A couple of stories worth noting regarding indigenous peoples in Latin America last week. The more visible one came from Pope Francis’s trip to Latin America. At his stop in Bolivia, he gave an address that, in addition to calling for economic systems that offer better and more equal treatment for the poor, apologized for the often brutal treatment Catholics subjected indigenous peoples to under colonization in both North and South America (full address here). This apology is overdue, naturally, but that it came from Pope Francis (with a remarkable record of attempting to address injustice for the marginalized and oppressed in his short tenure as pope) is unsurprising. And there is plenty the Catholic church has to apologize for, from Diego de Landa’s destruction of virtually all Mayan texts in the Yucatan in the 1500s to the Franciscans’ abuse, exploitation of, and violence against the Pueblos of New Mexico; from the extirpation campaigns designed to destroy indigenous culture and religion in the Andes, to the Jesuit aldeais that relocated and centralized indigenous peoples for conversion in Brazil, but ultimately played a key role in the loss of their lands and their deaths through disease. Admittedly, such an apology does little to address the actual issues indigenous peoples suffered under colonialism, nor does it immediately impact the ongoing struggles many indigenous groups face in North and South America. But just as a state apologizing for past human rights abuses matters symbolically and institutionally, so too does this apology matter.
A story that flew under the radar, but that more directly impacted an indigenous group, was the announcement that the Brazilian Development Bank (Banco Nacional do Desenvolvimento, BNDES) has for the first time provided funds directly to an indigenous group. BNDES, typically funding infrastructure projects, has given $6.6 million reais (roughly 2 million US dollars) to the Ashaninka people to aid them in order to help them protect the forest where the 1,200 Ashaninka live. The money will hopefully help reduce illegal foresting. However, the Ashaninka’s location likely matters in BNDES’s decision – their lands border Peru, and the illegal logging expeditions often come from neighboring Peru. It is worth noting that BNDES has not provided aid for similar projects for indigenous people who face deforestation from Brazilians. Additionally, it is worth pointing out that BNDES’s funds to the Ashaninka represent .02% of its funding just for hydroelectric dams (most notably, but not exclusively the Belo Monte dam) in Brazil that are destroying indigenous lands. So the BNDES funding still overall supports projects that in general have proven/are proving devastating for indigenous groups in Brazil. Yet the fact that BNDES has for the first time directly aided an indigenous group with a project that addresses indigenous needs as they themselves defined it is at least an important and, like Pope Francis’s address, long-overdue move to try to address the ongoing inequalities, oppression, and injustices that indigenous peoples confront.