1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion

Racism and Public Policy

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Project from: 2000 to 2001

Land Distribution and the Politics of Race Relations in Latin America
This paper discusses the relations between indigenous peoples and the state. It focuses on land tenure and land occupation, as well as their effects on race relations, racial attitudes and discriminatory practices.

A central theme is the relationship between the dominant society that evolved after colonization and the indigenous peoples who were the original inhabitants of the land. There are wide differences between agrarian and peasant communities who, despite changes in ethnic identities, have been consistently involved in struggles over land distribution and the exercise of territorial control in their societies. Issues of land alienation and discrimination, which manifest themselves in different conditions and countries, also affect a great number of people of African descent.

Issues such as land tenure and property regimes for land cultivation, common lands and other resources associated with them (water, forests, pastures) have not only dominated the land question since colonization, they have also constituted the most consistent demand of indigenous people. The territorial issue, which should be understood within the context of social and cultural reproduction and the organization of political life, has been quite important historically in the struggles of indigenous peoples. However, it is only in the last 25 years—after the application of, and virtual ‘fatigue’ associated with, land reform—that the issue of territorial control has acquired new importance and autonomy. It is directly linked to processes of political mobilization and reinforcement of indigenous identities.

For rural communities of people of African descent, agrarian claims are more recent as a generalized phenomenon in the region and have taken great importance because of the World Conference against Racism.

There is a vast literature on the agrarian question in Latin America, focusing on regional and country studies. Two new studies offer a good overview of the problem in historical and contemporary terms:
José Aylwin O., Santiago, El acceso de los indígenas a la tierra en los ordenamientos jurídicos de América Latina: Un estudio de casos, CEPAL, Santiago, February 2001.
Roger Plant and Soren Hvalkof, Land Titling and Indigenous Peoples, Washington, DC, Inter-American Development Bank, 1998.

The question of indigenous territories is also increasingly discussed. The following article, which adopts an indigenous perspective, provides a comprehensive discussion of the problem:
Gerardo Zuniga, ‘Los procesos de construcción indígenas en America Latina’, New Society, No. 153, January-February 1998 (pp. 141-155).

The above-mentioned issues cannot be fully understood if one ignores trends in legal, political, economic and cultural relations between indigenous peoples and nation states, which have been significantly modified in recent years. The literature on this issue is quite extensive. A good summary can be found in:
Willem Assies, El reto de la diversidad: Pueblos indígenas y reformas del Estado en América Latina, Compilador, Zamora, El Colegio de Michoacán, 1999.

The World Conference has updated and revised old discussions on racism and discrimination. Central questions are being debated in the preparatory meetings, which include participation of governments, academic experts and concerned groups, such as indigenous peoples and descendants of Africa in the diaspora. Four texts that are a product of these meetings refer to Latin America. They touch on the question of land distribution and control of territories:
Alvaro Bello and Marta Rangel, Etnicidad, ‘raza’ y equidad en América Latina y el Caribe, Santiago, CEPAL, 2000.
Rodolfo Stavenhagen, El derecho de sobrevivencia: La lucha de los pueblos indígenas en América latina contra el racismo y la discriminación, San José, IIDH and IADB, 2001.
Celina Romany, De frente a la impunidad: La erradicación racial en el camino hacia las democracies pluriculturales y multiétnicas, San Jose, IIDH and BID 2001.
Fredy Rivera Vélez, Migrantes y racismo en América Latina: Dimensiones ocultas de realidades complejas, San José, IIDH and BID, 2001.

My paper, which draws on these texts and other relevant documents, argues that indigenous people suffer from what Stavenhagen calls ‘structural discrimination’. It calls for an examination of historical and contemporary processes, norms and practices (in legislation and in institutions), as well as attitudes and conduct (in rulers and in society) that operate through racist stereotypes and intolerance in particular contexts. These structural forms of discrimination explain the depth of the problem of inequalities and the difficulty of reaching solutions.

Structural discrimination creates social exclusion, limits access to natural resources, basic social services and productive activities in the wider economy, reinforces unequal land distribution and ownership (and legal security), and creates distortions in the configuration and exercise of power. Political power reflects the concentration and unequal distribution of power over territory and resources, which is the foundation for social, cultural and political life.

Against the background of a deep crisis of traditional agriculture and poorer sectors of the economy, solutions to ‘structural discrimination’ and exclusion will depend on transformations in territorial relations and the exercise of power. These must encourage new models of development and set favorable conditions for legal security over resources that sustain life.