El buen vivir: Peruvian Indigenous Leader Mario Palacios

Deborah Poole

This interview originally appeared in the September/October 2010 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

In 1999, community leaders representing more than 1,200 communities in nine regions of Peru came together to form the National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining (CONACAMI). Founded to counter the negative environmental and social impact of mining and the virtual absence of state regulation, CONACAMI initially sought direct, bilateral dialogue with the mining companies. But at its second national congress in 2003, delegates voted to reject dialogue and to embrace an anti-systemic politics that calls for the total rejection of mining and the neoliberal economy’s exclusionary practices and principles. They also voted to reconstitute CONACAMI as an indigenous confederation that would center its demands on defending indigenous rights, promoting indigenous political participation, and refounding the nation-state. In subsequent years, CONACAMI has expanded its presence in the Andean region through the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), an umbrella organization that CONACAMI helped to found in 2006.

The history of CONACAMI and its importance to popular struggles in the Andes points to the centrality of both community and Mother Earth to indigenous proposals for rethinking politics and the state. In this respect, it is also significant that CONACAMI, as an organization founded in opposition to the untrammeled destruction of the environment and natural resources, has played such an important role in revitalizing indigenous political organizations in the Andean regions of Peru, where self-ascribed indigenous organizations have not historically played as visible a role as either peasant or labor movements in popular political resistance.

In May, Deborah Poole interviewed Mario Palacios, president of CONACAMI (2008–10), in New York. In the edited transcript that follows, Palacios expands on the political and cultural vision of CONACAMI and its relationships with other indigenous organizations, including AIDESEP, the Peruvian Amazonian confederation that led the indigenous uprisings of 2008 and 2009.

CONACAMI is composed of communities from the Peruvian Andes that have suffered from the chaotic and disorderly expansion of mining in recent years. In Peru, mining is a crucial activity for the government in that it represents 64% of the country’s exports. However, although the state celebrates mining as an activity that is crucial for maintaining exports, it never talks about the negative effects that mining has on our lives. Mining generates not only environmental contamination but also greater poverty; it affects social relations within communities; and it leads, in many cases, to the actual disintegration of communities. It also jeopardizes resources that are necessary for the development of communities, like water and land, by degrading or contaminating them. Faced with this, CONACAMI is responding as an organization to defend our territories and the natural resources of Peru.

CONACAMI is basically an organization of communities that works in 16 of the country’s 24 departments. There are around 6,000 communities in Peru, of which 3,200 suffer the negative effects of mining. CONACAMI has almost 2,000 Andean community affiliates. Beyond that, however our work also draws on the diversity of Peru’s social movement. For example, we are constructing a strong alliance, a process of unity with indigenous organizations from the Peruvian Amazon. In this sense, CONACAMI and the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP) are organizations that have led the struggle in both the Andes and the Amazon. We greatly respect the work of AIDESEP, an organization that has been carrying on very effective work in the Amazon since the early 1980s. In the Peruvian Andes, however, indigenous political organizing is more recent.

Peru’s neoliberal political process bases its economy on extractive industries. This political process brings not only the “free market,” but also free access to natural resources, free investment, and above all the looting of our resources. So our ancestral communities, many of which have territorial titles that date back 300 or 400 years to the colonial period, are today suffering from the expropriation, dispossession, and dissolution of their territories, not only because of the actions of the mining companies, but also because of the state itself and the governmental policies that are being applied in Peru. This is a politics of expropriation that dissolves or liquidates communities. And within this politics of extermination of communities, the rights of ancestral, originary, or indigenous peoples are not recognized.

In these last years, however, as a result of pressure, struggle, and resistance from both Andean and Amazonian communities, the Peruvian state has recognized the existence of the International Labor Organization Convention 169 (ILO 169). Although Peru signed this international convention 15 years ago, the state has continued to deny us our rights, as indigenous peoples, in every conceivable way. But the indigenous struggle has finally forced the state to recognize that this convention does have normative value as a binding international convention. It was the indigenous uprisings of 2008 and 2009 that forced the state to recognize these rights.

Today in Peru we are debating a legislative proposal that would implement our right to prior consultation, as provided for in the text of ILO 169.1 They are also debating a Law of Indigenous Peoples. I think these are important elements to achieve the recognition of indigenous rights in Peru, because these are rights that have been dismissed or denied ever since our lands were first invaded and colonized. But the proposal put forward by CONACAMI and the indigenous movements goes well beyond this question of rights and the defense of our own territories and natural resources. We are fighting because humanity itself is lost in a way of life that is marked by forms of accumulation and by the destruction and contamination of Mother Earth. These tendencies have increased in recent years because neoliberal capitalism is putting humanity’s very survival at risk. In Peru, for example, we are experiencing in a particularly dramatic way the effects of global climate change.

For us, it is not just climate change, but rather a climatic crisis that manifests itself in the frosts, hailstorms, torrential rains, droughts, floods, and landslides that we are enduring in the Andean region. These climatic changes, which reduce agricultural production and introduce new diseases that we never before knew, are directly affecting our way of life. Humanity must think carefully if we are to avoid in the next decades a crisis that could lead to our own extinction. The indigenous movement has taken up this challenge to construct, during the past 20 years, a political proposal that is also a proposal for life, a project of life—el buen vivir. This project, which translates in Quechua as allin kawsay or in Aymara as sumah qamana, is composed of various parts: It encompasses a new vision, a new way of seeing, that is different from Western developmentalism in that we call for harmony with, and respect for, Mother Earth.2

Our project also calls for another way of conceiving the state. The republican states that were invented 200 years ago are effectively exhausted, since have not been able to resolve fundamental problems. These homogenizing, uninational, monocultural, monolingual states, which took shape in the aftermath of the French Revolution, are today in crisis. In Peru, for example, we are effectively excluded from social, political, and economic participation because the state is dominated by criollos who are, in fact, a minority in the country. So the indigenous movement has put forward the need to reinvent another form of the state and a new model of democracy—a democracy that is no longer just representative. In the Peruvian case, representational democracy, through the Congress, has effectively collapsed. The Congress is highly corrupt, inefficient, and informal. The executive branch is also characterized by high levels of corruption. So we need a different democracy, and the form of democracy that we propose from within the indigenous movements is communitarian; it is a participatory democracy of mandar obedeciendo.3


1. On May 19, the Peruvian legislature passed the Law of Prior Consultation to implement rights guaranteed in ILO 169. President García refused to sign the bill, arguing that indigenous communities are not juridically recognized subjects and that the law would give indigenous peoples “veto power” over the nation’s development initiatives. The government’s actions, which were supported by Peru’s Constitutional Commission on July 15, have met with vigorous opposition from indigenous organizations, including CONACAMI, as well as from the Peruvian Ombudsmen (Defensoría del Pueblo).

2. The literal translation of allin kawsay is “to live well.” However, the term is understood and used in a much broader sense by indigenous political organizations and activists, who use it to refer to the practices of living in harmony with nature, with other communities, and within families and communities. As such, it refers as much to the practice of equality and ethical responsibility as to the aspiration of achieving a more just world.

3. Mandar obediciendo is a Zapatista phrase that has gained wide currency in indigenous movements in Latin America to refer to practices of democratic consultation in which authorities or elected representatives “lead by obeying.” In this view of political authority, leaders do not have the authority to make decisions without both consulting their bases and taking all opinions into account.


Deborah Poole is Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. Her recent publications include A Blackwell Companion to Latin American Anthropology (Blackwell, 2008).

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