Eco-Social Struggles of Indigenous Peoples


Michael Löwy

Editor’s note: the struggle against climate change means that the question of the relationship between workers and socialists and the struggles of indigenous people’s is being posed in a new way as witnessed, for example, with the mass solidarity for Wet’suwet’en across Canada (see

 In this context we are republishing Michael Lowy’s important article from 2014.


Is ecology a “luxury” reserved only for the developed countries, an issue of concern only for the wealthier population of the industrialized world? The slightest attention to what is happening in the countries of the South in general and Latin America in particular should suffice to put an end to this commonplace of conformist thought. There are extensive struggles in defense of the environment, particularly on the part of peasants, traditional populations and indigenous communities, as well as international meetings that give voice to these struggles.   Such activities are all the more necessary since forms of production that are the most violently destructive of nature and the health of populations are exported to the periphery of the system. It is of little importance whether or not actions against water pollution, struggles in defense of forests or resistance to harmful activities of the chemical industry are made in the name of “ecology”, a term with which most of the people involved in these movements are unfamiliar. The main thing is that these struggles take place and quite often touch on life or death questions for the populations concerned.[1]

A comment by the Peruvian indigenous leader Hugo Blanco expresses the significance of these socio-ecological struggles remarkably well: “At first sight, defenders of the environment or conservationists appear to be nice, though slightly crazy, people whose main objective in life is to prevent the disappearance of blue whales or panda bears. The common people have more important things to worry about, such as how to obtain their daily bread. […] However, there are in Peru a great number of people who are defenders of the environment. Certainly, if someone says to them “you are ecologists”, they would probably respond, “what is an ecologist?”… Yet, aren’t the inhabitants of the city of Ilo and surrounding villages defenders of the environment when they fight against the pollution caused by the Southern Peru Copper Corporation? […] And isn’t the population of the Amazon totally ecological, ready to die to defend their forests against depredation? The same is true of Lima’s poor when they protest against water pollution.”[2]

The indigenous communities of Latin America are at the center of the struggle for the environment. This is true not only through their local actions in defense of rivers or forests against petroleum and mining multinationals, but also in that they propose an alternative way of life to that of neo-liberal globalized capitalism. Indigenous peoples in particular may be the ones undertaking these struggles, but they quite often do so in alliance with landless peasants, ecologists, socialists and Christian base communities, with support from unions, left parties, the Pastoral Land Commission and the Indigenous Pastoral Ministry.

The dynamics of capital require the transformation of all commonly held goods into commodities, which sooner or later leads to destruction of the environment. The petroleum zones of Latin America, abandoned by the multinationals after years of exploitation, are poisoned and destroyed, leaving behind a dismal legacy of illnesses among the inhabitants. It is thus completely understandable that the populations that live in the most direct contact with the environment are the first victims of this ecocide and attempt to oppose the destructive expansion of capital, sometimes successfully.

Resistance by indigenous peoples, then, has very concrete and immediate motivations—to save their forests or water resources—in their battle for survival. However, it also corresponds to a deep antagonism between the culture, way of life, spirituality and values of these communities and the “spirit of capitalism” as Max Weber defined it: the subjection of all activity to profit calculations, profitability as sole criterion and the quantification and reification, Versachlichung, of all social relations.  There is a sort of “negative affinity” between indigenous ethics and the spirit of capitalism—the converse of the elective affinity between the Protestant ethic and capitalism—, a profound socio-cultural opposition. Certainly, there are indigenous or metis communities that adapt to the system and try to gain from it. Further, indigenous struggles involve extremely complex processes, including identity recomposition, transcoding of discourses and political instrumentalizations, all of which deserve to be closely studied. Yet we can clearly see that a continuous series of conflicts characterizes the relations between indigenous populations and modern capitalist agricultural or mining corporations. This conflict has a long history. It is admirably described in one of the Mexican novels of the anarchist writer B. Traven, The White Rose (1929)[3], which narrates how a large North American oil company seized the lands of an indigenous community after having murdered its leader. However, the conflict has intensified during the last few decades because of both the intensity and extensiveness of capital’s exploitation of the environment, and also because of the rise of the alter-globalization movement—which took on this struggle—and the indigenous movements of the continent.

A Precedent of Great Symbolic Significance: Chico Mendès and the Alliance of Forest Peoples (1986-1988)

Socio-ecological struggles of traditional populations are a form of what Juan Martinez Alier calls “the ecology of the poor”.[4] Among the many expressions of this “ecology of the poor” in Latin America, one of the first to have had an international echo was the struggle led by Chico Mendès and the Alliance of the Forest Peoples during the 1980s against the destructive activities of large landowners and international agribusiness. Chico Mendès, who paid with his life for his action on behalf of the Amazonian peoples, became a legendary figure, a hero of the Brazilian people. Isolated at the beginning, the movement begun by the seringueiros[5] of the State of Acre acquired legitimacy and international recognition, since the demands of these traditional populations were, at the same time, a struggle to preserve the Amazonian forest.[6]  Assuming the leadership of this struggle, the seringueiro Chico Mendès succeeded, with the help of politically committed researchers, union members and militant ecologists, in uniting the struggle of these peasants in defense of the forest with the struggle of other workers living from traditional collection practices in the Amazon basin (Brazil nuts, jute, babassu nuts) and especially with the struggles of indigenous communities, giving birth to the Alliance of Forest Peoples. For the first time, the seringueiros and the Amerindians, who so often had confronted one another in the past, united against a common enemy: the latifundium, an agricultural capitalism that destroys the forest. Chico Mendès passionately pointed to the stakes of this alliance: “Never again will one of our comrades shed the blood of the other; together we can defend nature, which is the place where our peoples have learned to live, raise their children and develop their abilities, in a spirit of harmony with nature, the environment and all the beings who live here.”[7].

The solution proposed by the Alliance, a type of agrarian reform adapted to the conditions of the Amazon, was influenced by socialism to the extent that it was based on land as public property open to use by workers.  In 1987, North American environmental organizations invited Chico Mendès to testify before a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank. Without hesitation, he explained that the deforestation of the Amazon was the result of projects financed by international banks. This moment was essential in his international recognition. Shortly after, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) included him in its “Global 500 Roll of Honour”. At this moment, his struggle became a symbol of planetary mobilization to save the world’s last large tropical forest and ecologists from around the world showed solidarity with him before killers hired by landowners of the Alves da Silva family assassinated him in 1988.

Chico Mendès’ most amazing feat is that he very quickly became aware of the ecological dimension of his struggle and he succeeded, with others, in shaping a convergence between ecological arguments and land ownership demands.  The Alliance of Forest Peoples quickly found itself at the forefront of promoting alternative models of development, symbolized by models of socio-environmentalism that combined sustainable management of natural resources with valorization of local practices and knowledge.[8].

World Social Forum (WSF) of Belém in the Brazilian Amazon (2009)


Twenty years after Chico Mendès’ murder, the struggle to defend the Amazon forest spread and was organized around the entire alter-globalization movement. Indigenous Latin American movements have often participated in alter-globalization initiatives and in the World Social Forums held in Porto Alegre. A key moment, however, was the Forum held in Belém—second largest city of the Brazilian Amazon, with over one million inhabitants—in the State of Pará in January 2009. For the first time, and this was the intention of the Forum organizers[9], there was a huge and sudden emergence of indigenous communities and traditional populations in the alter-globalization movement. The demands of indigenous populations and their diagnosis of the “crisis of Western capitalist civilization” were at the center of all Forum debates. Their slogan in the face of the increasing pace of destruction of the Amazon forest by wood exporters, large land owners raising livestock or soya and petroleum corporations was adopted by the WSF:  “Zero Deforestation Now!”

A general assembly of indigenous delegates present at the Forum approved an important document, “Declaration of Indigenous Peoples at the World Social Forum: Appeal from the Indigenous Peoples facing the Capitalist Crisis of Western Civilization” [10]. This appeal was signed by dozens of peasant, indigenous and alter-globalization organizations, mainly from the Americas (North and South), on the suggestion of Andean organizations from Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, countries where the majority of the population is of Amerindian origin. This document breaks with dominant “progressive” responses, which want to validate and reinforce the role of the state and are based on plans for economic revival. Its aim is to fight against the commodification of life by defending “Mother Earth” and struggle for collective rights, “living well” and decolonization as responses to the crisis of Western capitalist civilization.

During the Social Forum, an international ecosocialist declaration concerning climate change, signed by hundreds of people from several countries, was distributed to the participants. Following the close of the World Social Forum, an Ecosocialist Conference was held in Belém on February 2, 2009, with the participation of a large delegation of indigenous people from Peru. It was coordinated by Hugo Blanco, historic leader of peasant and indigenous struggles in Peru (and former member of the Peruvian Constituent Assembly) and Marcos Arana, a priest linked with liberation theology and indigenous movements. In his presentation, Hugo Blanco recalled that indigenous communities have fought over several centuries for the same objectives as ecosocialism, specifically, collective agricultural organization and respect for Mother Earth.

The increasingly important place of indigenous populations, from the local to the global levels, and their territories[11] within international organizations is expressed above all in local struggles that are quite symbolic of the originality of ecological and political processes in Latin America.


Some Examples of Local Struggles: Peru 2008-2012

There are an impressive number of conflicts listed at the OCMAL (Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina [Observatory of Latin American Mining Conflicts]) site. These conflicts pit indigenous and/or peasant communities from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego against various petroleum or mining companies, mainly North American or European multinationals.

Two examples from Peru illustrate the dynamics of these types of confrontations. Peru is, like Bolivia and Ecuador, one of the Latin American countries where the majority of the population is of indigenous origins. However, contrary to the other two Andean countries, indigenous movements have never succeeded in inspiring true political change and forcing recognition of their socio-cultural demands. Yet these movements have continued to lead persistent struggles over many years against the multinationals responsible for environmental destruction and against the governments that support them. Two recent examples illustrate these conflicts.  In June 2008, a confrontation between the government and indigenous people took place at Bagua. The communities rose up against the decrees of Alan Garcia’s neo-liberal government that, in applying the free trade agreement with the USA, authorized petroleum and wood-exporting corporations to exploit the forests of the Andes and the Amazon. Alan Garcia’s government fiercely cracked down on the protest by AIDESEP, main organization of Amazon indigenous communities, which led to many deaths.

In 2011, there was a change in government with the election of the nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala, who promised to break with his predecessor’s neoliberal policies and submission to multinational interests. He inherited from his predecessor the Conga Project, which allows the mining corporation Yanacocha—in fact, the North American multinational Newmont, with a disturbing past of pollution and contempt for human rights in different countries in partnership with local companies—to exploit an open-air gold mine. The predictable result of the Conga Project is pollution—or rather poisoning—of rivers, directly threatening the survival of local communities. Little by little, mobilization of the communities concerned against the project developed around the slogan “Yes to water, no to gold!”. Indigenous and peasant women were at the forefront, organizing demonstrations of tens of thousands of participants behind banners that said “No to Conga!”. Indigenous leaders, like Hugo Blanco, or the former liberationist priest, Marcos Arana—honored in 2004 with the Peruvian National Human Rights Award and suspended by the Church hierarchy because of his socio-political commitments—showed solidarity with this struggle and tried to give it international recognition.  Faced with protests from the indigenous communities, which were supported by civil society, Ollanta Humala’s government chose to make a harsh response in 2012: military repression, deaths of several demonstrators, imprisonment of the mayor of Cajamarca, guilty of having supported the local communities, and even, more recently, Marcos Arana publically beaten by armed police. International protests, all over Latin America, but also in Europe, took place. OCMAL denounced the assassination of demonstrators and the imprisonment of two human rights lawyers. This affair illustrates the “neo-extractionist”—and repressive—logic of Peruvian governments of various political persuasions and the stubborn resistance of indigenous populations.[12].


The Yasuni National Park Project (Ecuador)

One of the most important actions by indigenous movements and ecologists in Latin America is the Yasuni National Park  project.  The Yasuni nature park is a huge area, 9,280 square kilometers of virgin forests. Extraordinarily rich in terms of biodiversity—botanists have calculated that one hectare contains more species of trees than the entire United States—, it is inhabited by indigenous communities and delimited by three small cities, Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini; hence the abbreviation ITT to designate the whole area. After drilling in the Yasuni region, various petroleum companies, including notably the Maxus Energy Corporation (Texas), found three large petroleum reserves with an estimated capacity of 850 million barrels. Previous Ecuadoran governments had, in the 1980s and 1990s, granted concessions to the Texas company, but the resistance of indigenous communities had limited the damage by preventing most of the drilling.

The proposal of the indigenous movement was to leave the petroleum in the ground, thereby avoiding CO2 emissions of 400 million tons, in exchange for compensation from the international community. Concretely, the wealthy countries would be responsible for one-half of the expected receipts, around three and a half billion dollars over thirteen years. The money would be paid to a fund managed by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and exclusively earmarked for preservation of biodiversity and development of renewable energies. Indigenous and ecological movements initially put forward this project, but it was only after Rafael Correa’s election in 2007  that it was to be  implemented,  under the initiative of the then  Minister of Mines Alberto Acosta.  The Yasuni Project was one of the only initiatives, at the international level, that actually responded to the urgency of the fight against climate change by offering a measure that is, at the very least, effective: leave the petroleum in the ground. This measure is much more efficient than the “market for emission allowances” and other “clean development mechanisms” in the Kyoto accords, which have proved to be completely incapable of significantly reducing greenhouse gases.[13] In the case of Yasuni Park—as in most of the indigenous struggles, particularly in the Amazon region—the fight of local communities to defend their environment from the destructive voraciousness of the fossil fuel oligarchy has coincided completely with the great ecological cause of the 21st century: the prevention of global warming, one of the greatest threats ever known to human life on the planet.

Countries from the North, which are supposed to be taking measures to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases, are not much interested in Ecuador’s heterodox proposal.  A few European countries—Spain, Italy, Germany—have paid a total of three million dollars: a long way to go! Further, some countries—notably Italy and Norway—have cancelled 100 million dollars of Ecuador’s external debt.[14].

Faced with these lukewarm results, Rafael Correa has recently (September 2013) decided to give up the project, thus opening the Park to petroleum corporations. However, large mobilizations by indigenous peoples, peasants and ecologists, supported by the left, are protesting the decision and calling for a Referendum on the issue.

If the wealthy countries have shown such little enthusiasm for the project, this is not only because it has nothing to do with the “market mechanisms” that are their preference, but above all because they fear the demonstration effect of this initiative. Agreeing to finance Yasuni would be tantamount to opening the door to hundreds of similar projects, projects in complete contradiction with the policies chosen by the advanced capitalist countries. This is illustrated quite well by the (non) choices made by them in the various conferences on the climate, where the inability of the countries of the North to change direction is obvious. This inability, moreover, has prompted a notable reaction by South American peoples, concretized in the organization of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba in 2010.

World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba (2010)

During the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (2009), Evo Morales, indigenous President of Bolivia, was the only head of government to support the protest demonstrations occurring in the streets of the Danish capital under the slogan “Change the system, not the climate!”.

In response to the failure of the Copenhagen Conference, a People’s Conference on Climate Change was convened, at Evo Morales’ initiative, in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in April 2010. This city was the site, at the beginning of the 2000s, of the victorious struggles of the local population against the privatization of water (the “Water War”). More than 20,000 delegates participated from all over the world, though the majority was from the Andean countries of Latin America, with a very substantial indigenous representation. The resolution adopted by the Conference, which has had considerable international effect, expresses the ecological and anti-capitalist ideas of indigenous movements, even in the terminology it uses. Here are some extracts from this document:

“The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself.

Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are.

Capitalism requires a powerful military industry for its processes of accumulation and imposition of control over territories and natural resources, suppressing the resistance of the peoples. It is an imperialist system of colonization of the planet.

Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.

It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings. And in order for there to be balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings.

We propose to the peoples of the world the recovery, revalorization, and strengthening of the knowledge, wisdom, and ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples, which are affirmed in the thought and practices of “Living Well,” recognizing Mother Earth as a living being with which we have an indivisible, interdependent, complementary and spiritual relationship.”[15]

One can criticize the mystical and confused aspect of the concept of “Mother Earth” (Pachamama in indigenous languages)—as some leftist Latin American intellectuals have done—or point out the impossibility of giving an effective legal expression to the “rights of Mother Earth”—as jurists have done. Yet this would be to lose sight of the essential point: the powerful, radically anti-systemic social dynamic that has crystallized around these slogans.

Among the terms that have appeared in indigenous discourse over the past few years, the one that seems to have the widest acceptance is Kawsay Sumak or Buen Vivir [Living Well]. This is a qualitative conception of the “good life”, based on the satisfaction of real social needs and respect for nature as opposed to the capitalist cult of growth, expansion and “development”, accompanied by the consumer obsession of “always more”.[16] The concepts of “rights of Mother Earth” and Buen Vivir rapidly spread, not only to indigenous and ecological currents, but also to the entire alter-globalization movement. Eventually, they were included in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador by decision of the progressive governments of these two countries.

These examples of indigenous peoples’ struggles, summit meetings and alternative proposals seem to be promising paths towards a post-petroleum transition and towards alternative models of development that more than ever are lacking in this period of systemic crisis. However, these advances should not be allowed to hide the contradictions of these movements and, above all, governments.

The Contradictions of South American Leftist Governments

Many Latin American countries have left or center-left governments; most—Brazil, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc.— do not go beyond the limits of social-liberalism, i.e., a policy that remains within the limits of neo-liberal orthodoxy, favoring the interests of banks, multinationals and agribusiness, but which, at the same time, implements some redistribution of the rent for the benefit of the most disadvantaged strata. Ecology is not at all a priority for these governments. Their main objective remains “growth” and “development”. Hence, Marina Silva—a friend of Chico Mendès—resigned in 2008 as Minister of the Environment in the Brazilian government of President Lula, citing her inability to obtain even a minimum of guarantees for protection of the Amazon forest. One symbol of the Brazilian government’s harmful choices for the environment and traditional populations is the construction of the Belo Monte dam, which will be the third largest dam complex in the world. Construction is underway despite thirty years of fierce and extremely well organized struggles by the traditional populations who live in the Xingu River basin.[17]

Some countries, however, like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, have attempted to break with neo-liberal policies and have confronted the interests of the oligarchy and multinationals. All these governments recognize the importance of ecological challenges and are disposed to take measures to safeguard the environment. However, all three remain totally dependent, for their governmental budgets, on returns from fossil fuels (gas and petroleum), i.e., the fuels responsible for climate change. This issue has hardly been examined in the Venezuelan government (the absence of a sizeable or organized indigenous population at the sites of exploitation is one of the reasons for this lack). Certainly, by prohibiting industrial fishing—which destroys all marine fauna—to the benefit of small-scale fishing, the Chavez government took an important ecological measure. However, the exploitation of petroleum—which includes all its “dirtiest” forms—continues without interruption, and there are few efforts to develop alternative energies.

In the two Andean countries, Bolivia and Ecuador, debate around the alternative “neo-extractionism or environment” lies at the heart of social and political confrontations. In Bolivia, Evo Morales’ commitment to the struggle of people against climate change and in defense of Mother Earth does not always correspond to the concrete practice of the Bolivian government, attached to a development strategy in which gas production and mining activities occupy an important place. Recently, a project to construct a highway that would traverse a large area of virgin forests provoked energetic protests from local indigenous communities, leading to the—temporary—suspension of the project.




Indigenous communities are at the forefront of efforts to defend virgin forests, rivers and the environment in general against powerful adversaries: fossil fuel multinationals, mining corporations and agribusiness companies. In addition, the culture, way of life and language of indigenous peoples have marked the discourse and culture of social and ecological movements, Social Forums and alter-globalization networks in Latin America.  Finally, governments that claim to be leftist in countries with a large indigenous population have taken on, to a certain extent, indigenous ecological discourse, but continue to practice an “extractionist” development model.


[1] I thank Denis Chartier for his assistance in correcting and revising this paper.

[2]Article in the daily La República, Lima, April 6, 1991.


[3]B. Traven, The White Rose, Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1979.

[4]Juan Martinez Alier, “L’Écologisme des pauvres vingt-ans après: India, Mexico, Peru” [Ecologism of the Poor Twenty Years After: India, Mexico, Peru], Écologie & politique, no. 46 (2012), p. 93-116.

[5]The seringueiros are traditional Amazonian populations who collect latex from the Amazonian rubber tree (hevea brasiliensis) using traditional methods while practicing slash-and-burn agriculture and traditional hunting and fishing.

[6]F. Pinton and C. Aubertin, “Populations traditionnelles: enquête de frontière” [Traditional Populations: A Boundary Inquiry], in Christophe Albaladejo and Xavier Arnauld de Sartre (eds.) L’Amazonie brésilienne et le développement durable:  Expériences et enjeux en milieu rural [The Brazilian Amazon and Sustainable Development: Experiences and Issues in a Rural Environment]. (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005), p. 159-178.

[7][7]Speech of Chico Mendès, cited by Ailton Krenak, coordinator of the União das Nações Indígenas [Union of Indigenous Nations] of Brazil, in Chico Mendes, ([São Paulo]: Sindicato dos Trabalhadores de Xapuri, Central Unica dos Trabalhadores, 1989), p. 26.


[8]F. Pinton and C. Aubertin, op.cit.

[9]See the document “The Politics, Potentials, and Meanings of the WSF in Belém : The Significance for the World Social Forum of the Participation of the Indigenous Peoples of the World”:


[11]I. Belier, “Les peuples autochtones aux Nations unies: un nouvel acteur dans la fabrique des normes internationales” [Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations: A New Actor in the Formulation of International Norms], Critique Internationale, no. 54 (2012), p. 61-80.

[12]Information in this section is extracted from the Peruvian report Lucha Indígena.

[13]For a critique of the Kyoto Protocols, see Achim Brunnengräber, “Crise de l’environnement ou crise de société?   De l’économie politique du changement climatique” [Environmental Crisis or Social Crisis? The Political Economy of Climate Change], in Ulrich Brand and Michael Löwy (eds.), Globalisation et crise écologique. Une critique de l’économie politique par des écologistes allemands [Globalization and Ecological Crisis: A Critique of Political Economy by German Ecologists], (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2011), p. 243-262.

[14]M. Le Quang, Laissons le pétrole sous terre. L’initiative Yasuni ITT en Équateur [Leave the Petroleum in the Ground: the Yasuni ITT Initiative in Ecuador]. Paris: Éditions Omniscience, 2012.


[16] See the article by J. Vanhulst and A. E. Beling in this issue.

[17] D. Chartier and N. Blanc, “Les développements durables de l’Amazonie” [Sustainable Development in the Amazon], in N. Blanc and S. Bonin (eds.), Grands barrages et habitants. Les risques sociaux du développement [Large Dams and Populations: The Social Risks of Development]. (Paris: Éditions QAUE, 2008), p. 169-189; A. Hall and S. Brandford, “Development, Dams and Dilma: the Saga of Belo Monte”, Critical Sociology, no. 38 (2012), p. 851-862.

DisclaimerOpinions expressed in articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Global Ecosocialist Network

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Michael Löwy
About Michael Löwy 4 Articles
Emeritus research director, CNRS, Paris

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