The image of indigenous peoples: Beyond development?

The image of indigenous peoples: Beyond development?

René Mendoza V. and Edgar Fernández


Today is loaded with yesterday, yesterday with the day before, and tomorrow with today

Mayan Thought


The day they have poisoned the last river, cut down the last tree, and murdered the last animal, they will realize that money cannot be eaten.
Indigenous Proverb


The indigenous and Afrodescendent peoples of the north and south Atlantic of the country have benefitted from an Autonomy Statute since 1987, which was followed by the marking and titling of most of their territories; nevertheless, those territories have been the object of extractive policies and the growing migration of mestizo population who now make up more than 75% of the total population in both regions. How can this situation be understood, when we all want to conserve the Bosawas biosphere, respect the rights of the indigenous peoples to their territories and to exercising their autonomy, and at the same time in practice the Bosawas biosphere is being degraded and the indigenous peoples are being left with only the legal formality of their lands? In this article we seek out two responses, one in the international framework, and another in the light of another municipality outside of the Caribbean Coast.




The history of the United States shows us a first model, of how conventional development with its investments in infrastructure, financial and trade institutions, and mechanized agriculture corralled the indigenous peoples onto “reservations” on the worst land in the country (The Oxford history of the American West, edited por Milner, O’Connor and Sandweiss) , and that at the same time these peoples have been capable of defending themselves and their land and animals in order to survive, of adapting to the times, turning what is new into part of their identity, of prospering, even expanding their territories on the basis of new agreements with their government, and respecting the old ways and continuing in the new day (Diné: A history of the Navajos, by P. Iverson). Countries like Costa Rica and Panama replicated that model of “indian reservations.” A second model has been establishing protected areas including the indigenous populations that inhabit them. This is the case of Brazil with the Amazon and Nicaragua with Bosawas, areas systematically pressured by conventional development. A third model has emerged in the last 10 years in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador where the indigenous movement were able to get leftist governments that promoted the refounding of their republics with new constitutions ensuring their plurinational character; nevertheless, once the euphoria passed, those governments launched extractive policies – this is the case of the TIPNIS (Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park) that the government of Bolivia wants to cut a highway through, and the case of Yasuni where the CONAIE (Federation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) are confronting their government.


What similarities do we find in these three models? The conventional development approach underlies them all (“progress is unstoppable, the agricultural frontier will reach the ocean”), what is new is that the extractive policies stopped by the social movements are re-launched by their governments – “big business is achieving what it could not do with governments on the right.” The governments justify it, arguing that in order to reduce poverty money is needed that comes from extracting natural resources (forests, mines and hydrocarbons). This argument expresses the conventional development model that they said they were fighting, and it is the opposite of the indigenous proverb cited above. Secondly, the indigenous peoples are advancing, like the Navajos in the United States, and are resisting like the Guaraníes in Bolivia and the Quechuas in Ecuador. Thirdly, the “reservations”, be they indigenous reservations or natural reserves, are mechanisms that extinguish or are points of support, depending on the capacities of the agency of the peoples. Can the peoples of the Caribbean Coast see themselves in one of these images?


The interior image of an indigenous municipality


Now let us go into San José de Cusmapa, located 1200 meters high and 248 kms from Managua, let us describe their situation, let us seek to explain it and reveal their paths of life. Cusmapa, according to data from the INEC 2005 Population Census, is a municipality with 95.3% of the population who self identify as indigenous, lacks their own language and a municipality with 87% of its population in poverty and 64.6% in extreme poverty; they have a Royal Title (from the King of Spain) over all the area of the municipality and more, but in practice close to half of their land is already in non-indigenous hands, with a very unequal land ownership where 49.6% of the indigenous families are owners of areas less than 10 mzas in size, while 44% of indigenous and non-indigenous families are owners of areas between 10-50 mzas in size, and 6.5% of non indigenous families have land between 50-500 mzas in size, and with a high level of indigenous migration both inside and outside the country; with a soil use where ranching by non-indigenous hands is increasing, and the forest area was reduced from 32.7% in 1963 to 5.5% in 2001. How is it possible that the population of Cusmapa, having a royal land title backed by the Constitution of the country, has gotten so impoverished, lost their own language, been corralled into mini plots of land, is migrating, having lost control over close to half of their land area, and is suffering the reduction of their forests?


The response is that the indigenous families have been pushed to the phase of production that creates the smallest amount of value, and their indigenous philosophy is in conflict with the institutionality of conventional development, which is why year after year they are losing what they most value: land, forests and their production. First, the trade in products that come out of – and arrive into – Cusmapa is centralized in non-indigneous families, who also control the finances for lending money in cash or in kind in exchange for products and/or future labor; given that the indigenous lands formally cannot be impounded, there is no financial institution that is providing them with credit, and given that any product has to pass through the markets, the indigenous families have to respond to the social sector that is centralizing the markets for products and capital. Secondly, the systematic loss of control over their lands and forest began in 1963 when, in order to obtain their recognition as a municipality, they lost land area indicated in their Royal Title. Then since 1972 the ranching families of the neighboring municipality of San Francisco, accompanied by cattle rustling and the indifference of the local judges and the National Guard, moved into the area acquiring land. Then starting in 1990 they lost control of their forest with the passage of environmental laws, and finally the loss of their soil fertility makes it more and more difficult to ensure their own consumption needs, and makes them more dependent on the markets. Thirdly, the fragility of their organization and the harshness of their family institution around inheritance has contributed to their process of dispossession; their indigenous organization is reduced to the defense of the territory based on the Royal Title, while the reality of the possession of the land and the forest is taking a different path; and the institution of land inheritance that in the name of “protecting” the land excludes daughters, restricting even more the capacity and human energy of the families. Fourth, the indigenous life strategies, their idea of reciprocity instead of hoarding and commercializing, of taking advantage of the forest and ensuring its sustainability, and of defending the extended family as the basis of their social organization, does not have the backing of the conventional development institutions.


In spite of the fact that these points show that in Cusmapa the indigenous are not in control, behind these processes of dispossession, like the Navajo people, the inhabitants of Cusmapa are resisting and moving forward. Their strategy of productive diversification they have expanded to crafts based on pine needles and to other forms of organization – cooperative and association, in addition to the Indigenous People and the institution of the municipal government. The women, accompanied in many cases by their husbands, have burst into artesanry, and have assumed the leadership of the different institutions and organizations that exist in the municipality: the Municipal Government, the cooperative of women craftmakers, the Indigenous People´s organization, and the association for community development that is providing credit services even though at a very small scale. And even with the great spacial variability, including migration toward other municipalities in the country and outside the country, the old instituiton of the extended family as a common space of formation is maintained and is recreated with the changes of globalization (technology, international aid, remittances).


Beyond conventional development?


Let us return to the question at the beginning of the article, referring to the dilemma of collective action, of intending one thing and then doing the opposite, of advancing on the formal level but going backwards in reality. The view on the international level and then delving into the reality of San José de Cusmapa allowed us to propose new questions for ourselves. Is Cusmapa, in its dispossession and progress, a reflection of the present and/or future for the peoples of the Caribbean Coast? Are the institutional models an image also for the population of Cusmapa?


Two things are left clear for us. What happens in the country, and in any of its regions and municipalities, is not unconnected to what is happening in the world, which is why it is important that we locate ourselves in the light of the multiple images. Conventional development is not the only path, there are paths beyond that development; and within this framework cultural diversity “has an intrinsic value for development as well as for social cohesion and peace,” according to the Universal Declaration of UNESCO on Cultural Diversity in 2001. The development vision of indigenous peoples and conventional development should complement one another, and as such be assumed with their consequences.


From all of this, the financial institutions need to innovate with their collateral systems so that, responding to the different development models, they might provide a type of credit that at the same time protects the indigenous lands, gives them decisive points of support in order to make their paths viable; the same with the product markets so that commercial intermediation might make the indigenous products viable for better markets. That the environmental policies might recognize that the remnants of the forests are there thanks to the indigenous peoples who produced them, which is why their management should be passed over to local hands in coherence with the indigenous philosophy about nature understood as a living being. That the indigenous organizations need to open their eyes to the reality that they are not governing their territories, starting from the fact that the properties have superimposed land titles, to the importance of working on the institutionality of the markets to make their paths viable. That the women might  be subjects of inheritances and that the notion of work as a right to inheritance be re-conceptualized, to include work in the home, in the garden, in the farm and in human reproduction. And paraphrasing the Pope in relation to Cuba, the indigenous peoples need to open themselves up to the world and at the same time the world needs to open itself up to indigenous peoples.


Taking a look at the history of the indigenous peoples is an image of dispossession that is shameful for humanity. Overcoming this shame, we find images of resistance, of other ways of life and vision, like Mayan thought and the indigenous proverbs quoted in the beginning, that enrich humanity. Like the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory, each small change in our learning that goes beyond development can have a big impact in the long term and in the depth of history. Let us remember, “the flapping of the wings of a butterfly can be felt on the other side of the world” (Chinese proverb).




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