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20 August 1999

Indigenous Peoples Still Facing Colour Gap

By Abraham Lama

LIMA, Aug 9 (IPS) - Not one official activity was planned in Peru for the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, an indicator of the marginalisation and discrimination faced by the country's nine million indigenous people.

The United Nations (UN) established the date in 1995 as part of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1994-2004). The goal is to strengthen steps taken towards resolving indigenous people's problems in areas such as human rights, environment, education and health.

Peru is a multi-ethnic nation of 25 million - 49 percent are mestizo (mixed race), 14 percent are of European, African or Asian descent, and 36 percent are indigenous peoples who speak their native languages. But Peru's large indigenous population suffers a serious situation of social, economic and cultural marginalisation.

The government abolished ''the legal mechanisms for the protection'' of indigenous people because it believes their problems ''are an issue that must be resolved within the liberal economic model,'' stated sociologist Flavio Solorzano, of Population and Development, a non-governmental organisation. The 1993 Constitution, which president Alberto Fujimori actively promoted, was a step backwards as far as indigenous rights are concerned, said jurists Ana Maria Tamayo of Peru and Roque Roldan from Colombia.

''Peru was one of the countries among the vanguard in protecting the rights of the indigenous population. Its 1930 Constitution recognised the right of indigenous communities to have their own land, as well as a reasonable level of autonomy for taking care of their own issues,'' said Tamayo. ''The 1993 Constitution was a step backwards because it abolished the unalienable nature of the lands belonging to indigenous communities, leaving their territories open to the expansion of multinational businesses, and without a judicial and political strategy to defend them,'' she stated.

Ismael Vega, an anthropologist at the Amazonian Centre for Anthropolgy and Practical Application (CAAAP), maintained that the indigenous people of the region ''are still waiting for greater participation in the policies that involve the future of their territories.''

Despite their potential political weight, the nine million indigenous Peruvians lack a common strategy and organisation for overcoming their social disadvantages and discrimination. This situation is most evident among the majority indigeous groups, the Quechua and the Aymara of the Andean region, which together include 8.7 million people. Economic activity is generally on an individual or family basis, aimed at economic and social integration with the white and mestizo world.

But in recent decades there has been greater affirmation of cultural identity and values among the 300,000 indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon who make up the 1,200 communities of 65 different ethnic groups, each with its own language. To a certain extent, experts attribute the greater political and cultural development of the Amazon population to the spread of ecological ideas. The Amazon indigenous groups have made advances despite their lower economic and educational levels, compared to the Quechuas and Aymaras. By including social and ethnic issues in environmental defence, environmental organisations have put indigenous rights on their agendas to preserve not only the indigenous way of life and work, but also land ownership, territorial rights and bilingual education.

This advance has reversed the situation that existed in the Peruvian Amazon until as recently as 30 years ago. In the middle of the last century 11 indigenous groups disappeared as a result of forest over-exploitation and diseases introduced by colonists of the region. According to experts, 18 of the 65 Amazon's indigenous groups are in a ''vulnerable'' situation. However, new environmental policies require companies interested in exploiting the region's fossil fuels or minerals to consult with the indigenous organisations in the affected territories. ''This was unthinkable 30 years ago, because there was a lack of ecological awareness and there weren't legal mechanisms to require negotiations,'' said Vega. The transnational Shell Oil Company was contracted to prepare a plan for the exploitation of the natural gas fields found along the banks of the Camisea River in the Cusco jungle. Shell had to hold talks with the indigenous communities of the area first, according to Vega.

''There is still a long way to go, but the leaders of the Amazon communities have established a dialogue with Western society affirming their own values, defending their traditions and customs and assimilating those things they believe will be of benefit to them,'' said Norma Vasquez, CAAAP psychologist.

But among the indigenous communities in the Andes experts find a widespread tendency of ''de-culturisation,'' characterised by their assimilation of the behavioural standards and imagery of Western society. It is described as a mechanism for protection against discrimination and marginalisation. ''We could almost talk about a desire for whiteness or 'mestization' to hide their indigenous identity, which leads to discrimination,'' said the sociologist Solorzano.

In a study led by professor Federico Dejo of the Agrarian University, 81 percent of the indigenous participants living in Lima said they had themselves suffered or witnessed racial discrimination. According to those who participated in the study, the workplace is the social environment where most discrimination occurs - where ''whites and light-coloured mestizos have the advantage'' - followed by public places and schools.

Ramon Leon, psychologist and author of ''El país de los extraños'' (Country of Strangers), said that racial discrimination is not based only on the physical traits of a given race. Sociologist Imelda Vega said, ''Here the discrimination is ethnic-social. Though the situation is changing, higher status is still linked to the lighter skin colours. And the darker colours, of the Andean and African peoples, are linked to the lowest social levels.''

''To a certain extent, the social stratification of A, B, C and D is expressed on a chromatic scale,'' added Vega, who is a member of the Churches' Commission on Historical Studies in Latin America. In Peru the scenario of racial discrimination has changed, she maintained. ''It rarely occurs in public because the discriminator risks an insult or aggression, so it is now relegated to closed or private spaces,'' explained Vega.

''For example, racist discotheques do not ban the entry of cholos (mestizos), indigenous people or blacks, but the doormen will tell them there isn't any more room. The discrimination is deplorable,'' concluded Vega.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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