Double-edged sword


Maximilian Viatori shows how multiculturalism can open spaces
for unrepresented groups, but can
also neutralise their promise by institutionalising them
within formal politics

Photo: CONAIE, ANPE FOTO/Patricio Realpe/


One State, Many Nations:
Indigenous Rights Struggles
in Ecuador
Maximilian Viatori
2009, School for Advanced
Research, Santa Fe
155 pages, plates

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

APARADOX at the heart of what might called the indigenous Enlightenment that has propelled the identity of native peoples and their concerns to the heart of politics in Latin America since the end of the Cold war is that official recognition can be a double-edged sword.

Just as state discourses on multiculturalism can open spaces for previously un- or under-represented groups, it can also seek to control the agenda and institutionalise their behaviour within formal politics.

The problem is, the indigenous movement is far from formal, belonging to that loose and often ill-defined arm of civil society that operates in a parallel universe to institutional politics known as the new social movements.

Maximilian Viatori’s excellent and well-focused study on the Zápara indigenous people in Ecuador offers valuable empirical evidence of the advantages and pitfalls of small social movements playing politics by formal rules in a society known for its progressive stance towards native people.

Danger of extinction

The tiny Zápara group from the Amazonian rainforest is one of the smallest indigenous nationalities in Ecuador, with roughly 200 members, mostly living along the Conambo and Pindoyacu rivers. The language – spoken by just five elders and in grave danger of extinction – is part of a family of Amazonian languages in eastern Ecuador and northern Peru all now either dead or greatly endangered.

It was for this reason that, in 2001, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared it part of the “oral patrimony” of mankind, and pledged to help the Zápara preserve it and their oral tradition. The move was greeted with enthusiasm in Ecuador, and compelled the country’s government to push forward its own preservation efforts – in dramatic contrast to its reaction to indigenous protests and political demands led by the remarkable Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) a few months earlier when the interim and highly unpopular president Gustavo Noboa deployed the police and military.

Viatori had gone to Ecuador to help document this language, and its recognition was in some senses the culmination of a process of mobilisation that had begun in 1998 when four communities came together as the Nacionalidad Zápara de Ecuador (NAZAE) to reassert their identity based on the establishment of a legal and distinct Zápara territory.

It was the contrast between the government’s response to UNESCO recognition of the Zápara, and its hostility towards CONAIE that, Viatori argues, traces the boundaries of what is possible and what is not in indigenous politics. One State, Many Nations addresses what the author calls the “paradoxical” treatment of indigenous identity.

Viatori asks a question that is becoming increasingly pertinent throughout Latin America: has the official recognition of indigenous rights provided new opportunities for indigenous actors, or in fact further restricted their political action?

Ecuador offers the perfect focus for such a study: it has been at the vanguard of Latin America’s indigenous rights reforms, and in 1998 the revision of its constitution to give indigenous expanded linguistic, cultural and territorial rights blazed a trail and set the subsequent pace for reforms throughout the region.

Viatori makes an important distinction between an official “multiculturalism” – which accepted under pressure limited ethnic reforms concerned with recognising diversity – and the preferred notions of indigenous peoples themselves of “interculturalism” and “plurinationality” which stress the need for far more substantive economic and politics rights for a social group that has long been neglected.

As the author states, the core issue in debate has been whther multicultural reforms have stood in opposition to – or have been integrated into – larger economic and political changes made by many Latin American states to improve their position in the global marketplace.

A potent argument has been that neoliberal reforms opened up new spaces for the development of a radical indigenous movement while simultaneously marginalising indigenous people. In keeping with this, Viatori attempts to show that multicultural reforms generated novel openings for indigenous organisations, yet at the same time limited the parameters of indigenous activism and caused new divisions within movements.

The author conducted ethnographic research among the Zápara, studying their activism, between 2001-04, and his research suggests that the group was subject to a long and subtle process of political integration that steered it towards projecting its identity in ways that responded to elite notions of recognition. Moreover, despite the promise by official multiculturalism of expanded autonomy for indigenous organisations, NAZAE increasingly found itself dependent on outside “experts” in a way that limited the value of their accrued political knowledge. Finally, official multiculturalism’s emphasis on local variations in dress, language and economic production as legitimate indicators of indigenous identity generated bitter disputes within the Zápara over which groups were most entitled to recognition – and hence funding.

Viatori paints a fascinating picture of an organisation’s rapid rise followed by decline amid emerging divisions within Ecuador’s indigenous movement fuelled by centralist politicians in Quito such as Lucio Gutiérrez capitalizing on discord.

While the story is not all bleak, and organizations such as CONAIE put considerable effort into rebuilding alliances with social movements that had been seriously eroded as a result of their own political success, the author highlights the key issues facing indigenous groups seeking to redefine politics in today’s Latin America, and the lessons they can learn. Viatori writes:

“… NAZAE’s story plainly illustrates the limitations imposed on local indigenous activists by official discourses of multiculturalism in Ecuador… In short, multicultural reforms have not provided the Zápara with an effective foothold for bringing about changes in their situation.” [p. 123]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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