Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples Meets in Guatemala

Thousands of Indigenous peoples from 24 countries gathered in Guatemala on March 26 for the Third Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala. After U.S. President George W. Bush visited the country two weeks earlier during his contentious "diplomatic" tour of Latin America, Maya priests cleansed the site of his "bad spirits" in preparation for the summit.

The week-long summit was held in Iximché, a sacred Maya site and main city of the Kaqchikel Maya people. The first day dawned bright and sunny. In Tecpán, a nearby town where many of the delegates to the summit were housed with local families, organizers gathered in the main plaza and exploded fireworks to celebrate the beginning of the meetings.  In the early morning light, delegates crowded on buses to travel the four kilometers up to the Iximché ceremonial site.  Nestled in a plaza among the pyramids, Maya leaders led the group in a spiritual ceremony as the sun peeked over the horizon.  On subsequent days, people from the North, South, and Central America all took their turns with the opening ceremonies.

ImageAfter the ceremonies, delegates descended to the entrance of the archaeological site for breakfast (well organized in a communitarian and solidarity style) and the inauguration of the summit under a huge tent set up for this purpose.  A Maya elder cleansed the speaker’s table with incense before the presentations began.  Despite this cosmological framing, the summit’s discussions focused primarily on economic and political rather than cultural issues.  The summit’s slogan "from resistance to power" captured the spirit of the event.  It is not enough to resist oppression, but Indigenous peoples need to present concrete and positive alternatives to make a better and more inclusive world.

The summit’s ideological orientation was apparent from the inaugural panel onward.  After Tecpán’s mayor welcomed delegates to Iximché, Ecuadorian Indigenous activist and Continental Council member Blanca Chancoso called for Indigenous peoples to be treated as citizens and members of a democracy.  She rejected war making, militarization, and free trade pacts.  

Image"Our world is not for sale," she declared.  "Bush is not welcome here.  We want, instead, people who support life.  Yes to life.  Imperialism and capitalism has left us with a historic debt, and they owe us for this debt."  

She emphasized the importance of people creating alternatives to the current system.

Joel Suárez from the Americas Social Forum was also present to announce that the Third Americas Social Forum will be held in Guatemala in 2008. For it to be successful, Suárez emphasized, the forum must have an Indigenous and female face.  He called on delegates to support the forum.

Indigenous Peoples and Nation-States

Three plenary panels with invited speakers framed the discussions of the summit’s theme of moving from resistance to power.  The panels examined relations between Indigenous peoples and nation-states, territory and natural resources, and Indigenous governments.

Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj from Guatemala pointed to a gap between Indigenous political understandings and the technical skills necessary to achieve those visions.  In particular, Indigenous leaders need better training in economics and international law.  But this does not mean borrowing solutions from the outside world.  

"There are no recipes for success," Velásquez emphasized.  "We need to make up our own alternatives."

Bolivia’s foreign relations minister David Choquehuanca argued that we should not rebuild current states, but dream and create new ones.  

"Our minds are colonized," he stated, "but not our hearts.  It is time to listen to our hearts, because this is what builds resistance."

ImageDevelopment plans look for a better life, but this results in inequality. Indigenous peoples, instead, look to how to live well (vivir bien). Choquehuanca emphasized the need to look for a culture of life.

Rodolfo Pocop from the Guatemalan organization Waqib’ Kej argued that we need a new word for the term "resources" because it reflects a mercantilist concept foreign to Indigenous cosmology.  He suggested using instead "mother earth" because if we don’t live in harmony with the earth we will not have life.  

Isaac Avalos, secretary general of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), picked up on this concept, suggesting that we should not talk about land but territory because it is a much broader term that includes everything-land, air, water, petroleum, gas, etc.  Following along with this symbolism, we must take care of the earth as our mother so that it can continue to provide a future for its children.  The discussions led the gathered delegates to advocate for very practical and concrete actions, such as drinking local water and boycotting Coca-Cola.

Following the panels, delegates broke into working groups that focused on a variety of themes including self-determination, intellectual property rights, identity and cosmology, globalization, and Indigenous justice systems.  While public events were often filled with discourses long on rhetoric, the workshops provided a venue for substantive and concrete proposals.


ImageInclusion and equality are expressed values that have long run through many Indigenous communities and organizations.  Nevertheless, aspects of the dominant culture’s inequalities surfaced throughout the summit, most visibly apparent in gender inequalities.  Women participated actively and massively throughout the summit.  But while organizers made honorable attempts at equality on the plenary panels, men still outnumbered women by about three to one at the speakers’ tables.  The imbalance became even more notable during discussion periods during which there were about ten men for every woman who approached the mike. Finally, a woman from Peru rose to note that men always dominate these conversations.  "We need parity," she demanded, "both individually and collectively."

Declaration of Iximché

The most visible and immediate outcome of the summit was the Declaration of Iximché (available in Spanish and English on the summit’s website  It is a strong statement that condemns the U.S. government’s militaristic and imperialistic policies, and calls for respect for human rights, territory, and self-determination.  It ratified an ancestral right to territory and common resources of the mother earth, rejected free trade pacts, condemned the construction of a wall between Mexico and the United States, and called for the legalization of coca leaves.

ImageFor an Indigenous summit, the declaration is perhaps notable for its lack of explicit ethnic discourse. Instead, it spoke of struggles against neoliberalism and for food sovereignty.  On one hand, this pointed to the Indigenous movement’s alignment with broader popular struggles in the Americas.  On the other, it demonstrated a maturation of Indigenous ideologies that permeate throughout the human experience. Political and economic rights were focused through a lens of Indigenous identity, with a focus on concrete and pragmatic actions. For example, in justifying the declaration’s condemnation of a the construction of a wall on the United States/Mexico border, Tonatierra’s Tupac Enrique Acosta declared that nowhere in the Americas could Indigenous peoples be considered immigrants because colonial borders were imposed from the outside.

The declaration endorsed the candidacy of Bolivia’s Indigenous president Evo Morales for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Morales was widely cheered at the summit.  Initial plans called for him to attend the summit’s closing rally, but ongoing political tensions in Bolivia prevented him from traveling to Guatemala.  Instead, he sent a letter that read, "After more than 500 years of oppression and domination, they have not been able to eliminate us.  Here we are alive and united with nature. Today we resist to recuperate together our sovereignty."

ImageMorales’ reception was in notable contrast to Guatemala’s own 1992 Noble Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú who is currently making a bid for the presidency of that country.  She did not appear at the summit, nor did she send a message.  A delegate’s proposal to include support for her presidential aspirations in the declaration was loudly rejected. Some justified this exclusion as a reluctance to become involved in the internal politics of a country.  What it perhaps more accurately reflected, however, was the messy contradictions of aspiring to exactly what the summit’s theme advocated: political power.  Menchú continues to enjoy more support outside of Guatemala than within, with some of the choices she has made for political alliances being unpopular among her base.  The refusal to support her candidacy was the most visible fractionalization at the summit.

Integration of Indigenous Movements

In order to build toward the integration of a continental Indigenous movement, organizers called for regional coordinating committees in Central and North America similar to South America’s Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) and the Andean Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations that was formed last year.  Delegates also agreed to establish a Continental Coordinating body for Nationalities and Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. The body will allow exchange of ideas about quality of life and the movement against neoliberal trade policy.

ImageThe final item of business at the closing session was the location for the next meeting.  The first summit was held in Mexico in 2000 and the second in Ecuador in 2004.  Organizers requested that proposals be done by region not country, and proposed that the next logical location would be either southern South America or the North.  No proposal was forthcoming from the North, but Argentina proposed the Chilean side of the triple Peru/Bolivia/Chile border in 2009.  Justification for the location including supporting socialist president Michelle Bachelet to lead Chile out of the shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship, and the lingering issue of Bolivia’s outlet to the sea.

The continental coordinating committee will be based in Chile to help organize the next summit.  The idea of a continental Indigenous organization did not seem to inspire a good deal of enthusiasm among the assembled delegates, although when it came to a vote only three delegates indicated their opposition.  Perhaps delegates recognized the value of international meetings but believed that the most important work would happen locally in their own communities.  Regional Indigenous organizations in Latin America have a history of being subject to external co-optation and internal divisions, which naturally makes some activists hesitant to create another such supra-natural organization. Nevertheless, no one publicly questioned the wisdom of forming more regional coordinating bodies.

Despite these persistent concerns and other divisions that occasionally surfaced, the level of energy and optimism at the summit was high.  The week closed with three marches that converged in a rally in Guatemala City’s main plaza, symbolically representing the unification of Indigenous struggles across the Americas.  In the dimming light, organizers launched three hot air balloons, two with the rainbow colors of the Indigenous flag.  As delegates slowly dispersed, a remaining determined group of activists danced in a circle waving Indigenous flags as a Bolivian tune "Somos Más" (we are more) blasted on the sound system.  An almost full moon hung over the national palace. The week-long summit ended on a high note. The meeting seemed to have built a lot of positive energy.  Discussions reflected a deepening and broadening of concerns and strategies.  The gathering successfully strengthened both local and transnational Indigenous organizing efforts.

Marc Becker is a Latin America historian and a founder of NativeWeb, a project to use the Internet to advance Indigenous struggles. Contact him at