Moving Forward: The Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples

Five thousand Indigenous peoples from across the Americas gathered in the Peruvian highland city of Puno during the last week of May for the Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala. The meeting ended with a massive plenary session that approved resolutions providing alternative solutions to the capitalist crisis.

June 12, 2009

Five thousand Indigenous peoples from across the Americas gathered in the Peruvian highland city of Puno during the last week of May for the Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala. The meeting ended with a massive plenary session that approved resolutions providing alternatives to the capitalist crisis that western civilization is currently experiencing.

Abya Yala is the term the Kuna people of Panama use to describe the Americas. Indigenous activists have increasingly embraced it as an alternative to Euro-centric language.

Peruvian professor Aníbal Quijano who has long worked with Indigenous movements said that he believed "that this meeting is the most important political act in Latin America this year. It is important not only for Indigenous peoples, but also for the rest of humanity. It calls into question the role of capital in its worst moment as it threatens the survival of the planet."

The First Indigenous summit was held in Mexico in 2000, followed by meetings in Ecuador in 2004 and Guatemala in 2007. These summits build on a process that dates back to the First Encounter of Southern Cone Indian Organizations in Ollantaytambo, Peru in 1980, and the First Continental Conference on Five Hundred Years of Indigenous Resistance held in Quito, Ecuador in 1990.

At the 2007 Guatemalan summit, Argentine delegates proposed holding the next meeting on the Chilean side of the triple Peru/Bolivia/Chile border. Although such a spot was politically significant, the logistical demands of bringing thousands of people to such a remote site proved to be too daunting. The tourist city of Puno provided both an abundance of hotel rooms as well a conveniently located airport, which facilitated the participation of so many delegates. So many people flooded to the meeting that organizers announced that they were cutting off individual registrations; only groups could subsequently register delegates. Considering that the previous summits had been postponed, it was quite a nod to successful organizing strategies that the fourth summit largely came off largely as planed.

Indigenous Women’s Summit

At the last summit in Guatemala, women decided to overcome their marginalization by holding their own meeting on the eve of the next summit. Following through on that idea, on May 27 over two thousand Indigenous women gathered in Puno.

The First Indigenous Women’s Summit started with a march from the (appropriately selected) women’s plaza to the National Altiplano University where the summit was held. It was a small march, but at the university several other (and larger) marches joined it. Several (male) spiritual leaders led a religious ceremony on the university grounds.

Delegates then proceeded into an auditorium for opening ceremonies, followed by three panels that set the central themes for the summit:

The first panel was on Cosmology and Identity: Model of Development, with Juana Bartzibal from Waqikb´kej (Guatemala), Rucilda Nunta Guimaraes from AIDESEP (Peru), and Nancy Chila from CONAMAQ (Bolivia) presenting. Sonia Henríquez, a Kuna from Panama moderated the panel. The main themes were solidarity and reciprocity.

The second panel was on the Rights of Women: Violence and Racism. The presenters were María Miquelina from COIAB (Brazil) and Aida Quilcue from ONIC (Colombia). Cecilia Velázquez from CONAIE (Ecuador) moderated the panel. A key theme in this session was the importance of both Indigenous peoples and women in the construction of a plurinational state. This was the only panel with a male presenter. Miguel Palacín, leader of the Coordinating Body of Andean Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) and lead organizer for the summit, joined the panel to give a male perspective on these issues. He emphasized the standard Andean theme of gender equilibrium, with the importance of both men and women in building a sustainable society.

The third panel was on Women in the Construction of Power and Democracy, with presentations from Vicenta Chuma from ECUARUNARI (Ecuador), Amparo Gutiérrez from REMUI (Mexico), and Leonilda Zurita from Bartolina Sisa (Bolivia). Blanca Chancosa from ECUARUNARI (Ecuador) moderated. The presenters emphasized the importance of looking at power and democracy from the perspective of women, and the need for solidarity to achieve these goals.

After these opening panels which set the themes and agenda for the meeting, delegates broke into 16 different workshops. Those workshops then gathered into six sessions to draft proposals for a final plenary session. The six sessions were on collective rights, the construction of power and democracy, alternative development models, violence and discrimination, communication, and identity.

After two days of meetings, the women’s forum closed with a marathon 4-hour long plenary session. Blanca Chancoso, the moderator, said that men were free to participate, but that women should be allowed to speak first. In reality, this was an entirely women-run event. It was not until the very end when Bolivian women kept insisting that a defense of coca needed to be included in the final statement (and Chancoso kept insisting that it was already there) that a man stood up to defend the ancient value of the sacred leaf that the "Padres Inkas" (delegates shouted "and Madre Inkas too") gave to us.

Fourth Summit

The Fourth Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities began on May 29 with an early morning ritual ceremony in Puno's central plaza (Plaza de Armas). After the ceremony and breakfast, delegates left on a march that wound its way through the streets of the city and down to the Lake Titicaca waterfront. An outdoor stage held the inaugural session of the summit, followed by 2 panels on the crisis of capitalism and plurinationalism. After the inaugural activities, delegates continued on to the university for 60 different breakout sessions. As with the women's summit, the breakout sessions were then combined into 10 panels who presented their results to a final plenary session at the end of the summit.

Some observers were concerned that women's issues were not among those listed as topics of discussion at the Indigenous summit. Launching the activities with the women's meeting, however, effectively influenced subsequent discussions in the main summit. Women had a much more visible and active presence in presentations and discussions than in previous events. That is not to say that complete gender equality was achieved, but it was an important step in the right direction.

The theme of the 2007 summit was "From Resistance to Power," reflecting the recent election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and hopeful optimism for additional Indigenous electoral gains elsewhere across the Americas. The Puno summit built on those discussions by emphasizing the twin themes of plurinational states and living well.

With both Ecuador and Bolivia having recently approved new constitutions that recognize the rights of Indigenous nationalities, plurinationalism became a key theme at this summit. Humberto Cholango, the president of Ecuarunari, the movement of highland Kichwas in Ecuador, is a strong advocate of plurinationalism. He argued that "one can't say that a plurinational state is only for Indigenous peoples, or only for us with the goal of isolating others." Rather, he contended that "a plurinational state has to include Indigenous peoples, Blacks, poor people, marginalized social sectors, workers who have been victims of the neoliberal model." He advocated that a key agenda item coming out of the forum should be that Indigenous activists should advocate for the inclusion of plurinationalism in the constitutions of other countries where it does not already exist.

Cecilia Velázquez from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) added that "we can't speak of constructing plurinational states without the participation of Indigenous women. At the World Social Forum in Brazil they said that another world is possible with the participation of Indigenous peoples. We also say that that the construction of plurinational states is only possible with the presence of Indigenous women."

In addition to the theme of plurinationalism, the summit also emphasized the Quechua concept of sumak kawsay, of living well, not just living better. Since the 2007 Guatemalan summit, this has become a key issue in Indigenous debates, even making its way into the Bolivian and Ecuadorian constitutions.

Under the twin themes of plurinationalism and living well, delegates debated a wide range of issues. These included opposition to the privatization of natural resources, extractive enterprises, and the criminalization of social movements. Panels also focused on issues such as food sovereignty, climatic justice, and migration.

Indigenous children and youth also held parallel forums where they gathered to build a movement to defend their interests.

Militarization of Social Spaces

One of the increasingly pressing themes in these Indigenous summits is the militarization of civil society. The Guatemalan summit had a heavy policy presence, allegedly justified by the high crime rate in that country. The Puno summit was also surrounded by police, but without the accompanying justification of problems of criminal violence. It left many delegates feeling as if they were under constant political surveillance.

The opening women's march was followed by a large police contingent, with at least as many cops as marchers. Police also positioned themselves outside of the university gates along with a large riot control vehicle. As this was an entirely peaceful gathering, this large peace presence was hardly justified. Interestingly, the national police only used Indigenous women and men dressed in community policing uniforms to help provide security inside the university.

A related theme at the summit was the criminalization of social movements. Governments from across the region are prosecuting Indigenous peoples who oppose neoliberal policies that contract with multinational petroleum interests and other extractive industries. Delegates observed that previously they faced oppression from the countries' armed forces, but now their livelihoods are threatened by transnational corporations. The degree of assault and collusion with government officials led Tupac Enrique Acosta of the of Izkalotlan Pueblo to observe that "these aren’t governments; they’re accomplices."

An important theme at social forums is a solidarity economy, with local venders efficiently providing nutritious and inexpensive food for the delegates. In Guatemala, organizers contracted with local communities to cook a basic campesino diet of rice and beans, which worked very well. Apparently since many local communities around Puno are reliant on the tourist trade for their survival they were hesitant to give that up in support of the summit. Instead, organizers contracted a commercial vender who provided a standard but bland Andean diet of rice, potatoes, and chicken in styrofoam containers. The result was long lines, frequent shortages, and trash littered across the university grounds.

Moving Forward

A final topic of discussion at these types of meetings is always where to hold the next one (and after four sequential successful meetings, whether to hold another one is hardly even raised). The summit had a large and well-organized Bolivian presence, partially because Puno is located right on the Bolivian border, but also because Bolivia has exceptionally well-organized social movements. At the women's summit, it almost was a forgone conclusion to hold the next meeting in Bolivia in 2011, and with that decision in place it put a great deal of pressure on the general summit to follow suit.

Both the women's and general summits talked about creating a continent-wide organizational structure to carry on the work of advancing Indigenous issues. While no firm plans were put in place, it remains a topic of conversation and interest.

Social forums always take on the flavor of the local environment, and these Indigenous summits are no exception. The Guatemalan summit was largely a Maya affair. In Puno, it almost become a Tawantinsuyu (the old Inka Empire) event, with its rainbow colored wipala flags decorating the entire site. The Andean languages of Quechua and Aymara were commonly heard both in public discourses and in casual conversation. Inka nationalists called for a return to Tawantinsuyu.

Noticeably absent was a significant presence from the Amazon. As the forum was taking place, the people from the Peruvian Amazon were in day 45 of a strike against the government over its attempts to usurp their territorial and proprietary rights. More surprising, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) scheduled its congress for precisely the same days as the summit. Marlon Santi, the current president of CONAIE, historically one of the most important Indigenous organizations in the Americas, is from the Ecuadorian Amazon, and attended the CONFENIAE congress instead of coming to Puno summit. A scattering of Brazilians attended (and only a handful from the U.S. and Canada), leaving Spanish as the overwhelmingly lingua franca.

Tupac Enrique Acosta who has long participated in these transnational meetings commented that "there are ebbs and flows in the process of the continental Indigenous movements. The summits are highlights, high points, you could say, in the process." The summit provided a good and energetic meeting, with perhaps some of the best discussions happening outside of the sessions, with the informal networking and conversations that happen at these types of events. The process of building a strong trans-national Indigenous movement is going well.

Marc Becker is a Latin American historian and the author of Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements (Duke 2008).

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