One-Third of People in the Region Suffer from Discrimination and Racism
(22 March, 2002) Poverty, marginalization and exclusion have become structural realities for people of Indigenous and African descent throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The former account for from eight to 15% of the total population, while the latter account for 30%: in total, some 185 million people. After centuries of exclusion and negation, they continue to be treated like minorities, although they often form the majority.
In many countries, black and indigenous people are still considered inferior or second-class, write Alvaro Bello and Marta Rangel, in their article on Equity and Exclusion of People of Indigenous and African Descent in Latin America and the Caribbean, published in CEPAL Review No. 76. They explain that skin colour, culture, religion and racism are the result of socially and culturally created mechanisms that society has invented to provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for exclusion.
When broken down for ethnic and racial factors, poverty figures for these groups show significant differences from those for the general population. In the most extreme cases, such as Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can reach 20 to 30 percentage points. In the case of people of African descent, the majority live in poverty. In many cases they have lost their main source of subsistence (such as the earth, territory and natural resources) and emigrated to urban centres.
Bello and Rangel recognize that there have been some improvements in recent years. Demands from people of Indigenous and African descent are now more visible, both within the region and at international gatherings. Progress can be appreciated in the constitutional recognition that some countries have afforded their Indigenous languages and cultures. And terms such as "race", which are limited to characteristic phenotypes, are considered inappropriate and have fallen out of use, to be replaced by ethnicity, which comes from the Greek term for "people" or "nation" and refers to identity and specifically cultural differences.
In the region today, there are some 400 groups of Indigenous peoples with different languages, consisting of somewhere between 33 and 35 million people. In Bolivia they account for 81% of the population, in Guatemala, 50%, in Peru, 40%, in Ecuador, 30%, in Mexico, 13%. Although they continue to be associated with rural living, country-to-city migration and natural population growth have meant that the population of Indigenous origin today represents a significant percentage of city dwellers. In Chile, for example, estimates indicate that 80% of the country's almost one million Indigenous people, according to the 1992 census, live in urban areas.
In Mexico City, Bogotá, Santiago or Lima, people have created authentic Indigenous neighbourhoods that receive wave after wave of new migrants. There, formal and informal networks develop, along with productive, political, cultural and neighbourhood organizations, whose central nucleus is a sense of belonging or collective identity.
Another significant trend involves displaced populations: in El Salvador and Nicaragua this has occurred due to civil wars, while in the Mexican state of Chiapas and, above all, in Colombia where the situation facing Indigenous peoples tends to worsen daily, it is the result of conflict zones.
Most Indigenous peoples live in extreme poverty. Their lower levels of schooling and lack of preparation to face the demands of the productive structure mean that the opportunity to receive a formal salary, which is an essential part of modernization processes, remains out of the reach of those who have just recently arrived in the city. High illiteracy rates and low average years of study compound this. Problems of access to and coverage of education are further worsened by issues associated with "pedagogical relevance".
Moreover, ethnic minorities experience poorer health conditions than the general population. In almost every country in the region they are to some degree excluded from health care coverage. In Bolivia and Venezuela, the provinces with the largest number of Indigenous people are those with the worst health care indicators in the country.
150 Million People of African Descent
According to estimates of the black and mixed population, there are some 150 million people of African descent in the region. Most live in Brazil, where they account for half the population, Colombia (20%), Venezuela (10%) and the Caribbean (16%).
In Brazil's case, black and mulatto people face more barriers to their access to and progress through the educational system; they tend to lag behind more and stay less in the system, as well as attending schools of poorer quality. As a result, they experience longer delay and higher failure rates than white people. Another overwhelming fact: in 1992, just 2% of the 50,000 students at the University of Sao Paulo were black. Their participation in the labour force is rated as "precarious".
Bello and Rangel argue that the emergence of diversity and identity comes with the development and universalization of cultural, social and economic rights. They suggest we should look at difference, seeing identities not as threatening the region with separatism or "balkanization", but rather as a renewed way of understanding human rights and socio-cultural processes in order to overcome poverty and marginalization. Ethnic identity and the "challenge of diversity" can be seen as an unusual form of social and cultural capital, which allow us to deal more effectively with questions of competitiveness and economic growth.
This article is from CEPAL Review Nº 76, which will be available soon in Spanish (forthcoming in English) on the ECLAC website following this link. Authors are available at: mallolafquenprodigy.net.mx or martarangelhotmail.com. The Review can also be requested from the Document Distribution Unit, Casilla 179-D, Santiago, Chile. Fax : (56-2)208-0252, e-mail: publicationseclac.cl.