Amerindians of South America

Alternative name: over 100 separate peoples (see map)
Location: throughout South America
Population: total 20.5 million
% of population: from over 50% (Bolivia, Peru) to less than 1% (e.g. Brazil 0.17%)
Religion: indigenous beliefs, Catholic, Protestant
Language: various

The Amerindians are the original peoples of the South American continent, who from the time of the first European invasion 500 years ago and the continuous settlement since, have had their populations decimated by a combination of warfare and disease. More than 20 million Amerindians have died — a figure equal to that of the original pre-European population. Amerindians are found throughout South America; they are not a homogenous group and are divided into many peoples — increasingly referred to as “nations”. The two major divisions are between those of the Andean highlands and of the tropical lowlands which contain the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. The rights of indigenous people centre on the principle of self-determination and especially land rights.


The first Amerindians crossed the frozen Bering Straits about 30,000 years ago and between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago began to spread throughout the highlands and lowlands of South America. Agricultural settlements began to appear around 5,000 years ago. The most famous quasi-state organization — there were several — was the Quichua-speaking Incas who held power between present-day Equador in the north and northern Chile and Argentina in the south. The continent contained a broad spectrum of socio-economic and cultural patterns.

Soon after Colombus’ arrival on American soil, Spain and Portugal had agreed to divide the uncharted world amongst themselves. The colonists were eager to exploit trade in wood and sugar, which soon brought them into conflict with the indigenous peoples. Labour shortages caused colonists to seek indigenous slaves which produced resistance in the form of hostilities that lasted throughout the century. To complicate matters, French and Dutch interests in the continent fought Portuguese hegemony — and exploited Indian resistance to their own ends. Meanwhile Jesuit missionaries tried to bring Indians into reducions, where they were killed in their hundreds of thousands by diseases such as dysentry, influenza and smallpox. Settlers looking for more land were also responsible for countless deaths among Amerindians. On the Pacific coast, the Spanish did not bother setting up trading relations, but proceeded to milk the Andean area for minerals.

By 1750 the continent was under Iberian rule, although many areas defied the invaders. Portugal expelled the Jesuits in 1759 and Spain followed nine years later. The French Bourbon dynasty, which had control of the Spanish throne began to liberalize practices in Peru, mainly as a means of combating British interests in the area. However, Britain eventually gained economic predominance in South America, Andean Indian resistance in Quichua and Aymara, though solidly backed, was put down. Even today several

Amerindians of South America

movements take their names from the resistance movements of the 1770s. American-born Creoles proved more successful with their independence drive and out of this movement 17 republics had been created by 1825. For the Amerindians, independence did not provide emancipation, Brazil did not gain Republic status until 1889. After independence many Europeans migrated to South America and took over Indian land.

Wars between the Republics in the nineteenth century had further devastating effects on the Amerindians. The War of the Pacific, won by Chile, was fought over nitrate resources. The victorious Chilean army was then used to decimate the Mapuche people. When the army invaded Peru, resistance against occupation was largely Indian, Other wars included the War of the Triple Alliance — between Paraguay and Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and the Chaco War, fought between Bolivia and Paraguay. The new Republics were unable to maintain their liberal stances and power fell into the hands of personal leaders — the caudillos — who, with their own armies set about the destruction of peoples such as the Mapuche.

Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries various economic booms such as in rubber, oil and coffee have resulted in the often ruthless exploitation of Amerindians. The best documented case took place in Putumayo river region of Peru, where rubber exploitation led to deaths of 40,000 Indians between 1886 and 1919. The end of World War I brought an end to British supremacy in South America. Between 1919 and 1929 US foreign investment in Andean countries rose from US $10 million to $316 million. Rapid industrialization brought many Indians to the cities. Out of these masses grew organizations which challenged the powers of the oligarchies who backed the caudillos. Writers such as Gonzalez Prado and Mariategui advocated nationalism coupled with indigenous social and philosophical ideals. The world economic crisis of the 1930s brought a wave of populist and nationalist feelings. In this climate the Indian Protection Service (SPI), formed in Brazil in 1910, and the Mexican model were employed to contact Indian groups and protect them until they were ready for integration.

In the 20 years following World War II industrial expansion increased the demand for foreign capital. Costs rose and the industrial boom declined causing several South American countries to fall into the hands of military dictatorships. International banks began to look for clients to whom they could lend money — a trend which increased with the oil crisis of the 1970s. In Brazil, mining, agriculture, pastoralism and forest exploitation increased invasions of Indian territory while powerful interests within the renamed state organ for Indian protection — the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) — worked to facilitate the government’s development plans. Currently external debt of South American countries exceeds US $250 billion, a factor which has aided the demise of the powers of the military dictatorships.

Land rights

During the past 30 years all Andean countries have recognized some form of agrarian reform, often with disastrous results for Indians. In 1952 the Bolivian Reform, which divided communal land into thousands of individual allotments, resulted in the destruction of many communities. Chile brought in similar legislation in 1979 which reduced Mapuche communities from 2,066 to 655. Peru, in contrast, brought in reforms which emphasized communality, but problems with lack of credit, a weak infrastructure and the machinations of ex-landlords have limited their effects. However the recent decline of military power has seen, at best, a slow return of land to the indigenous population. Generally, the return to democracy has done little to benefit the Amerindians.

The Amerindians are unanimous in their demands for the recognition of their territorial rights. A symbiotic relationship between the highland peoples of the quichua — from the relatively fertile lower mountain slopes, and the puna — from the higher mountain areas, has helped to maintain a complementary link between the social groups of both zones. The Maoist liberation movement, Sendero Luminoso, tried to break these ties in 1982–83 to create “self-sufficiency” and made many enemies as a result. Peoples of these regions tend to live in stable communities based on herding and the agricultural cycle. The lowlands are divided between varzea — the fertile flood plains — and terra firma where land is not particularly productive. The inhabitants of terra firma have traditionally been more migratory, relying on hunting and fishing more than horticultural production. Dualism is a primary feature of Andean thinking, linking the spiritual world with the human environment. The consequences of encroachment on indigenous lands have severely disrupted traditional life in lowland South America. Between 10% and 25% of all indigenous people live in urban areas, while only about 10% of Indian land is recognized as such. A current messianic movement known as Israelitas which is spreading through the Peruvian highlands, is largely in response to the havoc wreaked by Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian armed forces.

Throughout the twentieth century the political and economic influence of the USA has increased in South America. Apart from receiving, on average, 30%–40% of each country’s exports, the USA invests millions of dollars in development and support aid through the US Agency for International Development — USAID — which is accountable to the State department, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank — IDB. While with one hand, USAID supports many indigenous organizations, with its other, it joins the multilateral banks in projects which threaten indigenous people’s very existence. Multinational companies operate throughout South America specializing in extractive, agricultural, pastoral or energy concerns. State debts arising from these investments cut down on progressive policies towards indigenous peoples.

The Christian Church in South America often works in favour of indigenous peoples, but the proselytizing nature of their work is also counterproductive. The division between Catholic and Protestant churches is divisive and confusing and as a result, some people abandon their traditional beliefs, while others ignore missionary work altogether. Catholic missionaries work on a congregational basis where they attract Indians to live on mission stations which in many ways resemble the old Jesuit reducions. Economic power is concentrated in the missions which are usually based on Iberian farming communities containing feudalistic elements.

Economic and religious intervention in Amerindian societies can take two forms. The anti-indigenous form destroys life, land and culture, whereas the more fashionable approach now is the indigenist way which softens the blow of heavy-handed integration. However, the end result is the same — the initiative for change and self-development is taken out of the hands of indigenous peoples who are paternalistically guided onto the “right path”.

Since the European invasion, indigenous communities throughout the continent have co-operated to resist the occupation of their territories. This has taken three forms: avoiding conflict by moving to another area; using the weapons of the occupiers — a political means; or force. Religious movements such as the Israelitas, mentioned above, and Loma Santa have employed these three strategies in attempts to gain self-determination and indigenous rights. Many groups now exist which cross national boundaries. Their organizations work at community, regional, national and international levels and their strategies, primarily non-violent, embrace Indianism, which follows strict ethnic lines, or entryism, which involves groups in the politics of their country.


There are about 150,000 indigenous people in Venezuela, divided into some 30 language groups. The country is divided into 20 states and two territories, each with its own autonomous assembly.

Under the Ley de Misiones, a law passed in 1915, the Catholic Church was given responsibility for the conversion and integration of indigenous peoples. In 1948 the National Indigenist Commission was founded and in 1952 its technical arm, the Central Office of Indigenous Affairs — OCAI, was formed. A decree in 1959 gave the commission powers to work independently of the Church, but in practice this did not happen until the late 1960s. Recently OCAI has been transferred to the Ministry of Education and Internal Affairs, diminishing its already limited powers. At present, the government seems reluctant to take any major initiative on the indigenous question.

Most groups, such as the Bari, Wayuu, Yukpas, Paujanos, Piaroa, Pemon and Akwayo, suffer from a similar problem of colonists taking away their lands. The Warao and Karinas, in the north-east, are affected by oil exploration.


There are about 300,000 indigenous peoples in Colombia dividing into more than 60 nations.

The central government has been a democracy since 1958. The country shares many legislative similarities to Venezuela — three-quarters of the indigenous-owned land is in the hands of missionaries. The Division of Indigenous Affairs (DAI) was set up in 1960. It has an inspection service, advisory body and eight commissions. Its effect on indigenous rights has been minimal. INCORA, the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform, set up reserve lands for Indians, but pressure from non-Indian landowners has minimized its effect.

In the Cauca region, 200,000 Paez and Guambiano Indians have had large tracts of land taken from them, but under CRIC — the Indigenous Regional Council, they have to some extent peacefully re-occupied their land. North of Cauca, in the rainforests, groups such as the Cuna and Embera have managed to retain their cultural identity in spite of having their land reduced from 10,000 hectares to 2,000 hectares. To the east, the Wayuu (Guajiro) have had 50,000 ha of their land leased to mining and tourist industries. In eastern Colombia the Guahibo have, since 1975, been demanding a reserved area from the government.


Nearly three million indigenous peoples live in the highlands. Most numerous are the Quichua-speaking groups and the Shuar. The lowlands are home to the smaller nations — the Wrarani, Cofan, Secoyas, Siona and Zaparos.

After a decade of largely military dictatorships, the country has had democracy since 1979. There is no legislation specifically for the indigenous peoples. Forced labour was abolished in 1964 and the haciendas were expropriated. These moves had little effect on the distribution of land and the Institute for Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC) has been slow to implement changes, which, in any case, concentrate on individual land ownership, which the Indians reject as divisive. Shortages of land in the highlands have increased migration to the cities and groups such as the Cayapas and Colorados have retreated into the forest to escape encroachment. Between 10% and 15% of the Ecuadorian Amazon was destroyed during the first oil boom and colonization is still a major problem for the Indians. Violence erupted between the Shuar and colonists — a pattern which has been repeated throughout the Amazon.


The Quichua and Aymara peoples of the highlands of Peru constitute about half the total population — some nine million people in all. The Peruvian Amazon contains about 60 nations with a population of around 100,000.

Peru contains 25 departments operating under a democratic constitution which came into effect in 1980. A radical military dictatorship set up a co-operative land system in 1968 which served to break down the hacienda system, but most of the benefits were lost with changes in government and the disbandonment of the pro-Indian SIN AMOS organization. Land rights in the forest are more or less ignored by the government and, although in the early 1970s some communities received titles, the process allowing this was slowed down after 1978.

The most serious violations of human rights among the indigenous peoples of South America are taking place in the highlands of Peru. Fighting between government forces and Sendero Luminoso has apparently caused the death or disappearance of 7,000 Indians. Indians suspected of supporting Sendero have been imprisoned and tortured. Sendero itself has destroyed traditional exchange patterns with its ideology. In the lowlands massive forest exploitation is taking place displacing groups such as the Aguaruna, Huambisa and Harakmbut.


The highlands of Bolivia are occupied by some three million Quichua and one million Aymara speaking peoples, while the lowlands are divided amongst about 30 nations totalling 150,000 people.

Bolivia is divided into nine departments and its governments shift between democracy and dictatorship. While agriculture and tin mining are officially Bolivia’s main economies, unofficially, cocaine has surpassed these. When the present MNR government came to power in 1954 land reforms broke the hacienda system and gave land to 170,000 families. Based on individual titles, the law had the effect of dissipating the highland communities. Lowland communities are now trying to ensure that their titles are communal.

Allegations of torture of Indians, especially those belonging to Indianist movements, are widespread and many Indians have been killed in riots and attempted coups. It seems that in the past 10 years, four groups have died out — the Simonianos, Toromonas, Bororo and Jora, while others — the Chimanes, Mojos and Movima — are under threat.


About 15,000 Aymara people live in the north of Chile, some one million Mapuche live south of Santiago and yet further south live various nomadic peoples.

Chile is divided into 13 regions under the central government. While the Mapuche have borne the brunt of Chilean legislation, being forced into reserves and agricultural work, the Allende government began to restore land to them. These efforts were reversed by the Pinochet regime which called for the “division of the reserves and the liquidation of Indian communities”. In 1978 a group of Regional Mapuche Councils was formed comprising Mapuche who were willing to work with the government. The Aymara and other indigenous groups are also affected by legislation aimed at the Mapuche. Since 1986 there has been a severe escalation of oppression of the Mapuche. A further threat for the Bio-Bio Mapuche is the hydro-electric project which will flood vast tracts of their land.


There are 16 indigenous nations in Argentina consisting of nearly 350,000 people, living mainly in the north near the borders with Bolivia and Paraguay. Further south are some 36,000 Mapuche. The main criticism of the Argentinian government is that they break up Indian land and that their development policies are paternalistic. The State has a current National Plan for Indigenist Policy which promotes community development, supports culture, land and economic regeneration. Colonization is the main problem facing most Indians in the state. The Mapuche, divided by an arbitary border from their kin in Chile, seek free access.


There are 17 indigenous nations in Paraguay with a total population thought to be as high as 80,000. Most were once nomadic but have been forced to settle. The country has an eastern and a western province divided into 14 and 15 departments respectively. While the law recognizes indigenous communities, it also allows Indians to be forcibly resettled and makes no provision for enforcement of the law. The same can be said for the labour law.

The last 30 years have seen more land taken from the Indians than at any other time. This country, notorious for its “manhunts” in the past, is still allegedly host to “manhunters” in the form of the New Tribes Mission, who have been accused of hunting the Ayoreo people. Deforestation, particularly in the east, is another problem facing indigenous peoples.


There are 225 indigenous nations in Brazil making a total of over 225,000 people. The nations live in a wide variety of environments, but most inhabit the Amazon and central regions of the country. Brazil is a federal republic with 23 states and three federal territories. Under a 1967 law, the government has sub-surface rights to indigenous land, can relocate Indians and also lease land to third parties. Since 1983 two Presidential Decrees have further eroded Indian rights. Since the “economic miracle” of 1968 enormous expansion has led to repeated violations of indigenous rights.

Road building has brought dislocation and disease and hydro-electric projects threaten to flood the land of 35 nations. Mining and colonization are also serious threats. Threats to the rain forest by extensive logging have recently focused international attention onto the situation of indigenous peoples in Brazil, most notably at Altamira in February 1989, when 500 Indians met with officials from the World Bank, the government and international media. Earlier in June 1988 Indian groups had succeeded in modifying the section on Indians in the new Brazilian Constitution.


Coastal Amerindians in Guyana are largely acculturated but in the interior there are the Arawak-speaking Wapisiana and the Carib-speaking Akawaio, Patamona, Arekuna Makusi and Waiwai — in all about 45,000 Indians. The Hinterland Department of the Ministry of Regional Development deals with Indian affairs. The Amerindian act of 1978 allows for titling of land to individuals and communities, with several exceptions.


There are about 8,000 Amerindians in Suriname and several “Bush Negroes” — communities derived from runaway slaves of the eighteenth century. In the interior live the Trio, Wayana and Akuriyo, while Arawaks and Caribs inhabit the coast. The indigenous population has no special legislation and, while some villages have titles to land, all ownership rights belong to the government. The civil war which has been waged in Suriname since 1986, and in which the Amerindians have remained neutral, finally began to affect them. Reports indicate that Indians, mainly Arawaks, Caribs and Wayanas, have been relocated by government and guerrilla forces.

French Guiana

There are 4,500 indigenous people in French Guiana — on the coast live the Arawak, Galibi and Palikur, while inland are the Emerillon, Oyampi and Wayana. “Bush Negroes” also live in the interior. The country is still a French colony and administered by a Commissioner. Under the Inini Statute indigenous people could live as they liked, but in 1969 the Statute was abolished and the people abruptly brought under French socio-cultural rule. Traditional land rights are not recognized, leaving Indians open to invasion from a possible 30,000 French colonists and Brazilian gold prospectors.

Indians organizing

Indian resistance has taken many forms, guerrilla warfare or insurrection (often against hopeless odds), religious movements and, most commonly, indigenous political organizations. These have a long history starting from the sixteenth century; however from the 1970s new indigenous organizations have, for the first time, been able to transcend national and state barriers and to challenge repressive governments. These movements can be Indianist, i.e. wholly-Indian in membership and values, or syndicalist, joining together with non-Indians, most notably in political parties and trade unions. An Indian women’s movement has also developed which emphasizes the relationship between colonization and the exploitation of women. International solidarity has been sought with other oppressed indigenous peoples and various Amerindian groups have worked through such UN bodies as the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the International Labour Organization. Indians have joined together with human rights groups and, more recently, the international environment movement to fight for land rights and the protection of their land, rivers and forests. Such actions are important in the fight to save Indian peoples and their unique cultures from the death and destruction which continues to face them.

(See also Caribs of Dominica; Maya of Guatemala; Mexico’s Indians; Miskito Indians of Nicaragua)