Indigenous Social Movements of Latin America

external image zapatistas.jpg


Latin America was home to some great civilization before the European colonization. This time period of great indigenous civilizations is known as the pre-Columbian era (before 1500). The Aztecs, Incans, and Mayans are all a part of Latin American history. Most European colonization begins with Christopher Colombus in 1492. This post 1492 era, is known as the Columbian Exchange. During this era, indigenous peoples were subject to many negative aspects of colonization. Indigenous people lost their land and resources. Most indigenous people were forced to become slaves. European settlers also introduced many diseases to Latin America, which had devastating effects on their population. Many religious people came to convert indigenous people away from their traditional beliefs and towards European faiths. Independence of these countries away from their colonizers began around 1800 and finished around 1980.

Most estimates concur that indigenous people now number approximately 40 million people in Latin America- roughly 8 to 10 percent of the region’s overall population. The vast majority, some 85 per cent, is concentrated in Mesoamerica and the central Andes. In Bolivia and Guatemala indigenous people constitute over 50 per cent of the population (Sieder, 2002).

First Movements:

Latin American Indigenous movements have been around since the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In this time more than a hundred revolts ripped through the Andes during the eighteenth century, with the uprisings becoming increasingly large scale, widespread, and violent. This so-called age of Andean insurrection culminated in the powerful Túpac Amaru II uprising which swept through the southern Peruvian and Bolivian highlands from 1780 to 1782. Led by José Gabriel Condorcanqui, this insurrection threatened to remove the colonial elite and establish a neo-Inca utopia. In a second, more radical, phase, Túpac Katari led a siege of La Paz with visions of emancipation and self-determination. The desire to either eliminate the Spanish or subordinate them to Andean peoples became a key interest during these anticolonial revolts. Although the revolts failed and Spanish officials executed the leaders, these uprisings placed indigenous Andeans at the heart of struggles over state formation and demonstrated their political consciousness. Far from traditional images of passivity or disengagement, indigenous peoples were active agents who imagined an alternative vision of the nation that conflicted with that of the dominant culture. Túpac Katari's last words before he was executed in 1781 were, "I will return and I will be millions;" and this has been interpreted as a prophetic statement that has been fulfilled in subsequent indigenous mobilizations.


In the late nineteenth century there was the highest amount pf revolts since the Túpac Amaru's. One of the most noted revolts of this time was The Caste War of the Yucatán was one of the most noted uprising during this time. No single element alone instigated the rebellion, but as in most revolutions, a long dominated underclass was finally pushed to its limit by an overbearing uberclass that had performed intolerable deeds. These included changing the status of public lands, which the Maya used for farming, breaking contracts, and enforcing cruel and unfair work conditions on the local peasants. Added to this was the timing of Mexico's successful break with Spain, which led to numerous changes in the Yucatecan government, including arming the Maya to help fight the Mexican war against the United States in Texas. The Mayan were fighting back against the Mexican government’s threats to their traditional autonomy. For the first time ever, the Maya were allowed to own guns. The Caste War of the Yucatán consisted of the Mayan fighting back against the Mexican government’s threats to their tradition autonomy. During this War, the Maya almost reconquered the Yucatán peninsula. This occurred in 1849 and reflected their agrarian roots and the demands of an agricultural economy, the Maya combatants returned home to plant their corn fields when they sighted clouds of winged ants that were a sign of the first seasonal rains. Whites eventually retook control of the peninsula, but the underlying racial conflict persisted, and the war simmered until 1902.


In the 1920s indigenous peasants began to organize rural syndicates. These syndicates often allied with urban labour unions, or leftist political parties. The creation of these syndicates represented a shift from focusing on local and narrowly conceptualized issues to agitating for larger and more structural changes. In Bolivia the Katarista movement agitated for land reforms following the 1952 nationalist revolution. The Katarista movement consisted of Aymara, Quechua Indians and took its name from the late colonial indigenous leader Túpac Katari. The Katarista movement said thy would analyze their exploitation with two points of views, one being the fact that they are indigenous and the second being the fact that they were peasants.


Another movement was in Guatemala where a Maya nationalist movement emerged that championed cultural pride in traditional lifestyles, dress, religion, language, literature, and education. The Nobel Prize winner and activist Rigoberta Menchú became a high – profile international symbol of indigenous rights movement.


Since the beginning the indigenous people of Latin America have had a constant struggle for not only their liberty but for fair treatment. These movements have fought over the ages for the basic rights of not only the indigenous populations but for all peoples of Latin America and they will continue in their struggle for future generations to come.



Modern Movements:

The Zapatistas of Mexico:

- Lonely Planet's inside view of the Zapatistas and their movement

Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN):
Figure 1.0 - Flag of the EZLN
Figure 1.0 - Flag of the EZLN

The Coca farmers of Bolivia:
Figure 2.0 - Coca farmer in Chapare, Bolivia
Figure 2.0 - Coca farmer in Chapare, Bolivia

For thousands of years before the colonists arrived in Bolivia, many indigenous groups including the Inca, Tupuraya, Mojocoya, Omereque, Tiwanaku, and most notably the Aymara inhabited what is now Bolivia's Chapare province and used the naturally growing coca plant for reasons ranging from medicinal purposes to religious festivals. However, since colonization and ultimate globalization of the Bolivian market, the coca plant has been sought out and literally eradicated for its most recent use as a hallucinogenic, mainly by the hand of the United States government.

- Good analysis of the war against drug trades (cocaine) and support of the coca leaf

The coca plant still holds much importance to the indigenous people of Latin America. Coca has been the source of much debate and many protests as the indigenous population wants to continue their right to farm the plant. Many of the traditional uses of coca are still used today by indigenous groups.

Traditional Indigenous Uses of Coca

“The Andean people began chewing coca 4,500 years ago” (Coca Museum). The importance of the coca leaf for the indigenous people in the Andean region has lasted for thousands of years. The way we view coca and cocaine today would not accurately reflect the indigenous views of the coca leaf, nor does it show any of the traditional uses of the coca leaf. Coca was consumed in tea and was also used for many different medicinal purposes. Andean healers believed that coca could be used as a cure against pain due to its anaesthetic properties. Coca is cultivated at a high altitude and it is believed that chewing the coca leaf would help you adapt to the lack of oxygen.
Coca also had an important social and spiritual role in Andean culture. “ When the white conquers arrived from the north with the slavery work. The coca leaf come down from the gods to the people and becomes a good for general consumption” (Coca Museum). The coca leaf is full of nutrients that are essential to any diet. The coca leaf allowed workers to survive at high altitudes and in mines. Coca will continue to be important in Andean culture because it is deeply rooted in their heritage and culture. The modern uses and transformation of coca have blurred the traditional uses and Latin American history behind the plant. "Like people, it must never be killed, uprooted, norshould the leaves be cast away... I interpret your sickness and all other ill fortune as a punishment from Pacha Mama for having eradicated the coca -it is sacred- is it not true?" (Coca Museum).

Much like the coca leaf, the tobacco plant is often misinterpreted as it has many important indigenous roots. The way tobacco is currently viewed as an ingredient for cigarettes. Indigenous people often farm tobacco, and our forced to sell the tobacco to multinational companies. Tobacco is a part of indigenous culture, but now it is more so an economic reality that they must farm and sell tobacco. The history of tobacco beings with the traditional indigenous uses, yet nowadays tobacco has become distant from its roots, and is a product sold across the globe.

The sacred uses of tobacco

“When tobacco is used to make smoke, it is one of the most sacred of plants for Native people. Some elders say that tobacco is used to connect the worlds since the plant’s roots go deep into the earth, and its smoke rises high into the sky. This plant is highly respected and highly honoured. Giving tobacco is a beautiful way of our people. Ceremonies using tobacco invoke a relationship with the energies of the universe, and ultimately the Creator, and the bond made between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken” (A. Marie). The religious implications associated with the tobacco plant run deep through indigenous culture. The tobacco used in peace pipes and other smoking ceremonies is very pure, and is different from the tobacco that you would find in modern cigarettes. When tobacco is smoked it provides a connection for prayer to the Creator. The evolution of tobacco as a sacred plant with a spirit close to the Creator to the commercial product that it has become today has been very drastic. There is a disconnect between what tobacco used to be, as it is considered a harmful drug nowadays. The modern and traditional meaning behind the use of tobacco has changed. “If we abuse a sacred plant, we risk spiritual disconnection. Many Elders feel that any use of tobacco that occurs outside of ceremony is an affront to the Creator. Think about it! Nothing commercially marketed, chemically laced and mass marketed can sacred” (A. Marie).

Tobacco was originally used in many different ways. Tobacco can be smoked, ingested, inhaled, infused, used for enemas, and rubbed on wounds. The healing properties of tobacco when rubbed on wounds are very surprising. The passing of the peace pipe is one of the most sacred ceremonies in many indigenous cultures. These ancient methods of using tobacco are rarely considered when thinking of the tobacco that we use today. Tobacco has had a very interesting history. Tobacco has come a long way from its indigenous roots, and seems as if its roots have been forgotten.

Evo Morales:


Evo Morales is Bolivia's first fully indigenous President, and one of the most important leaders of indigenous social movements. Morales is of Aymarian descent. He has been the President of Bolivia since 2006, and was successfully re-elected for a second term in 2009. Morales' background is strong in indigenous social movements. He was once the leader of MAS (Movement for Socialism). This indigenous social movement was powerful in fighting for land reforms and nationalization of the country's resources (mainly natural gas). Morales is also the leader of the cocalero movement, which allows indigenous peoples the rights to grow the coca plant. "His power base is in the coca-growing areas of central Bolivia and he remains the head of the biggest coca-growing union" (BBC, 2009). Morales ran in the 2002 election, and received a surprising amount of votes that left him second in the results. "He later played a central role in the violent demonstrations demanding the nationalization of the energy sector that led to the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October 2003" (BBC, 2009). This election and his leadership of MAS allowed him to push for his presidency in 2006, and made indigenous social movements in Latin America more recognizable. Evo Morales allowing with MAS was now viewed as an important political actor with the ability to influence policy. President Morales recently ordered "the army to official recognition to the chequered indigenous flag, or 'wiphala'' (BBC, 2009).
Evo Morales is iconic for the importance of indigenous social movements. Morales may be one the most important figures in the history of indigenous social movements. He represents the voice of the Bolivian indigenous community, and is proof that indigenous peoples do have rights along with the ability to affect change. "Since his election victory in 2005, President Morales has been pushing through reforms to place indigenous peoples at the heart of the Andean nation's government and society" (BBC, 2009)

The Cocaleros and Aymara of the Chapare:

Figure 3.0 - Aymara Women chewing coca

Within the Cochabamba department of Bolivia lies the Chapare region at the foot of the Andes. This province has been used in the cultivation of the native Coca plant because of it's natural fertility for centuries, and not until recently has become an illegal operation. In 1961 as part of their "War on Drugs", the United States launched a program of coca eradication within Bolivia, primerily the Chapare province, and attempted to completely eliminate this extremely important plant.

The Coca plant has historically been utilized for many reasons; these include medicinal purposes which range from hunger relief to fatigue, socioeconomic purposes, and religious purposes including the Aymara's offerings to the sun god Inti and the earth goddess Pachamama. However, recently the production of the relatively new drug cocaine has brought controversial light upon the Chapare region and attention from the USA has almost completely eradicated the once prevalant plant.

In the US government's attempt to eradicate the coca plant, many measures have been taken which vary from chemical herbicides such as Roundup, which had been proven to cause severe environmental impacts, to fungus infestacions such as the newly implemented Fusarium Oxysporum, and even to the extremes of Paramilitary death squads who were commissioned to "hunt down" the farmers of the Coca plant, who were mainly the Aymara and the Cocaleros, destroy their crops, and kill the farmers as well.

These programs implemented against the Aymara peoples have greatly affected their socioeconomic as well as cultural well-being in ways such as decimating their crops which ultimately destroys their livelyhood and essentially their way of life. However, in light of the devastation faced by the Aymara, and the previously mentioned Cocaleros, current President Evo Morales has made it possible, through his leadership of the Cocalero movement, for coca cultivation to continue legally in certain areas of Bolivia.

Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples (COIP):

The Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples, or COIP as it is most commonly reffered to, was founded in 1987 and now represents many countries including Belize, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Puerto Rico, Saint Vincent, Suriname, and Trinidad & Tobago. The aims of this organziation incude but are not limited to the liberation of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and their movement towards true quality.

The Santa Rosa Carib Community of Arima:

Figure 4.0 - Amerindians in San Fernando, Trinidad & Tobago
Figure 4.0 - Amerindians in San Fernando, Trinidad & Tobago

The Santa Rosa Carib Community is an indigenous community within Arima, Trinidad in the Caribbean which strives for recognition amongst the colonists who now dominate the region. These indigenous groups, often reffered to as the Amerindians, are not involved with "radical" social movements per se; however, over the past aproximately 50 years of the community's existance, much ground has been gained in the revitalization of the traditions and culture of the Caribbean indigenous community.

Ricardo Bharath Hernandez:
Figure 5.0 - Ricardo Bharath (centre) with Manitoba chiefs reps in Trinidad
Figure 5.0 - Ricardo Bharath (centre) with Manitoba chiefs reps in Trinidad

"Ricardo Bharath has been a key figure responsible for the revival and resurgance of the Carib Community" (M. Forte, 2006). Hernandez is very heavily involved with indigenous movements such as the Santa Rosa Carib Community which he is currently the President of; however, he focuses mainly on the revitalization of the Amerindian culture through the Santa Rosa festival which is begins every year at 6:00am on 1st Augsust. Hernandez has been quoted as stating that he always looked forward to going to the Santa Rosa festival in order to emerce himself within the Carib Community, however, after years of neglect for the festival, he felt it had gone into dissaray and from then on had taken it upon himself to ensure it fully represented the vitality of the Indigenous population. Among others, some achievements of Ricardo Bharath include:
- "revitalizing the Santa Rosa Festival
- obtaining financial support for the community's activities
- constructing a community centre
- fostering links and working relations with other Caribbean Amerindians
- lobbying for land and funds for the community
- assisting foreign researchers in learning more of the Carib community
- highlighting the importance of the Carib contribution to the nation" (M. Forte, 2006)


Bolivian Indians in historic step


The Bolivian government has begun implementing provisions outlined in the new constitution that give indigenous people the chance to govern themselves.

The new constitutional rights for indigenous peoples in Bolivia is a historic step for the country, as outlined in the BBC article posted above. Evo Morales is the first indigenous President in the country's history. He has began to implement policies that address many of the key issues affecting indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Issues such as self-determination, cultural identity, land rights, and political sovereignty. One of the major cultural issues of the indigenous peoples in Bolivia is the ability to grow the coca plant. Evo Morales stated, " I am a coca grower- I cultivate coca leaf, which is a natural product, I do not refine it into cocaine" (BBC, 2009). The coca plant is a part of their cultural identity and daily lives, but has come under much political pressure from U.S lobbyists against the drug trade. Much like the coca plant, the new constitutional rights given to indigenous peoples has not been popular with the traditional elite in Bolivia. The changes to the judicial system, and a greater autonomy for indigenous peoples threatens the traditional elites status as the dominant class. It is interesting to see that progressive indigenous policies have actually been implemented. This is a great example of indigenous social movement become reality through politics. Mr. Morales said it was "a historic day for the peasant and indigenous movement" (BBC, 2009). Evo Morales was once a leader of indigenous social movements with MAS(movement for socialism), now it is important that his vision continues for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia through his presidency.


BBC. (2010, March 24). Bolivian army adopts cuba's revolutionary slogan. Retrieved from

BBC. (2009, December 1). Profile: bolivia's president evo morales. Retrieved from

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