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A Gender-Equal Council Takes Lead of the Andean Network of Indigenous Organizations

The council is committed to defending struggles for self-determination in the Andes.

Gerardo handed the colorful baston de mando to Carlos, following the Andean tradition of passing wood staffs representing authority from old to new representatives. The Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas (Andean Network of Indigenous Organizations), which goes by the acronym CAOI, is little known and the inauguration ceremony of its new council went almost unnoticed. That day, all eyes were turned to another less colorful presidential inauguration in Washington DC. CAOI’s new council members were elected at the organization’s Fourth Congress last November and started a three-years mandate this January 20, 2017.

CAOI was created in 2006 as an umbrella organization that represents the indigenous organizations across the Andean highlands. It comprises the largest indigenous organizations from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru: the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI), the Organization of Indigenous Nationalities of Colombia (ONIC), Bolivia’s National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), and the National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining in Peru (CONACAMI). Although it is a pan-Andean organization, some lowlands communities are members because of their affiliation with national organizations, like for instance the Wayuu people in Colombia.

The newly elected council follows CAOI’s norm of two elected delegates per country: two from Bolivia, two from Peru, two from Ecuador, and two from Colombia. However, it is the first time that the council has an equal presence of women and men delegates.

The two head coordinators are Carlos Pérez Guartambel (ECUARUNARI / Ecuador) and Toribia Lero Quispe (CONAMAQ / Bolivia). He is a Kichwa-Kañari lawyer engaged in the defense of water against extractive industries in Ecuador. She is a historic activist in the reconstitution of ayllus, a political unit based on an enlarged family dating back to Inka times that remains a powerful signifier of self-determination in Bolivia.

The other six delegates hold specific agendas. Yaneth del Pilar Suarez (ONIC/ Colombia) is the human rights coordinator. Armando Valbuena Woriyu coordinates economics issues and Andean reciprocity (ONIC / Colombia). Tata Javier Lara Lara (Bolivia / CONAMAQ) articulates continental relations among indigenous and social organizations. Rosa Elena Jerez Masaquiza (CONAIE / Ecuador) oversees youth issues and Blandina Contrearas Yances (CIAP / Peru) women, family, and intergenerational issues. Mario Palacios Yanes (CIAP /Peru) manages communication.

CAOI’s two former coordinators maintain a foot in the organization. Gerardo Jumí Tapias (ONIC /Colombia) stays as CAOI’s observer in Colombia’s peace process. Benito Calixto Guzmán (Peru) continues his coordination of the Indigenous Forum of Abya Yala, which gathers six leading organizations from Central and South America—COICA, ONIC, the Continental Network of Indigenous Women (ECMIA), the Indigenous Council of Central America (CICA), the Indigenous Council of Meso-America (CIMA), and the Network of Indigenous Women for biodiversity.

Indigenous Women Ahead of the Curve?

CAOI’s first election counted only one female delegate, and today’s gender equal council shows the significance of women’s political contributions. Benito Calixto Guzmán, CAOI’s former co-coordinator, says that women are ahead of the curve in indigenous politics, pointing at the organizing capacity of the Continental Network of Indigenous Women (ECMIA) and the Network of Indigenous Women for biodiversity within the Indigenous Forum of the Abya Yala.

But Toribia warns that it was not always so, and that women’s presence is still fragile.

For long, there were no space for indigenous women to participate in an autonomous manner in formal politics. Toribia recalls being one of the few indigenous women participating in indigenous activism since the early 1980s. For instance, the reconstitution of the ayllus was a broad political project based on territory that protected culture and identity as tools of political representation. But there were very few indigenous women visible in this process, and she mostly interacted with those who joined women organizations like Bartolina Sisa.

For Toribia, the challenge is to consolidate indigenous women’s ability to occupy spaces of political participation with decision making power. She inherited her political activism from her mother, and hopes to create the conditions for many more indigenous women to gain political decision-making power. “It has not been easy to enter political spaces,” she says, “but here we are. We must keep on expanding our presence.” She wants to give continuity to struggles for self-determination that consolidate women’s authority. She aspires to combine the voices, struggles and dreams of indigenous women from the highlands and the lowlands to be part of global conversations about climate change.

Although women are pleased with CAOI’s gender equal cabinet, they know how much work awaits them. During his inauguration speech, Carlos said that the extractive industries were not developing anybody if they destroyed territories and justified dispossession. Toribia, in turn, emphasized the notion of co-responsibility with mother earth. “It’s not only about making women visible in politics, it’s about changing existing structures of participation”, said Toribia. She believes that women can push for a paradigm shift: “some of our brothers work for the mining companies, negotiate territoriality with the government… But our territories are not negotiable; they are about life and death to us; they are food security.”

Indigenous Diplomacy as Self-Determination

CAOI’s former council engaged in international diplomacy, and the prior coordinators consider the organization more equipped than ever to participate in global forums, given that it now has a consultative status at the United Nations.

The new council is already preparing to attend UN meetings. Toribia and Rosa are registered to attend the UN commission on the status of women in March. Carlos plans to testify at the UN commission on racial discrimination. Then, the entire council hopes to attend the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues that takes place every May in New York City.

Yet international diplomacies are not sufficient and this council is equally committed to defending struggles for self-determination in the Andes. The new coordinators hope to support claims for prior and informed consultation for extractive projects on indigenous territories. They want to shed light on the criminalization of indigenous resistance, the use of legal warfare, and the assassinations that silence indigenous authorities defending collective rights.

Water has already become one of CAOI’s core agendas. Less than a month after their inauguration, council members gathered for their first meeting in Cuenca, Ecuador, to attend a summit on water and pachamama (mother earth) organized by ECUARUNARI. Nearly 800 people attended the summit, and local communities took the CAOI council on a visit of their territories. The event inspired Toribia to organize a similar summit in the Bolivian highlands later this year.

This first year in office will also present major challenges, since CAOI’s responsibilities include not only to attend but also to organize international meetings for indigenous diplomacies. One of CAOI’s responsibilities is to help organize the Continental Summits of Indigenous Peoples of the Abya Yala. These continental summits takes place every three years, and the sixth edition was planned to happen in Honduras in October 2017. However, the assassinations of various indigenous leaders including Bertha Cáceres have severely undermined local organizational capacity, creating a leadership vacuum in Central America. This means the summit needs to be re-articulated, perhaps relocated.

The Andes has a solid legacy of indigenous politics. Now its umbrella organization faces a call for support way beyond its regional scope.

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