Moving Forward: The Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples

Moving Forward: The Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples
Written by Marc Becker
Tuesday, 09 June 2009
Upside Down World

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

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

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

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

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).
More photos from Becker here: