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Indigenous Capitalists, from BC to Peru

For Nisga'a and Amazonian aboriginals alike, the private ownership message of economist Hernando de Soto is stirring controversy. A special report.

By Arno Kopecky 5 Jan 2010 |

Freelance journalist Arno Kopecky has a Global Fellowship with the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation to investigate Canadian ties with Latin America.

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Awajun children hike through their territory in the endangered Peruvian Amazon. Photo A. Kopecky.

Eleven years after the Nisga'a became the first tribe in B.C. to sign a treaty, gaining self-government over 2000 square kilometers on the northwest coast, the nation went a step further and decided to let its citizens own the homes they live in. The news that private ownership would be legal on Nisga'a land rippled out of the Nass River valley in November, reminding those who heard it of how things work for the rest of Canada's First Nations. If you live on a reserve in this country, your home belongs to the Crown, effectively barring you from the single most important economic tool in Western society: credit.

The impact of that state of affairs was recently summed up by Manny Jules, the Shuswap chief who was a key architect of the Nisga'a Final Agreement. Addressing the House of Commons in September, Jules asked his audience to consider the damage wrought by the global economic crisis as a result of collapsing credit systems. "If a credit crisis can do this to your economy in one year," he said, "think of what a 130-year credit crisis would feel like. That is precisely what we have faced since the 1876 Indian Act."

Two weeks after he gave that speech, I met Jules over breakfast at a restaurant in downtown Vancouver. It wasn't the Nisga'a I wanted to talk about, but the natives of the Peruvian Amazon.

Oil, gas and bullets

Jules, who has silver hair that flows from his crown to the middle of his back, had flown to South America in July to spread his message. "When I saw their temples," he said, "it was very powerful for me, because it spoke to the contribution our peoples have made to humanity over the course of history. Here are incredible works of architecture, seamlessly constructed and aligned with the stars. The same societies came up with the value of zero. They bred corn and tomatoes and turkeys, and trade flourished from the top to the bottom of the Americas."

While Jules' primary focus is on plugging Canadian First Nations into the Canadian economy, he also believes in a broader project known as the Eagle and the Condor -- linking up North and South American native populations, whose struggles are all too similar.

In Peru, however, those struggles took a bloody turn when government troops opened fire on a crowd of native protesters at the Amazon's edge last spring; 82 people were sent to hospital with bullet wounds and another 34 straight to the morgue.

Jules' trip was a direct response to that disaster; he'd been invited to appear in a documentary promoting a peaceful solution to the oil-and-gas-driven conflicts now tearing through the rainforest.

Hernando de Soto's prescription

The documentary was produced by Hernando de Soto, a hugely popular Peruvian economist whose accolades include an endorsement from Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people and a close brush with the Nobel Prize. De Soto, who has advised dozens of presidents around the world, earned his fame with The Mystery of Capital, a book about getting the world's poorest citizens involved in the formal economy. In it, he argues that the first step for developing countries is to give slum residents legal title to the shacks they inhabit (most of the world's governments view these citizens as illegal squatters). De Soto's recommendations have been applied to roughly half his own country, but the other half -- the side carpeted by rainforest -- remains mired in indigenous land disputes strikingly similar to those in Canada.

When last June's crackdown provoked domestic and international outrage, de Soto turned his attention to the problem of indigenous rights.

"When I heard what de Soto was doing, I recognized the same arguments that I've been making all these years," Jules told me. "He comes at it from education, I learned it from experience, but we're talking about the same thing. And then I got to Peru and heard all these stories from the natives - that they are living on land they're restricted from exploiting; that in order to gain legal access to that land, they must renounce their identity as indigenous peoples; and meanwhile foreign companies that make private deals with the government have greater legal right to the land than they do. These are stories I instantly recognized, having heard them time and again here in Canada."

De Soto's documentary, The Mystery of Capital among the Indigenous People of the Amazon, plays like an exotic epilogue to his book. Speaking to a crowd of be-feathered Indians in their jungle lodge, de Soto introduces Jules and a few other North American chiefs: "What we would like to do today," he announces, "is see how they went from being tribes to become powerful organizations that can deal with the market. How they have adapted to the 21st century, nevertheless preserving their identity and keeping their traditions."

Manny Jules comes on next, uttering a few words that, like the grass skirts in the audience, seem largely ceremonial: "My dream is to unite the Eagle and the Condor so that one day all of our peoples of the Americas will be able to work together for a better future."

The camera then fades to a scene where de Soto is walking through a forest trail with a local chief. "The world has an impression that private property doesn't exist here," de Soto says, "nor business enterprise, but I've seen various enterprises in your community. We have a mistaken image of you. . . am I wrong?"

No, replies his companion, you are not. "We are collective in the form of organization," he says, "but beyond that collectivity, whatever we have is individual."

That phrase echoed something Jules told me in Vancouver, when I asked him if private ownership didn't go against the holistic world view of indigenous people.

"Just walk into any chief's house uninvited," he replied, "and you'll get your answer."

On the ground in the Amazon

A few days after I met Jules, I boarded a plane to meet the Awajun natives who took part in the highway blockade so violently disrupted last June. The clash took place in a region of northern Peru known as the "eyebrows of the jungle," where the dry Andes give way to florid foothills marking the beginning of a rainforest that reaches all the way to the Atlantic. Peru hosts the biggest stretch of Amazon outside Brazil, the third largest rainforest on earth, and until the price of oil stretched towards $100/barrel, it had been one of the most pristine as well.

That appears set to change now. Three quarters of the Peruvian Amazon has been leased to oil and gas companies in the past few years. As soon as the price rebounds from its current slump, it's a safe bet the drilling will too.

And while Manny Jules wasn't a household name in that region yet, Hernando de Soto certainly was.

"I believe he is a man of integrity," Luis Kunchikui, an Awajun leader, told me, "but I don't like his politics." Kunchikui, a vigorous man in his mid-forties, looked nothing like the natives in de Soto's video - he wore khaki shorts and a polo t-shirt buttoned halfway down in the heat. I met him at a meeting of regional chiefs -- all similarly attired -- in Bagua Grande, a dusty town that hardly merits a sentence in the Lonely Planet. Today, Bagua Grande has gained some in-country notoriety for its role in last spring's violence; when residents heard native blood was being spilled a few kilometers down the highway, thousands rioted and burned down a good portion of their central avenida.

"Picture this," Kunchikui told me. "A herd of sheep can protect itself from the wolf better than any one of them alone. But De Soto is saying, 'you sheep living together in your herd aren't eating very well. Why doesn't this one go there and graze in that space, and that one go there, and you'll all have more to eat.' But if we do that, it becomes very easy for the wolf to eat us all up one by one."

'Globalization is coming': De Soto

There was a powerful irony in the fact that Kunchikui felt de Soto was trying to throw his people to the wolves, while de Soto insists that's exactly who he wants to protect them from.

"Globalization is coming," de Soto told me when I visited his leafy estate behind the University of Lima. "You can't just ignore it, and if you don't have some kind of economic power you will be destroyed by it. If you take the kind of laws that protect Peruvian indigenous people, or indigenous people anywhere, they're sort of like a legal ghetto; it's a small world with very few legal contraptions in it that make reference to ancestral and traditional customs. They're absolutely useless if you want to face that monster called globalization."

De Soto insisted that his solution emphasized locking down collective title first, as the Nisga'a have done in British Columbia.

"The first thing I said [in the film] is that government had promised the Indians land title," he said. "We should give them what has already been promised them, which is communal title, because only 14 per cent of that is done. Let's get one hundred per cent of it in so that everyone feels as secure as they possibly can. Then, let's ask another question, which is: Is this title really what you want? Because if it's really what you want, then why are you organized differently than what this title says?"

That is precisely the route taken by the Nisga'a, who spent a century and a half fighting for communal title, then added the private option a decade after winning it. But the indigenous citizens of the Amazon haven't yet made that first step. They interpreted de Soto's video as inverting the proper sequence, and they were anything but grateful. The National Association of Amazonian Indigenous Peoples of Peru (AIDESEP by its Spanish acronym) officially declared him "persona non grata," in a communique that described Jules and the other North American chiefs as "traitors."

De Soto 'betrayed us': Awajun president

At the meeting of regional chiefs in Bagua Grande, de Soto's name came up repeatedly, always in a tone of scorn.

"He invited me three times to meet with him," recalled Ambrosio Uwak Taijie, president of the Awajun council. "So on the third time, I went. He told me he felt our fight was just and that he wanted to help us, but our tactics were wrong. He said what we needed to do was stop blockading highways and get proper title to our lands. But this is precisely why we were blockading highways in the first place! Negotiating with the government gets us nowhere. We rejected his argument, but he kept looking until he found someone to agree with him, and then he went and made this video that he's shown to the world, making it look as though all the natives of the Amazon agree that we need private title. He betrayed us and divided our communities in the process."

When I asked de Soto how he felt about being declared persona non grata for his efforts, he said that only a fringe group of Amazon Indians had done so. "AIDESEP is made up of about ten or twelve organizations," he said, "one of which purports to have called me persona non grata. It has eight signatures, of which only two correspond to chieftains. So it really is of no significance whatsoever."

Yet that minority happens to include AIDESEP's elected president, Alberto Pizango, a man who was exiled by the Peruvian government after June's uprising and has taken asylum Nicaragua. And whoever controls AIDESEP's website is also publishing virulent anti-de Soto literature in that organization's name.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian government has tried to dissolve AIDESEP itself, describing it as a seditious organization, an accusation rapidly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

'We're not a museum artifact': Jules

Amidst all the confusion, de Soto postponed a forum he'd been planning for December, in which Manny Jules and others were to have returned to Peru to meet with AIDESEP’s representatives and the Peruvian government to try hammering out some kind of way forward in the Amazon.

"We're not a museum artifact," Manny Jules says towards the end of de Soto's documentary. "Our cultures are dynamic, we accept new technologies, we have evolved over many millenia and that's going to continue into the future."

Indeed, the need for development is the one thing everyone seems to agree on. And in the struggle over who gets to dictate the terms - and reap the rewards - what's striking is how the adversaries describe each other in almost exactly the same terms. Both de Soto and members of AIDESEP, for instance, asked me who I think is funding the other; the Presidents of Peru and AIDESEP have accused one another of genocide; and everyone likes to picture their adversary as a small group of radicals who claim the whole jungle for themselves.

A few days after I got home in November, I called Manny Jules and described this phenomenon to him.

He chuckled a moment before answering. "Yep," he said, "sounds exactly like Canada."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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