Amilcar Castañeda

Interviewee: Amilcar Castañeda, Consultant in indigenous rights to the InterAmerican Institute for Human Rights. UNED
Interviewers: Martin Mowforth, Karis McLaughlin and Alice Klein
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 21st July 2009
Theme: Indigenous issues in Central America.
Keywords: TBC



Amilcar Castañeda (AC): [about the Indigenous book] There was a conference/congress XXX in 1999, it had a big effect. The advantage of this publication is that it gives a general view of the indigenous world in Central America, what is being done in diverse fields; in the field of natural resources, the environment, sustainable development, the strengthening of cultural XXX, matters of indigenous territory, legislation… It gives a profile of what these same organisations are doing, and the people that accompany them, or be it, the NGOs. Also some government offices XXX. Although it is now 10 years old, but it gives you an idea, the problems in general continue, what changes are the answers, but the base is there. Finally, it contains a directory of organisations from Central America , Mesoamerica, Mexico and South American because XXX 22 countries. Also for you!

Q: For us? Very nice! All in Spanish, it’s possible to read it, speak it, understand it…

AC: Well, it’s a source, it’s there to read.

Q: Very well. Like you have said in our correspondence, you have been busy with various activities. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do?

AC: Ok, right now I am practically a consultant. After working for Native Lands which was 8…7… 8 years. Then I worked as XXX with the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights, they have a department for indigenous peoples. You have to see what is coming out from there – laws, policies to do with indigenous peoples, it worked at a global level, throughout all of the continent, they are doing work producing materials, and training for organisations, for people from NGOs and from the government, who need to know about the rights of indigenous people. Often, a series of rights are violated, because they aren’t aware of ILO convention 169. There are international laws that protect the rights of the indigenous towns, they don’t know.

So, XXX, by mistake they are making a series of violations. Also, there is the task of increasing awareness in the public sector. After, I am also working with an intercultural university in Nicaragua, called ‘Huracán’, you’ve heard of it? Also, I’m teaching a masters in ‘intercultural health’, so, much of this functions on a virtual level where Latin America students meet other students, for the most part indigenous, who work in hospitals, the Ministry of Health – on that I’m working part time.

Q: So is your speciality ‘health’?

AC: My speciality in this, is the matter of indigenous rights, human rights – this is global, it can relate to health, territories, education, everything. I have more predilection for health, and yes, I’m working in this right now.

Q: How long have you worked at Huracán?

AC: I’ve worked at Huracán almost since the start of the project, no, the University emerged in 93-94, and now nearly 15 years later and…

Q: Do you know Jane Freeland from England?

AC: No, no

Q: She has worked for Huracán. Sorry for the interruption.

AC: No, Don’t worry. Huracán is a university XXX, it must be. There are various people that support it and right now Huracán works with maybe 30-40 organisations with international cooperation from governments, the World Bank, XXX, Fondo Indigena. It has grown a lot. Right now it has 8,000 students.

Q: How many?

AC: 8,000 students, around 350 teachers, so it has grown. There are lots of cooperatives, XXX. So here I am. I’ve worked in various consultancies with them, organising the IV International XXX of autonomy, which is a huge project, basically as a consultant to all the XXX, no! And after, another about traditional medicine…
I’m also right now independent consultant with the Institute of Human Rights, making materials, organising events. We did one also about health, about migration, indigenous migration in the Americas, about which a book has been published, and another is coming out, I was the project designer and administrator, no… It’s about indigenous women in migratory  processes. I’ll send you the digital version when it comes out….
I was helping teach in the University of Costa Rica, here at UNED, there’s a program with ‘Consejo Nacional de Rectores’ that groups all the universities, the project’s called “Pueblos y territories indigenas”. The idea is to raise awareness in society, especially in the public sector, about indigenous peoples, their cultures, their needs, the need to have an intercultural dialogue. Then, series of courses are starting for government employees, and I’m going to run one about political legal anthropology.

Q: In your personal opinion, what are the greatest problems for indigenous peoples?

AC:  An element you will commonly find in whatever indigenous movement in Central America and in the continent, is the issue of territory – the issue that they don’t have security, they don’t have definite land, territories, and if they do have it, they don’t have security of it, or be it, they have a legal problem there, or it could be that there is a law that guarantees them land, but it’s not defined or demarcated, it has to be mapped and everything. Of this, part of the experience of XXX (Native Lands?) was en this, helping the indigenous peoples themselves demarcate, defend the borders of their territory and map them.

The other is the issue of recognition of indigenous peoples as specific cultures, as peoples, this is also an issue that is on the agenda. There is recognition in some countries, it is a low level recognition via a legal decree. For example, the political constitutions of the Central American countries say absolutely nothing about the indigenous, they’re not even mentioned. The rapprochement that we can find is that they speak a little about the native languages, the case of Honduras and here the same, no? But there is no mention of who speak the native languages, who the people are, and those individuals have rights, no? So it is very important to them to be recognised as people, as cultural social groups, different from the rest of society with XXX specifics. This is a second very important point.

Then also, the issue of improving their standard of living because the indigenous peoples… you are going to find a second map and using this map, the World Bank has crossed, has made a map of Central America, and has overlaid the map of poverty and the map of indigenous peoples. You will find that, according to the World Bank definition of poverty, it matches up – the areas where the indigenous live are the areas with the greatest indicators of poverty. There is a very serious problem for the indigenous peoples, of access to services or the use of collective rights granted by the states, so, despite the fact that they are common citizens, they’re not in the same position as the rest of national society to use their rights. So, there’s a problem of citizenship. You have to look at their political participation. You have to look at their access to goods, services, and their ability to use and to claim from the State, let’s say, a type of service and access which according to indigenous culture – no, they’re also talking about in this sense a system of intercultural justice, systems of intercultural medicine, systems of intercultural education, and furthermore, the need to conserve and develop their own cultures on the margins of having participation in national society, but also to conserve their own culture through a degree of autonomy, as stated in the ILO convention 169, the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is another very important point.

From there on, the national situations vary. In the case of El Salavdor, they do not have territories, so the fight for territories is at first place. First on the agenda is the recognition, because there is not any legal decree, law, nothing, that says that indigenous people exist in El Salvador. The the case of Costa Rica and others, at least they have ratified the convention 169, there is internal legislation that states that indigenous peoples exisit and that they have some rights, no? But for the countries where there is legislation, where the rights are guaranteed in the law, there is a problem which is global – the problem of applying these rights. There is a breach between what these laws and rights say, and what actually happens in reality.

Q: Do you think that there is a conflict between conservationists and indigenous peoples. Tiene algunos ejemplos?

AC: There are various articles with respect to Mac Chapin. You have read them? My answers are more or less the same. There has been a change of attitude for the conservationists. The article recalls what was happening, various fears and misunderstandings, not only of Mac, but other people. This other article by Mark Dowie, who is a North American journalist. He wrote an article called ‘conservation refugees’…………
But if there is a change. Like it says in Mac Chapin’s and Mark Dowie’s articles, and in others, in some way there is a misunderstanding between the indigenous peoples and these big conservation organisation – they are called BINGOS, they’re like big octopuses, those which more or less determine the direction of the global conservation movement, which have the resources and which finance other groups of NGOs, scientific or otherwise. They direct, they have the money, they need an idealogy, no… so there is a misunderstanding with them, and well there you saw, they don’t have a vision, a clear perspective on what ecologism should be.
You see that they are receiving money from oil companies and industrial mining companies – those which have direct problems with the indigenous peoples. In whichever country, you’ve seen it with VAGO in Peru, the rising of the indigenous, the killing..XXX… we know that these oil and mining companies are financing and donating to Conservation International, the WWF and others.

Q: Conservation International?

AC: Especially Conservation International.

Q: We are talking about links, at a national level, in the Central American countries, are there other organisations that behave in the same way, accepting money from transnationals or from the government? I’m thinking in specific organisations but I don’t want to mention….

AC: In some cases, or be it that they are the same transnationals that are intervening, learning even the use of convention 169 which says that the indigenous peoples, the communities have to be consulted. In many cases which matter to them, it is the state that has to be consulted, not the companies, so what is happening is that the oil and mining companies, and others, are consulting, which they shouldn’t be.

Q: I was thinking about organisations such as in El Salvador there is ‘Salvanatura’ that receives money from Nissan and Toyota, from oil companies also, but is that the same as Conservation International?

AC: No. In some cases they receive… or how to negotiate with the oil companies, at times it is through Conservation International or sometimes directly. It’s that this is a network, Conservation International has networks, those which finance, who also have more or less this way of thinking. They aren’t very worried, let’s say, about the right to territory. This isn’t for them a point which has to be secured, or the issue of political participation. The conservationists say that the issue of poverty isn’t of their concern. They vision is much more biological, and so they don’t get involved with this because it is political. So, in all the countries yes there are ogranisations, a type of NGOs that are channeling resources directly from ‘Merck Sharp y Dohme’ this pharmaceutical. They are giving money to Conservation International and for ‘INBio’. INBio is a state institute but functions like a private entity. Since the state has direct access to the indigenous territories and national parks, and since it is private, it can make business negotiations, in this case with Merck Sharp y Dohme for bioprospecting.
In each country there are similar processes which are basically with the private sector, but the state participates in its own way through INBio. So they enter with their money or their experts into the indigenous territories using some public figure and public laws and this is happening in all of the countries. INBio has an award from the King of Spain, Prince Astaurias, who are doing some interesting things, but who in the name of science, are entering…. But the indigenous people have already said that they don’t want INBio here, with ‘biopirates’, that is those that are looking for butterflies, insects, birds, “go and look elsewhere” they say.

Q: What do you think about development with reference to the indigenous communities and also the influence of Western culture?

AC: The issue of development is linked with the issue of poverty. Some indigenous people are the beneficiaries of social policies when they exist and when they find that they can be beneficiaries. When they become beneficiaries, as always they called that ‘development’, making roads, bringing electricity, doing a series of things according to the view of the state or the political class which directs the state. This is what produces development, a better standard of living, ‘index of needs provided’. They aim at the indigenous people that don’t have a television, don’t have electricity, don’t have a bathroom, as we have in the house. So they work with other indicators of poverty and development. But the indigenous are raising other issues – are speaking about a term which you will find in many documents “el buen vivir”. This was a term with Quechua origin, CHUMA, cause and effect. The Ecuadorian Quechuas coined this “el buen vivir”. This is the alternative conception that has been taken on by the indigenous movement throughout all the continent. What we want is to live well, el “buen vivir”. What does this mean for them? First, to have a territory, because we can’t do nice projects of innovative technology, There are nice projects where the women can participate, the children and everyone, but the point is on what foundation if we don’t have territory! We can’t assert our autonomy, our identity if we don’t have an actual base, a place to live. You have to look at the habitat, in relation to the environment, in relation to the natural resources. All of that is very important for the vision of the indigenous. It is important not to fall into a romantic vision…

There is the right, according to international standards, that the indigenous, like whatever other human group, has the right to develop, to enjoy the achievements of science and technology, the knowledge which enables one to meet human needs.  And also the right to live as they wish, in a way that strengthens and protects their cultural value and their identity. This is the point; it’s not that the indigenous is against development, it’s not that they don’t want roads, it’s not that they shouldn’t study. In the 70s, and maybe part of the 80s, a lot of anthropologists came and prohibited the indigenous from watching television, because with that comes acculturation. Or that they don’t use clocks, that they don’t use mobile phones, that if they use mobile phones then they are no longer Indians. Then why do we have to make the indigenous a showcase for conserving, a type of zoo or museum, a vision which the indigenous peoples themselves do not agree with. This comes from anthropology, the romantics. But you have to see that this existed, and does much damage.

About development, it is a development which agrees with what they want and for them it is a priority to conserve their culture, the historical continuation of their peoples because the greatest risk right now is the extinction of their culture and of them, as people, which is happening. There are many indigenous languages which have disappeared in this century, in a way overwhelming due to politics, on the large part from the state, and also the church, the same school.

Q: Question from Martin about the evictions of the Naso people in Panama

AC: The problem with them is, it is with respect to a property from which they were evicted by the police, cattle ranching company, yes… That is part of it, but there is another problem with a dam and that is much more complex, because right now the town is divided. There are two kings; one in favour of the dam, the cattle ranches and all that, and the other more in the line of defending their identity, their resources, their territory. Just two weeks ago, the students of Panama that are studying here in the program XXX of indigenous peoples about XXX and rights, here in UNED, they presented this case. They made a study of the case of the Naso people. I don’t know the details but I think the case was taken to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. You have to take it there, it’s not working, the report arrives at the Ombudsman office, but more is needed because the company is shooting XXX indigenous. More competent action is needed.,.

Q:  Can you comment on the institutional attitude towards indigenous peoples?

AC: In reality, looking at 10 years ago, things have advanced, if the states are the same. Has there been progress in the awareness of indigenous peoples? Yes and no. You can see that in various states, there are now specialised offices for indigenous peoples, in many of them a product of the same fight of the indigenous peoples. In Honduras you will find that it is PRONEEAC which is “Programa Nacional de Educación a las Etnias Autóctonas del Caribe”. There is also a program in the Ministry of Justice about the development of indigenous peoples. There is also a small office for “salud de las etnias” as they call it there in Honduras. But they are small, they are applications almost invisible inside the machine of the state, without resources, without technically specialised personnel, with few possibilities for making an impact on the indigenous peoples. There is a problem but but the states have to open their spaces, they have to change their policies. But in the majority the rest of the public bodies which don’t have specialised personnel, they are working as if indigenous people didn’t exist, as if they were any another Hondureñan, any other citizen…

At a political level the Pan American Health Organisation carried out an evaluation on 24 Latin American countries. They found that 19 countries of Latin America had created specific units for the indigenous peoples, inside the Ministerial body. Similarly these are emerging in the education sector as well. The problem with much of this is that it is done, but without guarantee that it will be monitored. It depends wholly on the current government or some high level civil servants that have some awareness, or some experience with Indigenous peoples and thus want to do something. But then the government changes, another comes in, and it has to start again from scratch. So these policies that are from the government collapse, so there isn’t guarantee that there will be a follow-up or a state policy with respect to the right of indigenous peoples or about the issue of territory. This is why the problems persist. There is much to be done in changing people’s attitudes. There needs to be an increase in awareness amongst the government employees.  Work needs to be done with them, and with the indigenous people.

In the case of Costa Rica this University program ‘Consejo Nacional de Rectores’ is very interesting. It has seen the necessity. The four public universities are working and have a range of projects, so that the government employees can take course on the internet… about indigenous rights and their cultures. This program includes studies on archaeology, about their culture, legal aspects… So something is happening, but there is still a lot to be done.


AC: Well, now that I have your agenda I’m going to send you more documents. In the UICN (World Conservation Union, IUCN), they did a map on protected areas and indigenous peoples, and another by the World Bank on poverty and indigenous sectors

Q: This is a committee on the IUCN?

AC: The point is, the Holand committee of the IUCN is a bit more open. Even the WWF office in Geneva has a different vision to Washington. So in this time we could work with them, and receive resources from then for some aspects of the event. But after, when….. written, the whole world cut…. Not even a colon more, and we closed Native Lands. It’s difficult. They even threatened to close the magazine de WOLA in Washington, they said that if this article is published, they’d cut that as well.