combating the negative consequences of development is also paramount (Wilmer 1993, 133).  However, the movement to guarantee the pantheon of rights of indigenous peoples often centers on the right to self-determination.  Indeed, "the right of forest peoples to know what is being planned, to have a role in the formulation of those plans, and to be involved in bringing them to pass is . . . fundamental" (Hecht 1990, 239). 
       Yet in order to ensure rights, certain questions must be answered.  First, should there be a limit on a modern state's claim to resources; and, if there should, who determines those limits?  It is not, as developmentalists assert, that indigenous people want to claim large resource-rich areas and block or impede development. Nor are they attempting to lay claim to all or even a substantial portion of the territories they once maintained that have since been claimed by expanding postcolonial states. On the contrary, indigenous people simply appeal for limitations on the claims of the state that will allow for greater recognition of their right to self-determination (Wilmer 1993, 131-135). 
       Second, who defines development?  Indigenous activism challenges the basic concepts of modernization, most notably the assumption that resources should be used to create a surplus through industrialized capitalism (Wilmer 1993, 6).  Under modern ideology of resource usage, non-modern societies and the ways of life that they espouse are, by definition, inferior.  Thus, the victimization of indigenous peoples, whose culture and way of life embody a non-modern ideology, can be rationalized through this definition. By embracing this view, governments often feel justified in reclaiming resources occupied or used by indigenous groups, who are deemed morally incompetent to make the best use of resources. This "international value allocating process justifies the destruction of indigenous peoples’ way of life as necessary to the greater good of the greater whole (Wilmer 1993, 6)."  For example, the Ecuadorian government wants to use the rich deposits of oil in the Oriente to pay off a $12 billion foreign debt (Kennedy 1991, 24). While oil extraction will inevitably lead to the destruction of the lands and cultures of the indigenous groups of the Oriente, some find justification for such actions in the fact that per capita income has risen from US$290 in 1972, when Ecuador first began oil extraction, to US$1,490 in 1982 (Kennedy 1991, 37). 
       Third, in what manner should development be carried out? "As projects and programs washed over the Amazon--its inhabitants are often the last to know" (Hecht 1990, 239).  As the common solution is not an equitable solution, what steps should be followed in planning future development (Wilmer 1993, 93)?  Clearly, there are questions that must be answered in order to ensure that the right to self-determination is more fully secured for the peoples of the Amazon. 

The consequences of large-scale development 
       While groups of people have undoubtedly been fighting to protect their lands and their ways of life since the beginning of time, the modern notion of the right to self-determination has gained tremendous prominence in the face of large-scale developments.  Indeed, development projects, which are often sited in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, raise many questions regarding the benefits of such massive development schemes.  While "conventional wisdom has held that road construction [and other development projects are] an important step toward improving economic opportunities for smallholders in tropical forest areas" (Chaiken 1990, 237), the effects on indigenous communities, whose cultures are often closely tied with the lands, have been devastating.  One of the most destructive consequences of large-scale developments has been forced resettlement. According to the World Bank, an average of 10 million people are evicted every year by development projects worldwide (Wilkes 1994, c3). For example, in 1987, some 5,000 Akawaio Indians in Guyana were relocated to make way for a hydroelectric power plant; in 1980, about 3,000 Amuesha Indians in Peru were relocated for the Pichis-Palcazu road building and colonization program; from 1961 to 1978, approximately 100,000 Ache Indians in Paraguay were relocated to reservations; and in 1981, an estimated 8,000 Xingu and other forest dwelling peoples were relocated for the colonization, highways, and agricultural plans of the Polonoreste project (Wilmer, 101). While the UN ruled in 1993 that the practice of forced resettlement constitutes a violation of human rights, the World Bank and other developmentalists maintain that marginal people must be misplaced for a supposed greater good (Wilkes 1993, c2). 
        Mining developments have also greatly threatened indigenous ways. Oil mining is prevalent in the Amazon, and has produced negative effects that are widespread and well documented.  Oil is extremely toxic, harming aquatic life at concentrations as low as one part per billion. The resultant destruction of food sources due to oil pollution has caused widespread hunger.  Indeed, studies of indigenous children living outside of oil-producing regions show only a fraction of the cases of malnutrition that exist among children living in areas of oil contamination, where the rate of malnutrition among children has been as high as 70 to 98 percent (Kennedy 1991, 27).   Mercury pollution, prevalent throughout areas of the Amazon where gold mining is taking place, has been found to have far reaching effects. For example, mercury-contaminated fish have been detected as far as 360 miles downstream from some mining areas. Moreover, tests on the amount of mercury in the blood of Kayapo children, whose territory has been invaded by thousands of gold miners in Brazil, was found to be only slightly less than that in miners' blood (Greer 1993, 92-94). 
         The increased contact with outsiders that often accompanies development projects has also caused destruction. Diseases for which indigenous people do not have a natural immunity have killed many.  Epidemics of measles and whooping cough have at times been responsible for mortalities of up to 30 percent in some Yanomami communities (Wilmer 1993, 133). Many have been fighting to protect their land.  At times, developers have ignored the presence of indigenous peoples altogether, putting their lives in greater danger.  For example, an estimated 7,000 indigenous peoples, including two entire Indian tribes, were killed when, in 1981, a Brazilian-Japanese company neglected to inform indigenous peoples in the area when they dropped a toxic defoliating agent with a derivative of Agent Orange over an area of 2,500 sq. km to clear the site for a hydro-electric station (Wilmer 1993, 103).  Thus, the increasing rate of development in the Amazon basin often spells disaster for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. 

The creation of the self-determination movement in the Amazon 
       When Amazonian indigenous groups began to join the movement for self-determination, numerous organizations composed of indigenous peoples or outside sympathizers were already making the indigenous voice heard.  Indeed, Cultural Survival Quarterly lists over 150 organizations in its publication Directory of Indigenous Organizations (Wilmer 1993, 141).  One such organization, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, formed in 1975, includes indigenous groups from all over the world (Burger 1987, 58).  And, while appeals by such organizations in the 1970's fell on deaf ears, as most governments considered indigenous issues to fall within the jurisdiction of the national government involved, the 1980s and 1990s saw greater recognition of the right to self determination and increased participation by indigenous groups throughout the world (Wilmer 1993, 3). 
       Due to the geographic isolation of the Amazon and the slower pace of modernization and development in the region, Amazonian indigenous groups join together and participate in international movements much later than indigenous groups in other parts of the world. Many Amazonian groups fear that without immediate and effective action to protect their ways of life, they are sure to follow the same path as the almost totally decimated Cofan Indians of Ecuador, who once numbered in the thousands but whose encounter with Texaco Oil Company has left fewer than 500 Cofan alive after just twenty years of extraction (Kennedy 1991, 36). 
       In the last fifteen years, all the Amazonian peoples have organized into self-governing federations. The Shuhar of Ecuador were the first successful self-governing movement to make their presence known in politics.  Forming a federation in 1964, the Shuhar organized demonstrations and soon received recognition by the government of Ecuador. By 1987, the Shuhar had succeeded in reclaiming seven reservation and some control over educational policy (Burger 1987, 102).  The last to organize, the Huaorani of Ecuador, formed the First Congress of the Huaorani in 1995 in response to the building of an oil pipeline by Conoco across their territory (Kane 1996, 10). 
      There are also many cooperative organizations among the indigenous people in Latin America, where leaders from different indigenous groups in the Amazon meet to discuss goals and strategies.  Working together, groups share knowledge and help each other in their common goal of self-determination.  For example, the Wauja of Brazil say that their 1991 campaign for land rights was inspired by the example of the Kayapo Indians (Brisk 1996, 51).  In addition, the Shuhar Federation of Ecuador, who are widely studied by other Amazon groups, founded its own press in order to share several decades of experience with other groups in the area. Such organizations as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the First Indian Parliament, the Indigenous Peoples Network, the South American Indian Council, and the Indian-controlled umbrella organization CONAIE were all formed to increase dialogue between groups (Parlow 1991, 33).  After several frustrating experiences with the UN Working Group, indigenous leaders also began working together at preparatory conferences in Geneva in which they taught each other to present information effectively within the UN system (Wilmer 1993, 153).  Amazonian groups have also joined international social movements for indigenous rights. Mostly forming due to weak domestic support, international movements are often the best approach for the dealing with multinational corporations and multilateral development banks (Brisk 1996, 37). 

Support from International NGOs 
        Such non-governmental organizations as the International Work Group on Indian Affairs (IWGIA), Survival International, the Indian Law Resource Center, and Cultural Survival work to advance the fight for indigenous rights and often provide funding and legal and administrative support for small indigenous-run organizations (Brisk 1996, 43). The United Nations, after studying the problems of indigenous peoples in 1970, set up the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, which meets yearly to insure indigenous rights (Wilmer 1993, 3).  Moreover, the UN declared 1993 as the Year of Indigenous Peoples (Barsh 1996, 783). The UN Human Rights Commission and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provide guidelines for governments in the fair treatment of indigenous nations (Barsh 1996).  Most Latin American countries participated in the drafting of the Declaration, and only Brazil objected to the more critical articles, such as the right to self-determination, national participation, and land claims (Barsh 1996). 

Strengthening the movement through the system 
       However, the indigenous political situation is unique. Because they do not possess military strength, do not control valuable resources, have little or no economic power, and their recognized national and international status is very low, indigenous groups have no objective material position of power through which traditional coercive strategies of recognition would be possible.  Therefore, indigenous groups must employ persuasive strategies to achieve their goals (Wilmer 1993, 2).  For example, indigenous groups and international organizations working on their behalf have learned that the media can be a tremendous asset to any movement.  One of the clearest illustrations of the movement's effective use of the media was seen at a 1989 worldwide conference for indigenous peoples in Brazil which drew almost as many journalists as there were participants (Brisk 1996, 49).  Moreover, individual groups have learned to use the media to their benefit.  The Cinta Larga Indians, protesting a developer's failure to construct a promised road, occupied a plant and called CBS to offer an exclusive interview.  Through pressure from the negative publicity that the interview generated, the road was finally built (Brisk 1996, 49). 
        The indigenous movement has been successful not only in bringing about public attention to the problem but also in actively participating in national and international politics.  For example, Brazil's indigenous population, which represents less than one percent of the total population, has been very successful in assuring political representation, with a Xavante Indian elected to the Brazilian Congress in 1983 and Indian Political Party candidates running in state and national elections in 1986 (Wilmer 1993, 147).  International political bodies have also responded to indigenous activism in recent years.  One notable success came when the International Labor Organization responded to pressure by Amazon peoples to revise one of its conventions, removing paternalistic language and redirecting national policy away from integration and toward recognition of indigenous self-determination (Burger 1987, 109). 
        Many local groups have also successfully campaigned for changes in national laws to reflect their land rights.  Governmental bodies have recognized large amounts of land in lowland South America as being Indian-occupied. For example, Brazilian Law was amended to guarantee the rights of the Indian peoples to their own land (Burger 87, 109), and the Ecuadorian A'wa, working with CONAIE, were able to claim 100,000 hectares by convincing the government to provide them with lands designated as an "ethnic forest reserve."  Under the agreement, the government committed to resettle and provide land titles to colonists on the periphery of the reserve in exchange for the Awa's commitment to protect the forest resources of the area (Davis 1994, 488). 

Strengthening the movement through resistance efforts 
        Whenever possible, indigenous groups participate directly in the international arena and in the political processes of their national governments. However, when direct participation is impossible or ineffective, indigenous groups have mobilized resistance efforts, including protests and other kinds of direct extraordinary politics (Wilmer 1993, 135.)   Indian peoples have physically resisted domination since the conquest, and have become increasingly effective in their efforts. For example, in 1992 alone, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador was involved in over 100 protests over land rights (Smith 1994, 104).  In one such uprising, which lasted 10 days, over 600,000 indigenous people joined together in a demonstration calling for recognition of their rights to land and to economic and political empowerment.  During the uprising, roads were blockaded, plantations were occupied, and food supplies to the cities were cut off, bringing the country to a standstill (Smith 1994, 102; Dore 1994, 84).  On another occasion, representatives from seven regions occupied a session room in the Ecuadorian parliament for twenty-four hours, demanding ratification of a new ILO convention on the rights of indigenous peoples. Through protests, boycotts of elections, and the formation of an Indian Parliament, the voice of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador is beginning to be heard (Smith 1994, 105).  Groups in other South American nations have been equally successful in bringing attention to their cause through the use of resistance tactics.  For example, in 1988, the Kayapo Indians of Brazil protested the jailing of two Kayapo Indian Chiefs for subversion by gathering outside the courthouse in Belem in traditional battle regalia and engaging symbolic "war games."  The demonstration was successful in generating extensive international attention to the trial, which was subsequently thrown out by an appeals court (Hecht 1990,199). 
       The attached map details additional protests and battles conducted by the indigenous people of the Amazon against unfair development by government and international interests, as well as multinational corporations. 

PDF map of self-determination movements
The future of self-determination in the Amazon: the battle continues 
       Unfortunately recent successes barely begin to address the multiple, urgent needs of the continent's indigenous people.  Land that has been officially set aside for indigenous groups often has yet to be legally secured. Therefore, such groups as the Yanomami, who received legal demarcation of their land in the 1980, still battle with gold miners invading their area (Wilkes 1993, c1).  Additionally, many of the much-heralded "victories" over land rights actually have loopholes for the government to retain control of the area. The Brazilian Indian Statute of 1973, which guarantees Indians and native communities permanent possession of the land they inhabitant, has an article (#20) which gives the union the right to expropriate Indian land and relocate Indian communities elsewhere if such actions are deemed to be in the interests of national security or development (Burger 1987, 109).  Moreover, government demarcation of indigenous land usually does not give rights over resources in the sub-soil.  Thus, the 2 million acres granted to the Huaorani of Ecuador in 1990 was an illusory victory, for oil exploration and destruction of the land can continue on the protectorate unimpeded (Smith 1992, 104). 
         Thus, despite all the success of past protests in the Amazon, indigenous people face an ongoing battle for their rights.  In April 1997, a Colombian Court gave Occidental Petroleum the legal right to explore for oil and gas on U'wa land, overturning a previous ruling which prohibited exploration on indigenous land without first negotiating. Although the Council of the State cannot overturn the Constitutional Court, the government sided with Occidental in an attempt to entice other multinational corporations to invest in Ecuador.  In response to the court's decision, over 5,000 U'wa have threatened to commit mass suicide by jumping from a cliff if Occidental drills for oil.  Both the government and Occidental claim the threat to be nothing more than a publicity stunt, resulting from intimidation by local guerilla groups (Lindlaw 1997).  Despite legal permission, Occidental has yet to begin exploration due to the controversy.   Thus, the ongoing protest has been unquestionably successful in voicing the rights of the U'wa people to maintain control of the land they have occupied for centuries. 
       What is most critical is a prompt resolution to this conflict, for movements to protect cultural identity often create the unfortunate paradox that as a group labors to protect their identity, that identity is altered.  For example, when a group which defines its identity strongly in terms of land and location is forced to move its village to the borders of a proposed reserve in order to defend its identity, that identity is unquestionably altered in the process.  Thus, more must be done to ensure the right to self-determination to the world indigenous peoples, finally resolving this last unfinished business of decolonization (Wilmer 1993, 197). 
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