Land-Rights, Tenure, Neo-Liberalism and Economic Development

Posted on | november 3, 2011 | 1 Comment

The issue of land rights and ownership of the Indigenous and Maroons in South America is controversial, epic and without any apparent victors. The fact that the majority of Indigenous and Maroons lack political leverage to put the issue of land tenure and land rights on the political agenda is a great cause of concern. President Morales of Bolivia without hesitation recanted on his promises to settle the issue of the land tenure with Indigenous Organizations, in favor of a new road between Brazil and Bolivia that will run straight through Indian Territory. Evo Morales the erstwhile champion of the Indigenous did not hesitate to curb protests with help from the police force. In Suriname, Desi Bouterse cut off talks with the Indigenous and Maroons mid-conference, without offering a valid explanation. The October Conference was the belated conference of June 2011, a conference postponed because President Bouterse wanted to focus on other more pressing matters. The minister of Regional Development then came to explain that other more pressing government issues such as long range development plan and budgetary woes soaked up all the attention of government.

Noteworthy is that both Morales and Bouterse portray themselves as the champion of the Indigenous cause; Bouterse calls himself “The little American Indian” (pikin Ingi Boi) and Morales came into power, with the electoral support of the Indigenous grass root organizations. Ronny Brunswijk leader of the ABOP a Maroon political party is also involved in the talks on land reform and land tenure, but his position is not very clear. Brunswijk ‘s misgivings voiced by his brother Leo, deal with the challenging of the leadership of the ‘gold authority’, their involvement in the gold-mining puts all their actions and allegations in to question.

But the issue of land rights and land tenure is not without controversy; many South American nations with a large Indigenous population battle with the issue of land-rights, simply because land-rights are not intricately connected with national interest and economic development and advancement. The road that cuts through the Bolivian tropical rainforest will connect Bolivia with Brazil and the rest of the continent; traffic on that road will generate new economic activity, such as hotels, business, catering, all new opportunities to end poverty for the Bolivians as a whole, but also for the Indigenous. But advancement can bring tragedy and mayhem for the Indigenous. In Ecuador the extraction of oil from the tropical rainforest in the end, brought destruction and disease for the Indigenous, as water pollution, waist and destruction of the natural habitats and the food chain endangered their livelihood (source:

Indeed the extraction of precious minerals, timber, oil and other minerals is indeed short term profit, because once its extracted its exported, leaving the people empty handed and poor. In Ecuador, the construction of a pipeline across Indigenous land is underway, and the Texas based company involved with the building argues that it will respect the rights of the Indigenous, that it will help develop the area, by building schools, hospitals and teaching materials and that it will take care of the environment. The largest and most powerful Indigenous organization in Ecuador, CONAIE (La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador) remains skeptical, arguing that the agreements should be signed by the Indians. Despite political influence of CONAIE and their grass rooting, their dexterity to keep the issue of the land-rights and tenure on the agendas seems to be undermined by national interest, and a lacking of actual political power. The Ecuadorian government has accused CONAIE of separatism, an accusation that grabs back to the presence of international NGO’s. The cases of Bolivia and Suriname demonstrate that only through political will and political willingness, the issue of land tenure can be resolved. Why did Desi Bouterse prematurely end the meeting with Indigenous and Maroon leaders, if not for a lack of political will to resolve a century old issue? Why did Evo Morales use excess police force to break the demonstrations? What is the role of Ronny Brunswijk when defending the interests of his constituency?

Plausible is that in all aforementioned situations, leaders came into power using demagoguery to seek support from the disenfranchised. The support base of all three politicians, Morales, Bouterse and Brunswijk, demonstrated that indeed demagoguery and populist rhetoric helped woe the poor and the electorally marginalized to vote for them. Evo Morales, won over the hearts of the Bolivian poor with his calls for social reform and land right. Desi Bouterse during his period in opposition enticed the Indigenous with promises that if he became president the issue of land rights would be settled. Both leaders recanted on their promises after becoming elected. In both cases the president appeared to be stalling matters. In the case of Desi Bouterse, ugly arguments with leaders of the Indians and more recent the abrupt ending of the conference without setting a date to resume talks marks the beginning of a wintery relationship with the Indigenous and Maroons.

Many observers have expressed their surprise over the abrupt ending of the conference and the refusal of the President to accept the petition prepared by the participants. The Surinamese media and watchers did not draw parallels between the acts of rebellion by the Brunswijk goldmining group called Mokko in the rural town Maripaston, and between the refusal of the government to continue talks with the Indigenous and the Maroons. They also failed to connect the previous uprisings in Maripaston with the latest conflict, establishing a pattern of conflict coercion and threat. The conflict over the control of gold fields is in fact a conflict between Desi Bouterse and his accomplices on one side and Ronnie Brunswijk and his people on the other. The latest tensions are possibly just a topical ripple of stronger undercurrents and upheaval between both factions.

The demands of the Indigenous and Maroons for land rights and land tenure do not sit well with a large percentage of the urban population. In the Surinamese capital Paramaribo, people are fearful of a possible invasion of the Maroons whose increasing presence in the city is associated with criminality and squatting (
In the case of Ecuador, despite CONAIE’s successful push for government reform, more oil drilling is underway as well as the building of a Panama-Canal like infrastructure. This infrastructure build with the financial support of the IDB is meant as a corridor between Manaus and Manta on the Pacific coast, to take exports quicker and cheaper to the Asian markets.

But as plans for development materialize, the status and economic position of Indigenous and Maroons is still precarious. Critical is the lack of unity as claims on habitat and land are overridden by feuding factions and disagreement. Also problematic is the fact that many Indigenous and Maroon organizations are being advised by American and European activists, who come with hidden agendas and ideas grounded by anti-globalist anti-neo-liberal ideology Oftentimes the discussion about land-rights and Indigenousness is hijacked by well- meaning scholars and leftist ant-globalist activists whose aim is not to help the locals but to accuse the multi-nationals and the elites. The problem is that many of these publications illuminate only one side of the issue, that of the grass-root, the poor and the oppressed. These anti elitist standpoints have little bearing with the domestic realities. In Suriname many of these activists forego the fact that the ending of existing disparities requires experienced government. The fact that economic development requires the sacrificing of natural habitat or forest is a universal dilemma of which developing nations are not exempted from. It is unrealistic on the part of these NGO’s to consistently view developments and advancement as neoliberal and negative.

I think that the issue of land rights and tenure is complicated, complex and long-standing because it grabs into the most fundamental aspect of the South American continent, the position and the status of Indigenous and Maroons. Evo Morales has demonstrated that he will not let the plight of the Indigenous for land-reform cut across his plans to integrate the country in the region. Like the multi-nationals economic, the Bolivian Government let national interests prevail above the interests of the people. It is up to the Bolivian People to punish Mr. Morales at the ballots for his mistakes and lack of perspective. In the case of Suriname, the situation is much more apprehensive and volatile, because the fight over gold is one of many conflicts over the control over natural resources and territory. The cryptic remark by Desi Bouterse that the Surinamese territory is indivisible harkens back to the conflicts between the different political factions over ‘who gets what and when’.

In the case of CONAIE, it is imperative to gain more political influence, to become part of the establishment and work toward a redistribution of wealth and land from the top -down- as well as from the bottom -up-. The biggest foes of CONAIE are the Ecuadorian political right but also foreign NGO’s, forces that will divide and polarize Ecuadorian society to an even greater extent (source:

AUTHOR: Natascha Adama
E-MAIL: nataliapestova23 [@]


One Response to “Land-Rights, Tenure, Neo-Liberalism and Economic Development”

  1. Scott Root
    november 17th, 2011 @ 21:57

    Bravo! We remove ALL taxes and collect 100% of the rental value of Land and return 100% of the rental value of Land back to every man, woman and child equally. This ensures that EVERYONE receives a Land Dividend that exactly equals the Land rent on the average piece of Land . Infrastructure is funded by fair use fees – use it you pay, don’t use it you don’t pay. This places the monetary system within the boundaries of Life which ensures equal Freedom and Responsibility for ALL. Bravo!

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