Across Latin America, a Struggle for Communal Land and Indigenous Autonomy

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Sunday, 20 July 2014 00:00By Santiago Navarro F., Renata Bessi and Translated by Miriam Taylor, Truthout | News Analysis

 

Communal Land and Autonomy

Entering into the heart of indigenous communities in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, land of the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs, is like opening a door to a world of shapes, textures, colors and flavors that contrasts with the Western culture that governs daily life in big cities and westernized families. These indigenous communities are strongly tied to the mountains, to the smell of coffee that mixes with the smell of pines and the fragrance of flowers, to the legends that are woven by looms into clothing. All this takes place in lands that cannot be bought or owned.

If poetry, legends, clothing and food are the ways in which the ancestral culture of the indigenous Oaxacans is materialized and maintained, then “uses and customs” is the living expression of the political system of these communities, which has maintained its legitimacy historically, like any other state system. Of the 570 municipalities in the state of Oaxaca, 418 are governed through the traditional form of political organization of “uses and customs.” Only 152 have adopted a conventional system using political parties, a striking reality that is not just relevant in Mexico but in all of Latin America.

As an example, Bolivia is the country with the largest indigenous population in Latin America; according to the UN, 62 percent of Bolivians are part of an indigenous group. Only 11 local governments, however, are recognized as autonomous, with the right to elect their authorities through their own “uses and customs” system.

Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s 31 states, has the country’s highest level of diversity as well as the largest indigenous population. Of the 3.5 million inhabitants in the state, according to official statistics, more than one-third of the population is of indigenous origin (1,165,186 individuals). However, it wasn’t until 1995 that all the municipalities’ normative systems of “uses and customs” were legally recognized in Oaxaca’s state congress.”

 

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