Evolution and development of indigenous communities: a dilemma between myth and misunderstanding

Evolution and development of indigenous communities: a dilemma between myth and misunderstanding

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By Walter Chamochumbi

In Latin America, indigenous populations have been excluded from the modernization and development processes promoted by governments. In this article we will try to go beyond merely academic and rhetorical considerations.

Around the complex process of evolution and development of the indigenous communities of the different regions, there are numerous studies –according to the different scientific disciplines and the prevailing ideological currents- that test different interpretations. In this sense, we are interested in focusing on the context of indigenous communities in Latin America, in order to approximate an analysis of the possible factors with the greatest influence on their evolution. Thus, we propose that this process has been the result of the interaction of three main elements: territorial adaptation, social resilience and endogenous development. In this article we will try to go beyond the merely academic and rhetorical considerations that have been written on the subject.

Scope of evolutionary theories and the notion of indigenous communities

A first aspect that we want to point out is that whenever we mention the term evolution, it is inevitable for us to think about evolutionary theories about the origin of organisms (or species). Fortunately, with a few exceptions, we have overcome what was once the long and dark empire of the creationist doctrine of the church, and today we can assume that the evolution of organisms is an unquestionable scientific fact. However, although the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin marked an unprecedented world milestone when he argued that throughout history it is life (that is, living beings) who (is) have adapted to the environmental environment through natural selection process. Later investigations and theories, such as James Lovelock's "Gaia Theory" in 1969, test new scientific explanations questioning Darwin's evolutionary theory and holding the opposite. That is, it is not life that adapts to the environment but the other way around, it is itself that exerts its influence on the environmental environment, adapting it to its requirements.

However, it is not the subject of this article to discuss the evolutionary theories of species, we only wanted to draw attention to the fact that at certain moments or periods of history they teach us (or impose on us) certain truths as unquestionable or absolute facts . But then, by dint of the process of constant search and investigation of knowledge and truth, we find new evidence and indications that lead us to question our original information and make us change our mind, we can even change the paradigm and our perception of the course of certain historical and social events. We assume that a similar situation occurs when we attempt to explain the evolutionary process that the indigenous populations of our continent may have followed. And it is that in terms of evolution and social change there are different theories and forms of perception of the historical processes and social transformation followed by the different cultures and ethnic groups that have inhabited the region since ancient times. But, beyond the socio-historical, anthropological, political or even idyllic interpretations that exist on the matter, the truth is that we must understand evolution as a dialectical process, of constant change and social transformation, insofar as it is a fact unquestionable of the reality in which multiple cultures and ethnic groups have developed in space and time throughout the history of humanity.

A second aspect that we want to point out is that we know the nuances and differences of interpretation that exist about the notion of “indigenous communities” .1 Therefore, without going into further discussion in this regard, we present an approximation of the term, insofar as they are groupings humans that in a general or particular way originate from a place, or constitute tribal or migratory groups that present different patterns of settlement and spatial-territorial location. They are communities that have formed simple as well as highly complex societies, presenting diverse social groupings and representing multiple cultural groups and ethnicities (as peoples, nationalities, identities and populations) that are dispersed in different geographical regions and following different occupation-adaptation processes territorial and use of natural resources.

Society-nature and theories on the evolution of indigenous communities 2

We have expressed our interest in understanding the terms of trade that flow in local development spaces, as an interaction of human activities and the natural environment as an expression of the society-nature relationship. On the subject there are various theories and explanatory models that cover in their study -through history and other sciences-, since the appearance of women and men (a little more than twenty thousand years ago) and then with the first groups tribal, the original communities (more than 10,000 years in the case of the American indigenous populations), even the most elaborate civilizational forms.

In general, it is known that the evolution of indigenous communities is perceived as an invariable and ascending linear process in space and time (this following the statements of the "theories of linear evolutionism" proposed in the 19th and 20th centuries). However, considering the complex interaction relations as society-nature and the various evidences on the ways of life of the indigenous communities of the region, it is also known that this evolutionary process has not always been linearly balanced, successive and unique. On the contrary, following the statement of the “multilinear evolutionary theory” by Julián Steward (1955), he proposes that the evolution of indigenous communities has followed multiple and variable trajectories, presenting different phases or stages -which simultaneously and asynchronously- have configured heterogeneous scenarios with different types of societies and cultures in specific territorial areas.

Although as a general trend we understand that indigenous communities evolved following an ascending pattern over time, simultaneously they also involved multiple courses and discontinuities (or time lags). We project this idea as an evolving figure of "helical" form and function. That is to say, sinuous and contradictory, with advances and apparent setbacks, with setbacks and apparent advances but with a final multidimensional and progressive trend. Therefore, we assume that the different evolutionary paths followed by indigenous communities have been conditioned by different factors (objective and subjective, endogenous and exogenous) relative to the territories they occupied and their environmental and social environments, in whose particular processes - and in time - their adaptive strategies have been diversifying and becoming more complex.

During the processes of occupation and territorial adaptation, indigenous communities had to previously develop a detailed knowledge of the structure and functioning of natural ecosystems, to then progressively rehearse the necessary transformations to ensure their survival. These processes involved different environmental impacts and effects (which were not always positive, in many cases they were negative). However, the knowledge that the indigenous communities managed to apply in the occupied territories -in thousands of years of observation, experimentation and learning-, not only adjusted to the test of successful forms of survival but, in addition, in the same process they developed strong links of cultural identity and harmonious forms of relationship with nature.

Nicolo Gligo and Jorge Morello3 argue that, strictly speaking, there was no such harmonious relationship between indigenous communities and nature, but rather that there was a relationship of artificialization of nature. Which is probable since these interaction processes have not occurred under homogeneous or relaxed conditions. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that they have mostly occurred under conditions of high heterogeneity and constant tension. But, despite this analysis, we suppose that the process of artificialization of ecosystems by indigenous communities must have implied - in the case of successful experiences - various forms of equilibrium insofar as they were the result of their positive interaction as society-nature.4

Territorial adaptation and social resilience of indigenous communities

According to the study of the adaptive process that indigenous communities tested in their territorial environment, we analyzed their levels of interaction and the progressive changes they made over time. These changes are perceived as a constant exercised by successive generations of different groups that made up the indigenous communities, testing the environmental, technological and socioeconomic modifications necessary for their progress. In this sense, we agree with what was pointed out by Emilio Morán5 regarding the fact that the adaptive process will always be imperfect (or better said, perfectible). On the other hand, the process of territorial adaptation is also related to the levels of local energy control that indigenous communities reached in their evolution. The possibility that they achieved greater or lesser energy control in the management of natural resources has been conditioned by their forms of interaction and levels of exchange in their local energy flows (that is, having increased their “outputs” and having reduced their “inputs”). Consequently, when indigenous communities manage to reduce their degree of uncertainty in the management of various microenvironmental factors and maximize their local energy efficiency (through the use of innocuous technologies, intensive use of local knowledge and labor, etc.), they made it possible to achieve a greater degree of autonomy in the management of their natural resources and their subsistence levels.

An important aspect to point out is that the study of these adaptive processes should be analyzed at the “collective” level, because it is the level that best configures and expresses the nature and predominant forms of relationship of societies and cultures with their territorial environment and environmental. To that extent, we note that the sense of identity and territorial belonging of indigenous communities has been expressed more clearly when they have referred to the scope of the community. It is at this level, ascribed to the space-territory they occupy, that indigenous communities manage to integrate their worldview and very existence as such, building a set of subjective elements (their imaginary). These forms of territorial identity, founded on the collective level, have allowed them to build a respectful relationship with nature and a line of continuity and intergenerational identity.

Finally, we analyze two key complementary concepts: “territory” and “resilience”. The notion of "territory" expresses the process of appropriation of the space (natural physical) occupied by the different human groups in time, and from which they build a sense of identity and territorial belonging. While the notion of “resilience”, in the social field, expresses the capacity for affirmative response and the learning process of indigenous communities –of their successes and mistakes-, in the midst of the difficulties they had to face in order to overcome and progress. . These concepts are related to what some researchers –like Peigne6- point out about the process of “territorial dialectics”. In other words, the processes of adaptation (or maladjustment) of the indigenous communities to the territories they occupied were the result of the changes and rearrangements that occurred within (and in their environment of influence) as a consequence of the tensions inherent to each process followed by them. in the time. On the one hand, the degree of social resilience developed by indigenous communities has an influence as they evolve with very dynamic processes, in constant conflicts and with different forms and functions of ordering their space (vertical and horizontal); and on the other hand, they are expressed as a result of their particular territorial dialectical process.

Although we know that the evolution of indigenous communities has occurred as a function of multiple adaptive (and maladaptive) processes tested in specific territorial areas, in multivariate conditions of supply of available natural resources and according to the types of socioeconomic organization and environmental rationality that applied in the management of ecosystems. However, we suppose that simultaneously these adaptive processes were subordinated to the development of certain social resilience capacities (strong or weak), gestated by different societies and cultures to face and overcome difficulties and manage to adapt to the occupied territorial environment (or otherwise fail and maladjust). We note that there are other factors -direct and indirect, internal and external- that should also be considered in the analysis. For example, the demographic growth of the countries and the greater pressure to use natural resources, the expansion of the globalization process and the free market economy, the centralist and exclusive development policies of the countries, the technological dependence of the countries. of the South and the role of transnational corporations, etc. Factors that have undoubtedly impacted on the behavior and evolution of the problems of indigenous communities and on the asymmetric development scenarios that they present today.

Evolution and endogenous development of indigenous communities

In the Latin American context there are many examples of diverse cultures and ethnic groups that inhabited the region since pre-Hispanic times and that achieved particular and advanced forms of development and management of their territories and ecosystems. However, as is well known, these local development processes were abruptly interrupted during the Spanish conquest -from the 15th century-, producing the greatest impacts and effects that drastically modified the landscapes and territories occupied by the original cultures. This period was certainly not peaceful, on the contrary, it involved episodes of much violence and almost extermination of the indigenous communities of that time, and until today, significantly modifying the evolutionary course of their cultures and their traditional ways of life. In fact, today many indigenous communities face new episodes of violence for the defense of their collective rights and their ways of life and development in their original territories.

Indigenous communities have undergone successive changes (and interruptions) related to the different development scenarios they faced. Their local microspaces were transferred with the national macrospaces of the nation-states in which they were embedded. In them the processes of accumulation and distribution of the wealth generated, according to the policies and economic models applied by the different governments, were markedly centralist and exclusive. Thus, in this multidimensional scenario of evolution and development of indigenous communities, we synthesize the predominance of two main models (processes): exogenous and endogenous development models. In this regard, it is the elements of greater modernity and at the same time of social and economic exclusion and inequity that have characterized exogenous development processes, limiting (from a historical perspective) the evolutionary and development possibilities of indigenous communities. On the contrary, it is the endogenous development processes that best correspond to the cultural, territorial and environmental reality of the indigenous communities and to their evolutionary and current development possibilities. In this sense, we agree with what various authors point out regarding the fact that endogenous development processes better express the compositional elements of the culture, structure and dynamics of interaction of indigenous communities with nature. However, beyond the formal theoretical analysis regarding its evolutionary evolution, and the mythification that, on the other hand, has been made of its relationship as society-nature. The truth is that currently they are populations that due to their relative capacity for exchange and negotiation with the external environment, the majority do not enjoy the benefits of the so-called modernity and live in a situation of poverty, exclusion and relative isolation from the main centers or poles development presenting a series of deficiencies and low levels of quality of life.

Indigenous movements and organizations in the Latin American context

In Latin America, indigenous populations represent a significant percentage of its population (it is estimated that between Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru they account for between 80% and 90% of the entire indigenous population of the continent, and that only between Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru they add between 15 to 16 million indigenous people). Despite this, they are populations that have been excluded from the modernization and development processes promoted by the governments of these countries. And from the global perspective of development, they are still perceived as less evolved societies (which is why they are poorly understood within the modern Western conception of the nation-state). Many indigenous communities have been (or pretend) to be subsumed within the framework of national societies and cultures that today are perceived through the homogenizing filter of globalization. Thus, the current implications are complex and even contradictory regarding how we perceive the evolution and development processes of indigenous communities and why their situation of poverty and exclusion.

Despite this complex problem, indigenous communities have been displaying multiple historical struggles and demands for the defense of their territories, their cultures and their ways of life. In this regard, various studies show that since the beginning of the 1990s and until today there is an important advance in political mobilization and identification claims of the different indigenous movements and organizations in the region. However, these organizations are not homogeneous and do not constitute a unitary movement (we refer to "indigenous movement" in a nominal abstract sense). In fact, there is a multiple scenario of emerging indigenous organizations throughout the region, each one trying to lead and respond - in its own way - to the complex problems and specific social - and historical - development demands for their peoples in the different countries. Therefore, we perceive that its evolution -as an indigenous movement- has been occurring in a singular and contradictory way, and as the dynamic and original manifestation of all its cultural, political and organizational aspects that at some point, if any, certain objective and subjective, they probably tend to converge.

The possibility of the confluence of the different approaches and visions of development of the Latin American indigenous movement, perhaps today is one of the greatest challenges to face for the leaders and leaders of the indigenous bases, as well as the different political, academic and emerging sectors of civil society. Their full integration within the framework of larger national societies that seek to build a comprehensive and modern vision of inclusive development will depend on this.

* Mag. Ing. Agronomist, Consultant in Environmental Management and Development.

1 On the meaning of "indigenous communities" there are various discussions. For example, Laura Carlsen in "Indigenous autonomy and uses and customs" refers to three questions: 1) if they are fundamentally a pre-Hispanic or colonial creation; 2) if its development represents a human-social evolution or a specific historical dynamic; and 3) if the name is some form of myth.

2 See “Indigenous communities and their evolution in the process of territorial adaptation, resilience and endogenous development: theories and notes of the Latin American context”, essay by Walter Chamochumbi. Lima, Jan 2006, 43 p.

3 “Notes on the ecological history of Latin America”, by Nicolo Gligo and Jorge Morello (1980); published in International Studies, 13, No. 49, Santiago de Chile, January-March 1980, pp. 112 to 148.

4 In the process, ecosystems react with a high degree of environmental resilience, assimilating the changes tested by indigenous communities without significantly affecting their structure and functioning. Over time, it is stated that the environmental resilience of ecosystems has been weakened as human activities have become more technical and sophisticated to meet new needs for economic growth and development. See "Resilience in Sustainable Development: some theoretical considerations in the social and environmental field", article by Walter Chamochumbi (2005) ... in ECOPORTAL ( ), Lima, 5 p.

5 See Emilio F. Morán (1996)… ”The human ecology of the peoples of the Amazon”, 101 p.

6 See "Andean Territoriality", Peigne, A. (1994)… Works Colegio Andino Nº 13, Edic. CBC-Bartolomé de Las Casas, Cusco, 104 p.

Video: Andreas Weber: Life, Meaning and Spirituality in the Commons: Towards a Cultural Paradigm Shift (June 2022).


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  3. Tihalt

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