Report on indigenous political representation: Introduction and summary

In the coming weeks, Global Americans will release a serialized report on indigenous rights and political integration in the Americas, focusing on the comparative cases of Mexico and Guatemala. First up, an introduction to the project and a primer on the state of political integration across the hemisphere.


Executive Summary

Across the world, concepts such as social inclusion, human rights and fundamental freedoms remain distant for many indigenous peoples. In Latin America, this gap is particularly acute. The region’s indigenous populations lag behind non-indigenous peoples in terms of political representation, economic prosperity, development, healthcare, and access to justice.

On average, 43% of the indigenous population in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru live in poverty (defined as an income of less than $4 per day) while only 21% of the non-indigenous population are counted among the poor  in the region.1

In the past 30 years, multilateral organizations and civil society groups have made progress in terms of recognizing indigenous peoples’ legal rights to self-determination and previous and informed consent (consulta previa), but most of these advances have taken place at the international level, oftentimes with little impact in the daily lives of indigenous populations. Since the mid-1990s, when the Zapatista movement in Mexico first brought indigenous issues to international attention, indigenous leaders have been increasingly recognized as important political actors pushing for greater social inclusion for indigenous peoples.

While there are bright spots in the fight of indigenous peoples’ recognition (for example the establishment of local political parties representing indigenous communities in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas) such recognition has not translated into significant change in terms of indigenous presence in national legislatures or even national parties across Latin America, with the possible exception of Bolivia. More noticeable is the absence of greater indigenous representation in the national legislatures of Guatemala and Mexico, two Latin American countries with a large proportion of indigenous peoples as a percentage of population.

In this report, Global Americans analyzes the concept of social inclusion and its evolution as a “guaranteed” freedom for indigenous peoples in Latin America. Taking the right to free, informed, and prior consultation as the baseline to measure progress in social inclusion for indigenous peoples in Latin America, country cases for Guatemala and Mexico are examined comparatively.   Mexico has the largest absolute indigenous population and Guatemala has the largest relative indigenous population. Viewed comparatively, the two cases allow for insights on best practices and areas of opportunity for further indigenous political representation, development in the region and the rest of the developing world. In the coming weeks, Global Americans will publish the Guatemala and Mexico country cases and, at the end of the month, publish the report in its entirety.

Social inclusion: A general overview

What is social inclusion?
Experts seem to agree that an inclusive society is one that ensures equality of opportunity for all, regardless of differences of race, gender, class, generation and geography2. The World Bank (WB) defines social inclusion as “the process of improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of people, disadvantaged on the basis of their identity, to take part in society.”3  To the United Nations (UN), an inclusive society is a “society for all, in which every individual, each with rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play.”4

When discussing the concept of social inclusion, talking about social exclusion is also necessary. A socially excluded individual can’t participate in the “basic political, economic and social functioning of the society in which he or she lives.”5 Social exclusion materializes if being a member of a defined group—indigenous populations, afro-descendants, women, or members of the LGBT community—has an impact on the access to opportunities in society.6

Social inclusion and inequality
In the last 100 years, the world has experienced accelerated economic growth produced by a set of factors—globalization and advances in technology chief among them—which in turn has resulted in poverty reduction and greater opportunities for prosperity and development.

Poverty reduction has been set as the mission statement or target of numerous multilateral, cross-country or national programs, the largest of which resulted in the creation of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The UN Millennium Declaration of 2000, translated into a 15-year effort to tackle eight goals, contributed to lift more than half the world’s population out of poverty, from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 20157.

However, while the world has experienced economic growth and progress and the MDGs have served as a mechanism to produce significant gains in poverty alleviation, health, sanitation and education across the globe, such progress has been distributed unequally across regions and within countries–not only in terms of purchasing parity but also in the unmet supply of basic public services at the macro and micro levels.

Social inclusion, poverty reduction and inequality in Latin America: Gains and loses
As any Latin Americanist can tell you the region is the most unequal region in the world.  That unfortunate distinction remained ever after millions of citizens left the ranks of the poor to join a fragile middle class in the first part of the century.

In 2000, 25.1% of the population lived in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $2.5 a day). By 2012, this figure had dropped to 12.3 percent8. Similarly, the proportion living in poverty dropped from 42% in 2000 to 25.3% in 20129. These drops  accompanied a similar reduction in inequality. Between 2002 and 2010, the average Gini coefficient—the standard measure to analyze income inequality—went down by 0.7 points yearly in Latin America.10

While these are major gains for Latin America, there is also reason to be wary about how long-standing they may be. The region has experienced an economic cooling down since the beginning of the decade, and since, the reduction of poverty and inequality rates has slowed.  For instance, between 2010 and 2014, the Gini coefficient fell by 0.3 points a year, less than half the rate of the previous decade.11  In fact, by 2013, 40% of the population lived in the “fragile middle.”12 This segment of the population is neither poor nor economically secure, earning between $4 and $10 per day–a step away of falling back into poverty if their countries experience economic shocks.

It is also worth noting that the improvement of poverty and inequality indicators has not been homogenous throughout the region. Countries like Chile and Peru have experienced a spectacular reduction in poverty, while in others—Mexico and Guatemala—poverty levels have remained stable or even increased. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the countries that registered the highest poverty reduction between 2010 and 2014 were Uruguay with an annual reduction rate of 14.9%, Peru with 9.8%, Chile with 9.1% and Brazil with 7.9 percent. On the contrary, between 2006 and 2014, Guatemala saw an annual poverty increase of 3.29%, and in Mexico, poverty increased at an annual rate of 2.65% between 2010 and 2014.

Social inclusion, poverty and inequality for Latin America’s indigenous peoples
Though the progress in reducing poverty across the region is noteworthy, the benefits of these achievements have been unevenly distributed at the expense of the indigenous population, even within the most successful countries.

Although Latin America’s indigenous peoples account for less than 8% of the regional population, they make up 17% of the region’s extremely poor.13  As of 2015, in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, the proportion of indigenous households living under poverty is double the proportion of non-indigenous households. In these same countries, extreme poverty is 2.7 times as high for indigenous households and three times as high for people living on less than $1.25 a day.14

Compared to the reductions in poverty in these countries, Latin America’s indigenous populations are being left behind.

Social inclusion in Latin America: The origin and evolution of the right to free, prior and informed consultation and consent

Indigenous peoples’ rights: International legal framework
With over 800 distinct groups and a population of 45 million—approximately 8% of the region’s population—indigenous peoples are one of the most excluded and vulnerable groups in Latin America15. The recognition of indigenous rights has been an issue for centuries, as the issue is usually at the bottom of the public agenda, even in countries with a substantive indigenous population. In countries with small indigenous populations, the situation is even more dire.

Figure 1
Indigenous peoples in Latin America

After the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1949, some international organizations like the International Labor Organization (ILO) started to consider the relevance of indigenous peoples in society and their status as equal right holders16. That gave way, in 1957, to the first Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention of ILO: the Convention Concerning the Protection and Integration of Indigenous and Other Tribal and Semi-Tribal Populations in Independent Countries (C 107).

The rationale behind C 107 was that all countries should make efforts to integrate their indigenous populations into society.  The convention recognized that groups that hadn’t been fully integrated into national communities lagged behind in the benefits and rights enjoyed by other segments of the population and in that vein aimed for a progressive integration and the improvement of living and working conditions for indigenous peoples.

Although it was a milestone for achieving greater social inclusion for indigenous peoples, C 107 failed to consider indigenous communities’ right to self-determination: the right that all peoples can freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, exercised in conformity with international law.17  During the 1960s and 1970s, indigenous peoples’ efforts at the international and national level lead to a review this Convention. ILO established a group of experts to review the procedure and by 1986 concluded that C 107’s integrationist focus was in fact outdated.18

In 1989, ILO signed a new Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention—C 169 or ILO 169—the next milestone in the recognition of indigenous rights. Since its approval 15 Latin American states have ratified the convention, the most of any region.19

ILO 169 is the first international convention that recognized indigenous peoples’ right to previous and informed consent (consulta previa)  whenever a legislative or administrative measure might affect an indigenous community. The convention established that consultations should be conducted through representative institutions. ILO 169 is the most important piece of international law to ensure self-determination for Latin America’s indigenous communities, especially given the number of ratifying countries and its integration into their constitutions.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) approved the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP conceded the insufficiency of simply asking what indigenous peoples thought about the policies or projects that affect indigenous communities.  The 2007 declaration recognized indigenous people’s right to provide their express agreement for the project, policy or program to move forward. It is worth noting that UNDRIP was approved in the UN General Assembly with a majority of 144 states voting in favor, 4 against and 11 abstentions. Canada and the United States voted against the original Declaration and Colombia abstained. Now, all three countries have reversed their decision and now support the Declaration.

The inter-American system has also been key in advancing the right to prior consultation and self-determination of indigenous peoples. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) has been upholding these rights in its reports, petitions and cases, and through precautionary measures.20 The IACHR has ruled in favor of prior consultation in two paradigmatic cases: the case of the Saramaka People v. Suriname and the case of Kichwa Indigenous people of Sarayaku v. Ecuador (see Box 1 and 2 for further detail on each case). With these cases, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared a state’s obligation to conduct free, prior, and informed consultations procedures before implementing projects that can affect the indigenous communities, their land, culture of their adequate development. Such consultations must respect the traditions and customs of each people. Moreover, an independent entity must review the social and environmental impact of the project under review before any concessions are made.

Box 1
Case of the Saramaka Peoples v. Suriname

In 2006, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) submitted an application to the Court against the government of Suriname over the construction of the Afobaka dam, which displaced the Saramaka people The IACHR blamed the state for lack of consultation with the Saramaka people before the construction of the dam. In the end, the court unanimously declared that the state violated the right to property of the Saramaka people, as recognized in article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights in relation to the obligations to respect, ensure and to give domestic legal protection to said right.

Box 2
Case of the Kichwa Indigenous Peoples of Sarayaku v. Ecuador

On 2010, the IACHR submitted an application to the Court against the state of Ecuador over the granting of a permit to a private oil company to carry out oil exploitation activities in the territory of the Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku during the 1990s. The company began the exploration phase and introduced high-powered explosives in several places on indigenous territory. The court found the state guilty of not consulting with the indigenous peoples of Sarayaku prior to granting the permit.

In 2016, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) approved the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after negotiations that had lasted 17 years23. The declaration makes further progress in indigenous peoples’ legal recognition. It highlights the use of self-identification as the criteria for qualifying as an indigenous person, alongside recognition of the right to self-determination. Nevertheless, the declaration was met with resistance by indigenous groups, who complained about their lack of full participation in the negotiation stages. Opposed indigenous groups also voiced their concerns regarding the declaration’s roll back of several rights already recognized in UNDRIP24. For example, the declaration does not even mention the right to free, prior, informed consultation and consent. In addition, Canada, Colombia and the United States broke consensus in certain articles and sections in the OAS Declaration.25

In order to provide clarity between the conventions and legal mechanisms that address the recognition of indigenous peoples and their right to free, prior, informed consultation and consent, Table 1 contains a comparison of the main characteristics of ILO 169, UNDRIP and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (OAS).

Table 1
A path to social inclusion for indigenous peoples: Comparative legal framework

ILO 169 UNDRIP American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (OAS)
Adopted in… June 27, 1989 September 13, 2007 June 15, 2016
Signatory countries… Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Central African Republic, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominica, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, and Venezuela. Approved in the UN General Assembly by a majority of 144 states in favor, 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States)26 and 11 abstentions (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine). Approved by consensus with specific comments by the Canadian, Colombian and U.S. delegations.
Categorization of “indigenous peoples” and “self-identification” as criteria of application…. ILO 169 defines tribal peoples in independent countries as those whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations.

ILO 169 also includes in this definition peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.
In this sense, self-identification as indigenous or tribal converts into the fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of ILO 169 apply.

Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN agency.

Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following criteria: self- identification as indigenous peoples; historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies; strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; distinct social, economic or political systems; distinct language, culture and beliefs; the formation of non-dominant groups of society, and lastly, the resolve to maintain and reproduce ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

As contained in the first article of the Declaration, self-identification as indigenous peoples will be a fundamental criterion for determining to whom this Declaration applies.

Member states shall respect the right to such self-identification as indigenous, individually or collectively, in keeping with the practices and institutions of each indigenous people.

The incorporation of a specific procedure for the exercise of “prior-consultation” Article 6: ILO 169 in its article six states that in applying the provisions of this Convention, governments shall consult the peoples concerned, through appropriate procedures and in particular through their representative institutions, whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures, which may affect them directly.

To this end, states must establish means by which these peoples can freely participate, to at least the same extent as other sectors of the population, at all levels of decision-making in elective institutions and administrative and other bodies responsible for policies and programs which concern them. Article 6 also declares that member states must establish means for the full development of these peoples’ own institutions and initiatives, and in appropriate cases provide the resources necessary for this purpose.

Article 19: Article 19 of the UN Declaration specifies the procedure to conduct prior consultation, where States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that
may affect them and their communities.
Article 21: The American Declaration specifically states that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their own decision-making institutions. They also have the right to participate in the decision making in matters, which would affect their rights. They may do so directly or through their representatives, and accordance with their own norms, procedures, and traditions. They also have the right to equal opportunities to access and to participate fully and effectively as peoples in all national institutions and fora, including deliberative bodies. It is a comprehensive declaration incorporating the right of self-identification and self-government.

Social inclusion and political indigenous representation in Latin America

Home to over 800 different indigenous peoples, Latin America’s indigenous population is estimated at 45 million people27. In some countries, like Bolivia and Guatemala, between 40% and 60% of the population is indigenous. In Peru, this proportion is around 24%. In Mexico it is 15%, though Mexico has the largest absolute population of indigenous in the region with 17 million people.

The high proportion of indigenous peoples against total population size raises a question: How well are indigenous peoples represented at the federal, state or even local political level?
The answer: Barely. And in many cases, when indigenous peoples do get elected to office, it’s because of a quota system.
The reasons for minimum political representation are multiple—economic, geographic, organizational, and cultural—and point to the many ways governments, civil society and political parties need to tackle this severe representational imbalance if a true democratic system in the region is to prevail.

One of the main demands of the indigenous movements in recent decades has been the need for the full recognition of indigenous identity as subject of collective rights: their right to self-determination, collective property of land, and of course, political participation28. Article 5 of the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples captures this demand:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”

While it’s clear that the state should recognize indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, it’s also important that the formal political channels of participation are open to them. Global Americans analyzed the diversity and indigenous representation of the Legislative branch in several Latin American countries.

By contrasting the alleged indigenous population of those countries with the indigenous leaders elected in their national legislatures, Global Americans closely examined representation gaps. This gap is calculated by the difference between the percentage of indigenous population over the total population and the percentage of indigenous representatives in their national legislatures.

Global Americans discovered that the three countries that fared best in proportion of political representation are Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Given the proportion of the indigenous population against the total number of inhabitants, Bolivia may seem an obvious case. But it is not the same in countries like Guatemala or Peru, whose populations are also largely indigenous.

Table 2 details political representation gaps throughout Latin America. Bolivia is a paradigmatic case. It is the only country with an established indigenous political party in power: the Socialist Movement (Movimiento al Socialismo-MAS). MAS holds the largest absolute number of indigenous congressmen, with 41 representatives. However, the overall gap between the indigenous population and the seats in Congress is still 39.76 percent.

Mexico, which has over 17 million indigenous citizens, stands in stark contrast. In Mexico’s bicameral legislature, only 14 indigenous representatives have been elected, which translates into a representation gap of 81.33 percent.

Table 2
Political representation of indigenous peoples in Latin America

Global Americans also analyzed whether countries with less severe representation gaps had affirmative action policies in place for indigenous peoples. These policies reserve a certain amount of seats in congress for indigenous legislators. Only three countries have reserved seats, and two of them fare well in terms of representation (Bolivia and Venezuela). Colombia, the third country with affirmative action policies in place, still has a 66% indigenous representation gap.

Mexico does not demand ethnic-based quotas within political parties’ lists, but since 2001, parties have been taking indigenous populations into consideration when drawing electoral districts. Since then, the electoral authorities have created 28 districts which are 40% indigenous or more. However, their representation in Congress is still one of the lowest in the region at 2.80 percent.

Reserved seats may be a good starting point to increase indigenous political representation, but this policy in isolation is not likely to solve the issue as a whole. As Ecuador—which has no affirmative action policy, yet has the lowest representation gap—proves, national organization and mobilization matters more at the national stage than set-asides.

All told, indigenous populations across Latin America still lag frustratingly behind non-indigenous populations across the continent, both in terms of social inclusion and political representation. In the coming weeks, Global Americans will release reports on the comparative cases of indigenous social and political integration in Mexico and Guatemala, which illustrate the work that still needs to be done throughout the region.

1. The World Bank. “Indigenous Latin America in the Twenty-First Century: The First Decade.” Washington, DC: World Bank, 2015. P.19. (accessed June 2017).
2. UNDESA. “Analyzing and Measuring Social Inclusion in a Global Context.” New York, NY: United Nations, 2010. P.3. (accessed June 2017).
3. The World Bank. “Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity.” Washington, DC: World Bank, 2013. P.50. (accessed June 2017).
4. United Nations. “Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development.” United Nations, World Summit for Social Development, 14 March 1995. A/CONF.166/9, Chapter IV, Social Integration, Basics for action and objectives, Paragraph 66. (accessed June 2017).
5. Buvanic, Mayra and Jaqueline Mazza. “Gender and social inclusion: social policy perspectives from Latin America and the Caribbean.” Arusha Conference, “New Frontiers of Social Policy.” December 12 -15, 2005. P. 2. (accessed June 2017).
6. Ibid., P.3.
7. United Nations. “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015. MDG success springboard for the new sustainable development agenda: UN report.” UN Department of Public Information, 2015. (accessed June 2017).
8. The World Bank. “Social Gains in the Balance-A Fiscal Policy Challenge for Latin America and the Caribbean.” LAC Poverty and Labor Brief (February). Washington, DC: World Bank, 2014. P.9. (accessed June 2017).
9. Ibid., P. 9.
10. Gasparini, Leonardo; Guillermo Cruces and Leopoldo Tornarolli. “Chronicle of a Deceleration Foretold: Income inequality in Latin America in the 2010s.” Documento de Trabajo Nro. 198. CEDLAS, Universidad Nacional de la Plata: May, 2016. P.2.
11. Gasparini, Leonardo; Guillermo Cruces and Leopoldo Tornarolli. “Chronicle of a Deceleration Foretold: Income inequality in Latin America in the 2010s.” Documento de Trabajo Nro. 198. CEDLAS, Universidad Nacional de la Plata: May, 2016. P.4.
12. Robert, Maryse. “Inequality and Social Inclusion in the Americas: Key Drivers, Recent Trends, Way Forward : 14 essays.” Washington, DC: OAS, 2014. P. 33. (accessed June, 2017).
13. The World Bank. “Higher Poverty Rates for Latin America’s Indigenous.”The Data Blog, WB: 2017. (accessed September 2017).
14. The World Bank. “Indigenous Latin-America in the Twenty-First Century.” Washington, DC: World Bank. P. 59. (accessed September 2017)
15. CEPAL. “Los pueblos indígenas en América Latina: Avances en el ultimo decenio y retos pendientes para la garantía de sus derechos.” Santiago de Chile, Naciones Unidas: November 2014. (accessed June, 2017).
16. Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos. “Recomendación General No. 27/2016 Sobre el Derecho a la Consulta Previa de los Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas de la República Mexicana.” Ciudad de México: CNDH México, 11 July 2016. P. 3/58. (accessed June 2017).
17. United Nations. “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” UN: 2008. P. 3. (accessed July 2017).
18. Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos. “Recomendación General No. 27/2016 Sobre el Derecho a la Consulta Previa de los Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas de la República Mexicana.” Ciudad de México: CNDH México, 11 July 2016. P. 3/58. (accessed June 2017).
19. Due Process of Law Foundation. “Right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consultation and Consent in Latin America: Progress and Challenges in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru.” Washington, DC: DPLF-OXFAM, 2015. P. 2. (accessed August 2017).
20. Fundación para el Debido Proceso. “Derecho a la consulta y al consentimiento previo, libre e informado en América Latina: Avances y desafíos para su implementación en Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala y Perú.” Washington, DC: Fundación para el Debido Proceso / OXFAM, 2015. P. 7. (accessed June 2017).
21. Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “Case of the Saramaka People v. Suriname. Judgement of November 28, 2007.” (accessed September 2017).
22. Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “Case of the Kichwa indigenous People of Sarayuku v. Ecuador.” (accessed September 2017).
23. OAS. “A 17-Year Wait Pays off for Indigenous Peoples.” Reference: E-075/16. Washington, DC: OAS, 15 June 2016. (accessed June 2017).
24. IWGIA. OEA: Declaración vulnera derechos de los pueblos indígenas. Grupo Internacional de Trabajo sobre Asuntos Indígenas. Denmark: IWGIA, 22 June 2016. (accessed June 2017).
26. The four countries voting against have reversed their position and now support the Declaration.
27. CEPAL. “Los pueblos indígenas en América Latina: Avances en el ultimo decenio y retos pendientes para la garantía de sus derechos.” Santiago de Chile, Naciones Unidas: November 2014. (accessed August 2017).
28. Ibid.
29. The indigenous popuation of many countries is an estimation, since most countries use different criteria to identify who belongs to an indigenous groups. Additionally, some countries have not conducted censuses in over ten years.

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