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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 33, August 6, 2011

Democratising Democracy, South American Style

Wednesday 10 August 2011, by Ash Narain Roy


Rewriting Constitutions comes easy to Latin American leaders. Brazil has modified its 1988 Constitution 14 times. Chile has changed its 1980 Constitution seven times. Colombia has added 16 modifications to its 1993 Constitution. Does it show Latin America’s growing impatience with the non-performing models? Or are they undermining democratic principles in the name of pursuing more radical agenda? What Bolivia and Ecuador have done in recent years begs a serious analysis.

Ecuador and Bolivia hardly hit newspaper headlines in India. If ever they do, the news about them is often tucked away in some corner. The standard reporting about them in the Western press too is patronising and condescending: they are victims of populist, socialist, anti-American governments—aligned with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba, of course—and on the road to ruin. Over the past few years epochal events have begun to take place in these Andean nations and India better take notice. India no more has the world’s largest Constitution. Ecuador has edged past India’s with its new Constitution having 440 Articles.

More significantly, the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador gives nature “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions and its processes in evolution”. Now Bolivia is all set to pass laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. These include the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.

Latin America in general and Bolivia and Ecuador in particular, have witnessed the rise of powerful movements by the pueblos originarios (native peoples). With the political empowerment of the indigenous people, Ecuador and Bolivia have begun re-founding the state. The indigenous people of Bolivia and Ecuador believe the ‘Pachamama’ (Mother Earth) is at the centre of all life and hence it needs to be protected.

Says Bolivia’s indigenous Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, “We belong to a big family of plants and animals…Everything in the planet forms part of a big family.” He is confident the indigenous people “can contribute to solving the energy, climate, food and financial crises with our values”.

Bolivian film-maker Jorge Sanjines once called Bolivia’s indigenous peasants and miners “the clandestine nation”. Today by granting nature equal rights to humans these two countries are trying to establish a new relationship between man and nature and how this harmony must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration.

The Bolivian Government is about to establish a Ministry of Mother Earth and to appoint an ombudsman. It is also committed to giving 36 communities new legal powers to monitor and control polluting industries.

Over the past one decade or so, native peoples have asserted their rights and in some countries their movements have forced some Presidents to quit and won important battles on the question of their control over water and forest resources. In Bolivia, for instance, mass mobilisations against the privatisation of water in 2000 and 2004 succeeded against the powerful US-based trans-national corporation Bechtel. Similar mobilisations for nationalising gas in 2003 toppled the government of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. During the 1990s, the indigenous move-ment in Ecuador succeeded in arranging two nationwide strikes and bringing national attention to its goals.

While Bolivia now has an indigenous President, Ecuador has recast its Constitution by conferring significant rights on the native peoples. They have begun to democratise democracy, so to say, by creating more stakeholders in the polity. The indigenous peoples of South America are calling for plurinational, participatory and intercultural democracy.

HOW does one explain the rise of indigenous movements in South America? Globalisation has increased the risks for indigenous peoples living on lands that contain strategic resources for market exploitation: water, oil, gas, forests, minerals, biodiversity. The natives live in territories that contain 80 per cent of Latin America’s biodiversity, several watersheds and petroleum. Increased foreign investment and increased profit depend upon the exploitation of natural resources.

Throughout the Americas, indigenous peoples are losing economic and social ground. Their fragile control over their lands, waters, and other natural resources is loosening. Market-driven development has increased environmental deterioration and poverty in indigenous communities. No wonder, the indigenous groups perceive globalisation as second colonisation.

Indigenous peoples find themselves subordinated to new forms of governance. Gains in autonomy are in danger of being quickly lost to the World Bank and other global financial institutions that impose conditions inimical to their interests. Structural adjustment-driven decentralisation has opened the door for the direct incorporation and absorption of some indigenous communities into the scenario of dependence, indebtedness, and business associations that are all increasingly threatening the indigenous communities.

Other countries in Latin America may not share the spiritual worldview of the Andean natives for whom the Mother Earth is at the centre of their life. But they too have begun to sense a new breeze. The natives, on their part, would do well to realise that going back to basics is easier said than done. The natives of Bolivia and Ecuador have become too political. The division in their ranks is now clearly visible. The group, CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), that once supported President Rafael Correa, has now turned against him saying he has betrayed their cause. President Evo Morales of Bolivia is also facing major challenges to his authority from various native groups. Only some months ago he had to repeal a hike in fuel prices that had sparked street protests similar to those five years ago that brought down the government of his predecessor, Carlos Mesa.

The world has paid scant attention to the fast depleting bio-diversity and eco-systems. Bolivia had to wait till an indigenous President assumed power to take steps to protect biodiversity, respect the indigenous right to land and territory, and preserve water resources.

Bolivia and Ecuador have taken historic steps by enshrining the rights of nature alongside the rights of man. If Morales had his way, he would want the UN to approve it. This does not mean Bolivia is going to boot out all industries. The new law may signal a sterner rule for mining and other companies prominent throughout the country.

For long Latin America has remained a laboratory for socio-economic change. India can ignore the lessons from Latin America at its own peril. Our Adivasis will not remain mute spectators of corporate loot and governmental indifference. While Dalits and other marginalised groups have benefited from democratic decentra-lisation and scores of anti-poverty measures, the Adivasis are living in sub-human conditions. They too shall rise just as the South American natives have.

The narrative of the native peoples is some-thing like this: Spanish conquest annihilated millions of native peoples. Those who survived became invisible in a culture dominated by the languages and traditions of Europe. The natives, therefore, did not have voices, faces and even names. They did not have their tomorrow. Thus they went to the mountains and forests. They covered their faces to have a visage. They decided to protect their past so that they could have a tomorrow. Could this story be any different for our Adivasis?

The author is the Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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