Part 2: Empowering Latin America’s black, indigenous and ethnic minority population

  • Hermione Greenhalgh

Following on from the first event in the Opportunities series which focused on gender inequality in Latin America, Canning House invited an expert panel to discuss approaches to tackling racial inequalities in the region.

Canning House’s Opportunities series examines, from various perspectives, the opportunities and obstacles faced by disadvantaged groups in Latin America, and strategies for improving equality of opportunity. Although gender and race are understood to overlap in terms of issues affecting the region, this series will first consider the various hierarchies of oppressions, before reflecting on how they are interrelated.

To introduce the subject, Peter Wade, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, spoke about how race formations in Latin America have evolved from the European colonisation of the Americas, which established strong race and class hierarchies (amongst others). The colonial logic that “the darker you are, the blacker you are, the more indigenous you are, the lower down the social scale you are” has, to a large extent, been preserved over 500 years.

The colonial logic that “the darker you are, the blacker you are, the more indigenous you are, the lower down the social scale you are” has, to a large extent, been preserved over 500 years.

As his presentation highlighted, attempts made by Latin America’s large black, indigenous and ethnic minority population to challenge racism and redress enduring structural inequalities have historically been ignored or met with tokenistic state policies promoting multiculturalism and ethno-diversity; emphasising Latin America’s ‘mixedness’, rather than acknowledging race as a driver of inequality in the distribution of power, knowledge and resources.

However, over the last 20 years there has been a notable increase in antiracist actions in the region. Peter’s most recent research project (LAPORA) has analysed different approaches to eliminating racial discrimination in Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia. He emphasised that finding a strategy for tackling racism, and improving opportunities for black, indigenous and ethnic minority peoples, must involve a multidimensional approach that does not necessarily disqualify any one strategy that presents problems or challenges.

The audience then heard from Ana María González Forero, Director of FEM (Fundación por la Educación Multidimensional) and currently an Obama Foundation scholar, who is putting a multidimensional approach into practice in order to empower afro and indigenous communities – and in particular local women – on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

FEM Group consists of both a non-profit organisation that works to protect the land rights of indigenous and afro communities, and a for-profit organisation that fosters economic inclusion. Since FEM’s inception, over 8,000 people have received collective land titles, and 6,000 more have requested collective land titles with FEM’s legal support. The organisation has incubated 5 social businesses, with 32 employees and 68 local community vendors.

To improve opportunities for ethnic minority peoples, Ana María pointed to the importance of both state legislature that recognises ethnic minorities as groups with distinct rights, and more collaboration between people who are conscious about racial and ethnic issues and communities that need to develop in a more efficient way.

Further insights were offered by Sue Cunningham, a photojournalist who has been documenting Brazil’s indigenous peoples for over twenty years, especially in the Xingu, and is also a Trustee of Tribes Alive, an organisation that works with local indigenous communities to develop programmes which contribute to their self-sufficiency, independence and well-being.

In recent years, the indigenous communities living along the Xingu River have faced increased pressure from climate change, illegal mining and deforestation. Tribes Alive helps to mitigate some of the effects on the communities through a number of initiatives, including boundary-monitoring, capacity-building, income generation, tree nurseries and public awareness-raising campaigns.

The various presentations and Q&A session highlighted that central to improving opportunities for Latin America’s black, indigenous and ethnic minority population is to restore agency to communities; and embrace a holistic, cross-cutting approach that includes radical institutional reform as well as creative bottom-up strategies. It was also clear that many of the approaches being developed in the region are applicable and relevant to the British context of anti-racist efforts.

The next event will consider disadvantage from the viewpoint of those living with disability. We’ll hear from Dr Lisa Cameron MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Disability; Vladimir Cuk, Executive Director at The International Disability Alliance; and Daniel Lul, Community Volunteer and User Capacity Development for Economic Empowerment​ at the Latin America Disabled People’s Project.

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