living traditions
Abya Yala Fund Newsletter
Spring 1999

International Funding and Indigenous Self-Development

Aymara Women in Bolivia from CDIMA

Indigenous leaders met for the first time in May 1998, in a historic meeting in Tecpán, Guatemala to discuss and analyze what Self-Development means to them, and the role of international financial institutions in achieving Self-Development. A dozen organizations from Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina and Peru attended this First International Workshop on Indigenous Self-Development.

The Council on Mayan Organizations of Guatemala (COMG), the National Indigenous Plural Assembly for Autonomy (ANIPA), and the Abya Yala Fund for Indigenous Self-Development in South and Meso America hosted and organized the three day workshop. For the first time, Indigenous leaders gathered to share their own experiences and perspectives on development, contributing to a unified definition of the meaning of Indigenous Self-development (ISD). Together they put forth a new vision of development, centered on the needs and worldviews of Indigenous communities.

Workshop participants

Redefining the idea of "development" in Indigenous terms was the first step towards finding a common ground that could unify all of the workshop participants' experiences. We define Indigenous Self-development as: "a process towards the restitution of the rights of our people, and the re-establishment of territorial, political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental conditions that allow for the restoration of an equitable and dignified life in harmony with the natural and spiritual world."

This vision of development stands in contrast to current development policies, which are based on economistic and assimilationist principles. Instead, ISD is responsive to local needs and consistent with an Indigenous worldview. We would like to share this new vision of development with funding agencies, both national and international, in the hope that they adopt policies that are more holistic.

At this meeting, participants analyzed the state of Indigenous communities in South and Meso America. In particular, Indigenous leaders viewed the role that international development agencies have played as one that has perpetuated poverty and dependence.

There is a common misconception that providing money leads to instant development and even self-development where there is no community input or participation. Decades of experience has shown that conventional development programs that take place without respect for or the participation and consultation of Indigenous peoples' leadership have not contributed to Indigenous self-sufficiency. In general, Western pre-conceptions about Indigenous people, and disregard for their worldviews, have often done more harm than good. The market-driven rationale of conventional development programs have either resulted in the creation of highly dependent communities, or the destruction of Indigenous culture and traditional economic activities, or both. These pre-conceptions and a lack of understanding and knowledge about Indigenous communities aptly characterize most international funding agencies as well as many governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs have played a critical role in perpetuating dependence on external funding by having non-Indigenous individuals design and implement projects, and by failing to encourage community involvement and decision-making. ISD on the other hand, relies on community participation and self-reliance.

What does Indigenous Self-Development mean to Indigenous Organizations?

ISD represents a reconceptualization of development from the Western market-driven model to one that is consistent with the material and spiritual needs of Indigenous people. ISD proposes to go beyond the development of projects that will benefit only a small region and therefore a small percentage of the Indigenous population. Most Indigenous organizations in South and Meso America agree that there cannot be self-development without Indigenous autonomy. ISD requires that Indigenous communities be empowered to decide on the type of education, the use of natural resources within our the region, political representation, and most importantly, on our own identity. Furthermore, ISD depends on the community's capacity to be self-reliant. Yet, self-reliance cannot be achieved without autonomy. Autonomy means that Indigenous people need to acquire collective ownership of their territories, which are the economic and spiritual basis for their survival. Legal control over territories alone however, will not guarantee self-development.

Strengthening the Indigenous organizations must be based on Indigenous values and ancestral knowledge, as well as living in harmony with the natural world. Participants at Tecpán pointed out the importance of creating organizations that emphasize transparency, solidarity, and reciprocity. The experience of many of the participants has taught them that Indigenous identity and dignity are essential for an Indigenous self-development process and the long-term success of a project. The process of autonomy therefore, has to recognize and promote the importance of each Indigenous nation's history and worldview. Workshop participants agreed that an Indigenous worldview must be incorporated into every aspect of their work. We hope that international funding agencies will learn about this approach and incorporate it into their criteria when selecting "development" projects for or by Indigenous communities.

European development organizations for example, have institutionalized the principle of community participation which they call Participatory Development. This concept of development acknowledges that development projects which involve the community and in which the community has a stake tend to be more successful. Participation as an end in itself is a process whereby grass-roots groups acquire more decision-making power and increase their control over economic and social resources vis-a-vis other social groups, the state or development agencies. Participatory Development refers to skill-building through participation that enhances people's capacity for action and enriches their lives. After decades of failed development projects, Participatory Development aims at empowering people to make decisions regarding external interventions in the life of the community. This includes committing their own resources to the undertaking and assuming responsibility for it.

Objectives for the Tecpán Meeting

Indigenous leaders at Tecpán discussed the impact of international and government funding on Indigenous communities. They were critical of funding policies based on Western style premises of modernization. They challenged the notion that poverty and "backwardness" is inherent in Indigenous peoples, a view still widely held in development circles. Furthermore, participants came to the resounding consensus that these development projects have either benefited non-Indigenous interests or have promoted Indigenous communities' dependence on external funding.

Workshop participants established a series of concrete objectives for the three-day event. First, to share the experiences of a variety of self-development projects in order to develop an expanded understanding of the opportunities and obstacles faced by Indigenous communities, to learn from each other's mistakes, and to improve future project design and implementation. Second, to identify and compare common elements between regions, with special attention to successful self-development projects. Third, to develop in the coming months, educational materials for Indigenous organizations and those international funding agencies and governments that want to support Indigenous people, technically and economically. Fourth, to share experiences with self-development methodologies and programs, especially those that utilize local resources, strengthen self-sufficiency, and revitalize Indigenous culture. Finally, the workshop served as a forum for sharing information about international fundraising.

Most presentations included a description of the background and history of the particular organization, an analysis of the obstacles that have prevented the particular Indigenous community from becoming self-reliant and the steps the organization has taken to overcome those obstacles. The presentations demonstrated that Indigenous organizations have a clear understanding of how to address the particular problems which affect them.

Obstacles to Achieving ISD

Indigenous communities face many obstacles in achieving ISD. While Indigenous people face similar structural obstacles such as poverty, isolation, and lack of education, there are important regional differences that are best identified by Indigenous people themselves. The Guatemalan organization Cooperation for the Rural Development of the West or CDRO (by its Spanish acronym) that participated at the Workshop, serves as a case study for how Indigenous organizations are meeting each obstacle they face by relying on traditional values.

CDRO is a horizontally organized institution that can be described as a "tapestry" of 51 integrated rural communities. Established in 1984 by Mayan people from Xolsamaja and Nimasac, its fundamental goal is to support their development through community participation and use of available Indigenous science and technology. Founded on Indigenous principles, they have applied them to their strategies for overcoming each one of their identified obstacles to ISD.

Lack of Unity in Indigenous Communities

Lack of unity and coherence of purpose is one of the main obstacles experienced by many communities. This lack of cohesiveness stems from the number of groups that often fail to work together due to mutual isolation and mistrust. However, this problem is not exclusive to community groups. Funding agencies are also guilty of secluding themselves, creating an environment of competition that is destructive to the community's social relations. Various groups within the community are forced to compete for limited services, which can turn into petty conflicts and keep them from achieving greater results for everyone. Indigenous leaders are concerned that their communities are subject to great manipulation by conflicting interests, coming from both inside and outside the community.

CDRO has addressed the problem of community divisiveness by establishing and consolidating a Mayan organizing system called "Pop," referring to a type of weaving. This Mayan concept embodies the value of unity, horizontal community participation, and mutual support, which translates into an organizing methodology. In practice, "Pop" represents the interdependence of the grass-roots groups, a community council and the general assembly.

Lack of Adequate Services

Indigenous communities face the common problem of not having control over the institutions that assess and prioritize their needs. As a consequence, Indigenous communities end up with services that do not correspond to their needs or a lack of services all together. CDRO identifies a lack of services in Mayan communities and attributed it to the failure to include Mayan cultural, ideological, and social characteristics into the projects' design. Since Indigenous people are ultimately responsible for the community's self-development, it is key that they have control of the institutions which design projects, programs and systems. Institutions created by the Guatemalan Government and private companies that come from the country's capital to install basic services never satisfy the real needs of the communities' inhabitants. Most often, services do not reach the most inaccessible communities or are inconsistent with the idiosyncrasies of Mayan culture. A common example of this is prioritizing electricity over all other potential infrastructural projects as a symbol of "progress" and "development." CDRO advises Indigenous communities to choose projects based on their own assessment of their specific needs.


Indigenous communities are generally unable to obtain loans because they do not meet private and governmental institutions' lending criteria. These institutions, however, make loans according to international banking principles that do not contribute to communities' economic independence.

In an important step toward addressing both community and familial financial concerns CDRO has organized the "Pop" Bank, a financial system consistent with Mayan values. The "Pop" Bank follows the same principles as the "Pop" organizing system, providing a holistic approach to the needs of the community through what are called communal property revolving funds. It also allows for individual or group contributions, monetary or otherwise, to the operations and services of the "Pop" Bank as "payment" for services provided or loans received.

In Mexico, the Nahua Association of the Mountains of Guerrero or (ALTEPEETL), has tackled the problem of poverty in their communities by promoting alternative forms of social action in a small scale. Their approach is consistent with conditions in Mexico, where the government discourages independent Indigenous organizations on a national or regional scale. Nevertheless, organizations exist at the national, regional and local level despite government efforts to keep Indigenous people isolated from one another and dependent on government hand-outs. ALTEPEETL has four areas of focus which include: development of Indigenous agriculture and sustainable exploitation of natural resources; training and consulting for the Indigenous people of the mountains; promoting Indigenous community culture; and Indigenous Women's programs. The specific problems faced by ALTEPEETL are insufficient production of basic foods, alarming levels of illicit drugs in the area, and damage to their ecosystem from an inefficient use of natural resources. This has resulted in an increase of Indigenous out-migration and a gradual increase in poverty, which has led to despair in the Indigenous communities of Guerrero.

With an emphasis on generating work, supporting Indigenous rights and preserving Indigenous culture, ALTEPEETL has been able to improve dramatically the conditions for five Indigenous communities. During a period of 2 years, they increased employment from 90 to 250; the number of hectares of arable land went from 100 to 350, and maize production increased from 700 kilograms to three and a half tons. ALTEPEETL was able to change the character of the region from having only one picking season a year to having year-round harvests by irrigating one hundred hectares. There are now two or three harvests a year. From producing only maize, the community now produces alternative crops that provide additional income. ALTEPEETL believes in a local approach to ISD, but its contribution can be projected to other regions in Latin America.

The organization Mosquitia Asla Takanka (MASTA) in Honduras, has developed projects that will provide jobs in the Mosquitia region, which has high unemployment. The projects emphasize women's participation in the production of cloth, creams, and crafts, as well as fishing and agricultural production. At the same time, they have engaged in anti-drug campaigns to counter the impact of drug trafficking in the area which feeds on the unemployment.

Funding Problems of Small and New Organizations

Collaborations between smaller Mayan organizations and their self-development projects has led to their notice by international funders interested in larger projects. New organizations have had more difficulty obtaining funds from international financial institutions that support older and larger organizations like CDRO. Strict requirements of long-standing stability prevent smaller and newer organizations from eligibility for funding, thus undermining the development of many nascent Indigenous organizations. This is the case of MENMAGUA, the National Discussion Table of Guatemala, a relatively new Mayan organization whose goal is to coordinate all Indigenous Guatemalan organizations that work on community development projects and involve them in a national dialogue where Mayan values and beliefs are shared. Paramount to the overall goal of MENMAGUA is to bring these organizations together and forge a consensus of shared Mayan values and worldviews.

Lack of Political Influence

The lack of Indigenous peoples' influence vis-a-vis the government leads to the exclusion of Indigenous perspectives and knowledge in national policy. MENMAGUA developed a National Development Plan, and working with other Mayan organizations, was able to contribute to urban and rural development policy at the federal level. MENMAGUA's main contribution to the national discussion on Indigenous development is its basis in Mayan values, beliefs and knowledge. While other organizations focus on addressing specific issues, MENMAGUA is a national agency that coordinates organizations working in related self-development projects. This not only results in a greater success rate for the community, but also allows for smaller Mayan organizations to be recognized by local and national governments.

Lack of Skilled Professionals

For the first time, Indigenous organizations are taking charge of designing and finding resources for their own projects. In the past, only the NGOs had access to resources outside the country. As a consequence, Indigenous people never developed the necessary sector of skilled professionals that could manage the projects, and thus remained dependent on external organizations. Many Indigenous leaders recognize that although some MENMAGUA joint efforts have been successful in receiving funding, Indigenous organizations need to learn how to administer funds and manage projects on their own behalf as required by international standards. Several European funding agencies have recognized the importance of supporting Indigenous organizations, and have given money for professional development and leadership training.

Constitutional Protections

Many indigenous communities are seeking improved legal protections through national constitutional change or specific legislation. The Council of Mayan Organizations of Guatemala, or COMG, is another effort to influence policy at the national level. Also a coordinating body, COMG is the political component of the Mayan Indigenous movement, and includes supporters from all sectors of society including academia, the arts, and non-governmental development agencies. In order to be certain that laws benefiting the Mayan people would be incorporated into the Constitution, COMG developed a document called Specific Rights for the Mayan People which consolidated their demands and guaranteed greater political influence. Such laws are needed, for example, to protect the integrity of Indigenous ceremonial centers, some of which have been given away as concessions to large corporations.

Indigenous Autonomy and Identity

Although Indigenous people have been organizing and resisting external pressures for hundreds of years, the signing of the Peace Accords brought an organizing boom in the Indigenous communities in Guatemala. In a similar way, the EZLN insurrection in Mexico rekindled the organizing drive both within existing organizations and stimulated it in those Indigenous communities where they were non-existent.

The Indigenous Peoples Independent Front (FIPI) in Chiapas, the Nahua ALTEPEETL Association of the Mountains of Guerrero (ALTEPEETL), and the National Indigenous Plural Assembly for Autonomy (ANIPA), are examples of the strong advocates of Indigenous autonomy in Mexico. Not until the EZLN uprising in 1994 was Indigenous autonomy seriously discussed in Mexico. Two of these organizations had existed long before the EZLN insurrection, but until then, the issue of Indigenous autonomy, had been anathema for most Mexican policy-makers and non-Indigenous intellectuals.

The Indigenous Peoples Independent Front, or FIPI (by its Spanish acronym) was formed in Chiapas in 1987 as an advocate for autonomy in the Tojolabal region. It later contributed to the formation of the National Indigenous Plural Assembly for Autonomy (ANIPA) which would play a major role in the peace negotiations between the Government and the EZLN. FIPI identifies with the broader Indigenous Movement that has existed in Mexico since about 1990. One of their greatest concerns is that Indigenous people in many parts of Mexico develop their own identities by rescuing their traditional language and traditions altered for centuries by the Catholic Church. In Chiapas for example, the Church artificially constructed Indigenous groups in order to distinguish them from one another and facilitate their indoctrination. In more recent years, anthropologists have also artificially created identities further distorting the Indigenous legacy in the region.

Many groups, believing strongly that the best way to achieve ISD is by rescuing their Indigenous values and traditions, have developed cultural survival projects. In Guatemala, the organization KAKULHA aims to reinstate the Council of Elders as an authoritative body in the lives of the Indigenous communities. As inheritors of the traditions and ancestral knowledge of the community, elders can guide their communities and help rescue the values and identity of Indigenous culture in the region. In the same way, ANIPA is involved in a 25 year project which has reinstated traditional medicine through homeopathy in the community. This project has evolved gradually becoming the community's own project and answering to their own specific needs.

Organizations like FIPI and ANIPA are concerned with initiating a process by which Indigenous people can recreate their own identities free from the influence of the Catholic Church and non-Indigenous academics. In particular, the Mayan Movement is developing a trans-tribal cultural identity that will unify different Mayan ethnicities while being mindful of the different characteristics of each.

Lessons for ISD and International Funding

At the first International Workshop on Indigenous Self-Development Indigenous leaders put forth a new vision of development for Indigenous communities - one which is centered on our own world view, culture, and political organization. The result was the development of a unified concept of Indigenous Self Development, or ISD. Recent years have seen an increase in Indigenous communication and a decrease in isolation due to greater access to technology and to international Indigenous meetings like the one at Tecpán. This has helped to consolidate an International Indigenous Movement that has been developing for over 30 years. For the first time, a set of principles for ISD and Indigenous autonomy and identity exist to counter Western-style development strategies. A key component of an Indigenous political ideology has been the recovery of an Indigenous identity defined by Native peoples themselves. The development of this political ideology will depend also on the ability to hold further international meetings at which Indigenous peoples can teach each other as well as non-Indigenous institutions.

At a time when Indigenous organizations are gaining tremendous skills and a coherent development analysis that is not dependent on government hand-outs, they are increasingly unable to affect legal changes in their own countries. Some countries in Latin America are recently more open than others to giving legal rights to Indigenous people. Yet, Native peoples are rapidly losing the elements that are key for their survival: control over Indigenous territories and legal rights to traditional knowledge (see article on Biodiversity). Globalization has meant that governments are more eager than ever to give away territory within their boundaries to corporations that are looking for ever-cheaper ways to extract resources. Invariably, the land and resources being given away are parts of traditionally held Indigenous territories. Indigenous people in turn, have had to seek allies in a burgeoning Indigenous Movement and in sympathetic non-Indigenous people inside and outside the country. Ironically, much of that sympathy stems from an increasing non-Indigenous consciousness about environmental preservation which does not always take Indigenous peoples' knowledge into account.

Indigenous involvement, ranging from territorial preservation to infrastructural development, must become a regular part of development projects and an important component of their success. International funding agencies can support ISD by developing a closer relationship with the Indigenous communities who otherwise rely on intermediaries to find international financial resources. International funding agencies could also adapt their funding criteria to principles consistent with an Indigenous worldview. Indigenous organizations can in turn rely on increasing cooperation and communication in order to further their knowledge of and successfully implement Indigenous Self-Development.

Article written by Mariana Bustamante, Communications Coordinator of Abya Yala Fund, based on a report prepared by COMG and Abya Yala Fund.

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