Indigenous Organizing in Colombia and Ecuador

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

Jorge León and Joanne Rappaport

FROM MEXICO TO Bolivia, the most prominent social movements in the 1990s are indigenous organizations. Composed of broad memberships whose demands have been ignored until recently by the state and rejected by groups on the left, in the past decade native organizations have been propelled into the national spotlight, creating new scenarios for popular protest and forcing all Latin Americans to rethink the meaning of nationality and of the state.

While in some countries, such as Mexico, native peoples have coalesced around politico-military organizations such as the Zapatistas, in South America indigenous communities have created grassroots associations that over the past two decades have consolidated into regional and national structures.

The demands of these groups are the same across the continent. They call for radical changes in the agrarian structure: the return to communities of lands stolen from them over the past five centuries. They demand access to social programs restructured in such a way as to promote, and not negate, cultural and ethnic diversity. And in a direct appeal to radical political change, these organizations have most recently begun to insist that national political structures be transformed in recognition of the multiethnic nature of Latin America.

In two South American countries, Ecuador and Colombia, ethnic movements have been catapulted to center stage with the appearance of indigenous organizations with massive memberships. In Ecuador, native peoples became national political actors in 1990, when they took to the streets in a national Uprising, blocking national highways and organizing marches from rural communities to major cities, forcing the government to negotiate their demands and to recognize indigenous people as interlocutors with the state.(1)

Native Colombian leaders entered into dialogue with the nation in 1991, as members of the Constituent Assembly that rewrote Colombia’s constitution; indigenous assembly-members transformed Colombian politics by including in the new constitutional mandate a recognition of the pluriethnic character of the country.(2)

What It Means to be Native

Although Colombia and Ecuador share a common border, and for a time in the nineteenth century were united into a single nation, it is very different to be a native person in Colombia and in Ecuador. While the native population of Colombia makes up only 1.5 percent of the total population of the country and is divided into numerous communities, each speaking its own language, somewhere between 18 and 34 percent of Ecuadorians are indigenous, depending upon whose figures you accept, and a large proportion of those speak Quichua.(3)

While in both Ecuador and Colombia indigenous people are frequently among the poorest citizens, various indicators of poverty–whether lack of access to water, electricity, suitable housing, cronic malnutrition, or levels of infant mortality–are much worse in Ecuador than in Colombia. At the same time, while structural violence is felt more strongly by indigenous people in Ecuador, physical violence is a fundamental problem for Colombian native communities.

Many of the latter have suffered at the hands of assassins hired by large landholders, as well as the brutality of the Colombian military and of guerrilla organizations. More recently–as documented by reports from Americas Watch and Amnesty International–they have had to suffer the ruthlessness of druglords (or “narco-entrepreneurs”), who have introduced the cultivation and processing of marijuana, coca, and most recently, opium poppies, into indigenous areas, and who compete with native peoples for lands.

The historically-derived institutions upon which native communities in the two countries depend are also quite different. Early on in the colonial period, in the sixteenth century, the Spanish authorities of the New Kingdom of Granada–what is today Colombia–instituted a system for isolating native communities from the remainder of the population, thus creating a labor pool for neighboring mines and haciendas.

Isolated into resguardos, landholding units with semi-autonomous political authority and communal title to lands, native groups were able to maintain territorial cohesion under Spanish domination. After independence in the early nineteenth century, resguardos were liquidated in some parts of Colombia, in the interests of freeing communal lands up for capitalist exploitation. Nevertheless, many communities in the southern highlands were able to maintain their communal status, which was validated by protectionist legislation at the turn of the century.(4)

In a country with such a small and dispersed indigenous population, the resguardo system has played a central role in maintaining indigenous identity, focused on the protection of communal lands and the maintenance of political autonomy. A great deal of land was usurped, however, in the colonial period and in the years following independence, sometimes by trickery, sometimes by violence, and sometimes by government decree.

As a result, in many indigenous communities the fertile valley lands contained in resguardo titles are in the hands of non-native landholders, while indigenous people have to make due with the less fertile and high-altitude mountain slopes, or must live as sharecroppers on the haciendas.(5)

One of the earliest efforts at pan-Indian organizing in the first half of the twentieth century was led by a Paez sharecropper, Manuel Quintin Lame, who united various ethnic groups in the southern highlands around a program that highlighted the return of usurped lands to resguardos and the strengthening of the political authority structure of the resguardo.(6) Clearly, the resguardo has served as a rallying-cry for native communities, despite the fact that the institution was originally created as a vehicle for isolating and dominating native Colombians.

In Ecuador, the resguardo was called an “indigenous community.” Although in Ecuador, there are considerably more indigenous communities than there are resguardos in Colombia, the institution followed a similar evolution in the two countries. The Communal Law of 1934, which is similar to other protective laws throughout the continent, guarantees and protects communal lands, legitimizes indigenous authority, and even recognizes cultural differences.

Shortly after the law’s inception, the 263 indigenous communities that were the most active in the country were recognized legally. Native Ecuadorians had to wait until 1963, the advent of the agrarian reform, for the massive appearance of new communities collectively reclaiming lands. Some of these were peasant populations that reaffirmed their native identity to be recognized as indigenous communities.

Today, there are several thousand indigenous communties, not all of which have obtained legal recognition. Since the era of the agrarian reform, the community form of organization has become increasingly popular, bringing access to services–drinking water, electricity, schools, roads, and even religious activities–that were inaccessible before.

In indigenous communities, native people shape their own social space, independent of haciendas: this has afforded them the possibilities of creating a new society, different from the past. While before, basic social services were only accessible in non-indigenous regions, forcing native people to assimilate to acquire these benefits, now peasants transform themselves into Indians to expand the reach of these services.

Thus, while at first the indigenous community provided a space for the maintenance and defense of native identity, today it provides a stage for ethnic reaffirmation.(7)

The Rise of Ethnic Movements

The contemporary resurgence of ethnic identity in Ecuador is quite different from the historical marginalization of indigenous Ecuadorians, whose rights as citizens never passed from law to social reality. Lacking basic services, with no access to writing in their native languages, they were excluded from political participation. While it is true that left and Catholic unions had organized native people, they saw them as peasants and ignored their ethnic specificity.

Struggles around the agrarian reform allowed these peasants to organize themselves more fully. Some of them, once they succeeded in increasing their land base, transformed themselves into ethnic organizations. Many of these groups were founded by political leaders and lay catechists concerned over the loss of native languages, a preoccupation that led them to create community-based schools.

Thus, education and opposition to cultural discrimination lie at the roots of the appearance and growth of ethnic organizations in Ecuador. Except in a small number of cases, the creation of these indigenous groups was inspired by the Church, although their leaderships split from the Church soon after their inception, acquiring a greater class consciousness that frequently enters into contradiction with their ethnic consciousness.

While class politics has permitted their acceptance by labor organizations, these new ethnic movements have only achieved full recognition since the Uprisings of 1990 and 1994. On the other hand, their class-based discourse was never fully accepted by the indigenous population. The more the indigenous leadership appealed to its own native constituency, the greater the gulf between the indigenous movement and those popular organizations that supported it.

ECUARUNARI (The Awakening of the Ecuadorian People) is the most important of the Andean organizations, uniting a broad range of rural associations in regions with large indigenous populations. Once established in 1972, it promoted the organization of cooperatives, associations, parish committees and indigenous communities. Moving beyond the demand for land, ECUARUNARI began to orient its activities toward a broader defense of native rights, responding to needs in the areas of bilingual education, agriculture, etc.

So-called “development” activities were also incorporated into its objectives, the organization becoming a force for “modernization.” Thus, ECUARUNARI operated both in public space as a spokesperson for native peoples and as a force for transforming conditions in indigenous communities.

ECUARUNARI, like its sister organizations, is characterized by an emphasis on collective, not individual, membership. Key decisions are made by the communities, leading to a traditional emphasis on consensus; consequently, it takes a long time for decisions to be reached and there is a high turnover of leadership. This system of control of the leadership by the collectivity promotes participatory democracy, although it does not always lead to rapid decision-making characteristic of contemporary public life.

Organizations in the Amazonian region of Ecuador developed in response to different pressures, principally the arrival of colonists from the Andes, which generated considerable tension over lands. While Andean native organizations were founded to achieve access to lands, in the Amazon they were created to defend native territory through new forms of land use, such as cattle-ranching, to cement permanent claims to lands. Today, they are looking for alternative uses of the tropical forest and for alternative routes to development.

The various Amazonian organizations are united into CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon), while in the highlands, ECUARUNARI is the central umbrella organization. The two federations created a national federation, CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), which is currently the broadest indigenous organization, serving as an interlocutor with the state and directing major acts of protest on the national stage.(8)

The native rights movement in Colombia began around the struggle for land. Following the lead of Manuel Quintin Lame, who had organized sharecroppers and resguardo members in the first half of the twentieth century, native people in the highland department of Cauca organized around the issues of sharecroppers and the labor conflicts of sugarcane workers, founding the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC).

CRIC’s seven-point program built upon Lame’s demands, including the reappropriation and broadening of resguardo lands, the strengthening of indigenous political authority, the end of harecropping, the defense of indigenous history, languages and customs. CRIC was unique among popular organizations at the time, because it worked through existing native political institutions, such as the councils that governed resguardos, instead of adopting Western models of organization.

CRIC promoted the occupation of haciendas as a means of reclaiming land, repossessing some 25,000 acres in its first three years of existence, in addition to organizing cooperatives and development projects in these lands. Working within the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC), a national peasant organization, CRIC attempted to promote specifically indigenous demands on the national level and succeeded in publishing a national newspaper, Unidad Indigena.

CRIC was also instrumental in building indigenous organizations in other parts of the country. Eventually, CRIC was forced to split from ANUC, which was hesitant to press indigenous demands too far. With the repressive policies of President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala (1978-82), including the enactment of a highly unpopular statute that would increase state control over resguardos, CRIC brought together numerous local and regional organizations to form in 1982 a national indigenous organization, the National Organization of Colombian Indians (ONIC).

CRIC continued its successes in reclaiming land, attracting growing support from international donors, ultimately leading to a large and centralized organization that is the second largest employer in the department of Cauca. By the late 1970s, however, several communities became critical of CRIC’s burgeoning bureaucracy and the power that the centralized organization had managed to snatch from the traditional political authorities of the resguardos; essentially, they saw CRIC as having become another of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating on the local scene.

A new organization was established in contradistinction to CRIC and ONIC, the Indigenous Authorities Movement (AICO), which limited its organizing to the level of individual communities. Traditional authorities make up the steering committee of this national national organization, meeting occasionally in broad public assemblies.(9)

At the same time, numerous local organizations were springing up throughout Colombia. While the highlands had taken the lead in native organizing, in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Catholic Church helped to organize lowland communities, creating regional organizations that would take CRIC as their organizing model, but which would ultimately also contest CRIC’s hegemony over national organizations like ONIC.(10)

In the passage from local organizations to large NGOs and even larger coalitions operating on the national level, several important changes occurred within the Colombian native movement. For one, as organizations such as CRIC and ONIC began to capture the attention of international donors, their goals shifted from a strengthening of grassroots political structures in a struggle over land tenure, to a more paternalistic relationship with the local level, dominated by development strategies.

The leadership of these organizations shifted accordingly. The early leaders had been peasant activists whose skills were honed in the fight for lands through organizations such as ANUC, the Communist Party, and various groups on the left, and whose objectives were centered around issues of land tenure. In the 1980s and early 1990s, these activists gave way to a more educated and younger leadership, whose training-ground was the indigenous movement itself, and which saw itself as a potential interlocutor with the state.

AICO’s policy, however, continues to heed the recommendations of elders, with younger leaders and traditional authorities working together, a policy which is the reality at the grassroots for affiliates of all organizations.(11)

From Land Struggles to Plurinational State

The 1991 constitution marks a turning point for native Colombians, who are finally recognized as a special kind of citizen, making a different contribution to the nation than do other Colombians. In the last century, the idea of citizenship in a homogeneous nation was used to divest native Colombians of their resguardo lands. Today, the notion of the pluriethnic state recognizes indigenous people as citizens, but also as native peoples.

The sections of the constitution–authored by indigenous leaders and their allies–dedicated to indigenous people and Afro-Colombians recognize, for instance, the rights of minority populations to representation in the national legislature and lay the basis for the creation of new forms of territorial organization in which communities gain control over funds emanating from the state, promising greater political autonomy than they enjoyed up to now.

The constitution originated in the increasing lack of control that the state had over regions in which guerrilla organizations operated and in which land struggles were occurring. The Constitutional Assembly was comprised for the most part of members of Colombia’s two traditional political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. Nevertheless, other sectors of the population, which were not affiliated with these political parties, were allowed access to seats in the Assembly.

In addition to indigenous representatives from the two major organizations, the M-19 (a guerrilla organization that had negotiated a return to civil life), the Indigenous Social Alliance (composed of former indigenous guerrillas from the Quintin Lame Command, which had also negotiated with the state), and other sectors, including Protestants, were also active in the Assembly.

The M-19 had become a significant social movement with a broad base of popular support. But in the case of indigenous movements and former guerrillas, why would the Colombian state allow a constituency that included less than two percent of the population to play such a major role in constitutional reform?

If the Colombian indigenous movement represents only a tiny percentage of the population, its presence on the regional and national levels far outweighs its numbers. It has effectively captured the attention of the Colombian public through careful public relations, through a string of successes in the land struggle, through the creation of links with other groups.

In many ways, although the movement represents indigenous people, its members include numerous others, including mestizo peasants, Afro-Colombians, and urban intellectuals. In fact, many of the votes that brought native representatives to the Constitutional Assembly came from voters in urban areas who were tired of existing organizations on the left and who looked toward the indigenous movement as a new direction for the future.

While the native rights movement provided the Colombian public with a new and promising turn in politics, by the time the Constituent Assembly took place, native activists did not threaten the Colombian state. The lands the indigenous organizations were repossessing(12) were marginal and with only a few exceptions, did not threaten agroindustry.

Moreover, many indigenous communities are located on the boundaries of regions controlled by guerrilla organizations, thus providing a convenient buffer from the point of view of the state. The state hoped, moreover, that by co-opting indigenous leaders into national legislative structures and development plans, they would effectively disarm them.

Effectively, the native movement operating on the national level is in a lull right now, having suffered multiple splits over electoral strategies. The state and native legislators are at loggerheads over the form that a new law which establishes forms of native jurisdiction over territory and municipal funds will take.(13)

To some degree the state has co-opted the native movement. Nevertheless, grassroots activity continues at a feverish pace as indigenous communities receive huge allotments of funds–in the millions of dollars–to spend as they see fit on public works, education, and cultural projects.

The indigenous movement in Ecuador follows multiple courses of action, ranging from a position of constant negotiation with the state in the case of the Shuar Federation of the Amazonian region, to mass mobilization and confrontation on the part of CONAIE. These different positions have their logics.

In the Andean region, the changes proposed by native peoples engender conflict with the rest of society. But it is the land problem that will create the greatest tension. During the 1963 agrarian reform some native people received small plots of land on the high mountain slopes, lands generally of poor quality for agriculture; this is where most of the food consumed in Ecuador is produced.

Nowadays these lands have been overfarmed or divided into tiny plots through the process of inheritance, and once again there is pressure for more land. The indigenous organizations look toward the fertile and well-irrigated valley lands, which are still in the hands of large landlords. These lands, now dedicated to profitable dairy farming, should, say the Indians, be under indigenous cultivation.

What is at stake are Ecuador’s best lands: hence, the radical opposition voiced by Chambers of Commerce and associations of large agriculturalists to CONAIE and other native organizations. The conflict intensifies as CONAIE gains increasing respect among rural sectors, including non-native people who used to be organized in peasant unions.

In everyday life there is a fierce resistance on the part of non-Indians to expanding relations of equality with native peoples, provoking a rejection of indigenous organizations and sometimes open conflict. Recently, in the small city of Cañar a protest by non-Indians ended in the destruction of the office of the local indigenous organization, as well as producing one fatality and many wounded.

The non-Indians of Cañar were offended by the fact that the organization had established its center–providing health and educational services, audiovisual and library resources, student lodgings, a handicrafts workshop, a store, and its administrative offices–in the best building in the city. The non-Indians felt that they were being ejected from their urban center.

The transformations effected by native organizations in the past few years have altered the nature of local political power. Indigenous organizations and community revitalization have profoundly shaped life in important rural centers, where non-Indians have traditionally lived.

Today, indigenous communities provide the services traditionally dispensed by non-native townspeople–juridical authority, religious services, commerce and exchange. Control of education and increasingly, community development, have passed into the hands of native people, who have trained their own specialists in these areas.

At the political level there have been fewer changes. For example, in Otavalo, whose economy depends on handicrafts and tourism (which are under native control), the municipal government remains in non-indigenous hands, even though indigenous people have participated in elections as voters since 1978.(14)

Although at the inception of the indigenous movement, its leadership strove to arrive at common positions, today native people divide their loyalties among numerous political parties. Many Indians have run as candidates for political office, representing a range of political parties that do not necessarily reflect the demands of the indigenous movment.

The generation that founded the ethnic organizations has resisted participation in formal politics. The new generations, however, feel that Indians must be active participants in political life in order to force the state towards a more multi-ethnic posture. With no majority position with respect to active participation in electoral politics, the various options open to the movement remain in dispute.

Some indigenous activists reason that it is necessary to achieve a presence and a degree of influence in the traditional political system. Others, in contrast, assert that the task ahead is to build an indigenous political system parallel to the official one, in preparation for the advent of a multi-ethnic state.

An Indigenous Parliament has already been created in the Amazonian region, with its own “deputies” and functioning commissions, stimulating the search for alternative political projects and providing important experience for activists. CONAIE is also planning the creation of a National Indigenous Parliament.

There are also differences over the level at which native political participation should be focused. Some advocate a concentration on the local level, with participation in national politics as a future objective. Others encourage immediate entry onto the national public scene. These different positions reflect the lively political debate taking place among native Ecuadorians who have taken up the task of redefining their position in society, abandoning the status of excluded or marginal people, to assert themselves in public life.

What is still in question is whether it is preferable to undertake a simple process of assimilation or integration through social mobility, or if native peoples will be able to achieve radical changes in the existing political system. In both Ecuador and Colombia, these dilemmas–whether to create an independent political system or to achieve a place in dominant politics, whether to aim at cracking the local system or the national sphere, whether to seek out an autonomous path or simply to place key people in important positions–are at stake today.

The search for development alternatives have not been as creative or successful as the political objectives of the indigenous movement, the latter proving more promising in societies that have traditionally obstructed the expression of pluralism. If native South Americans achieve a new form of politics, if they can transform existing mechanisms of political participation and replace existing political actors with new ones through the recognition of a multi-ethnic state, they will have made a major contribution to the construction of a more plural society.

This will mark the greatest transformation in Latin American society since the Spanish invasion.


  1. The 1990 Uprising has been analyzed by multiple observers, Sismo étnico en el Euador. Quito. CEDIME-Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1993. El levantamiento indígena visto por sus protagonistas. Quito, Amauta Rucacunapac Yachai-Instituto Científico de Culturas Indgenas. Quito, 1991. Indios. Quito. ILDIS-DUENDE-Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1991. CDDH. El levantamiento indígena y la cuestión nacional. Quito, Abya-Yala, 1990. Field, Les. “Ecuador’s Pan-Indian Uprising,” NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 25, no. 3, 33-44 (1992). León,Jorge. De campesinos a ciudadanos diferentes: el levantamiento indígena (Quito: CEDIME/Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1994). Moreno, Segundo et al. El levantamiento Indígena. Quito, Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1993. Rosero, Fernando. Levantamiento indígena: tierra y precios. Quito, CEDIS,1990. A second uprising took place in 1994 in response to an agrarian reform law that threatened rights to communal lands.
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  2. Analysis by Colombian and North American anthropologists of the role of native leaders in the constitutional process is forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Latin American Anthropology.
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  3. It is important to remember that it is not always in one’s interest to identify as indigenous to a census-taker: hence many of the discrepancies in census figures. Quechua was the language of the Inka empire which, shortly before the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century, had extended throughout highland Ecuador. Quichua, the Ecuadorian variety of the language, was spread by the Spaniards in the decades after the conquest.
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  4. For a history of the resguardo system and a look at its transformations in the southern part of Colombia, see Joanne Rappaport, The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
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  5. A useful history of the nineteenth-century expansion of great estates, achieved, ironically, through homesteading laws, is Catherine LeGrand’s Frontier Expansion and Peasant Protest in Colombia, 1850-1936 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986). The highland community of Cumbal presents a good example of the skewed distribution of land in indigenous areas of Colombia: the largest landowning families, representing one percent of the population, hold almost 50 percent of the land, holding deeds to properties averaging 1,000 acres, while indigenous small holders make do with 3 acres (see Joanne Rappaport, Cumbe Reborn: An Andean Ethnography of History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
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  6. Manuel Quintin Lame’s writings, as well as an analysis of his political strategies, are published in English in Gonzalo Castillo-Cardenas’ Liberation Theology from Below: The Life and Thought of Manuel Quintin Lame (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987).
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  7. Politicas estatales y organizacion popular. Quito. FEPP-IEE.1986.
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  8. León, Jorge. Las organizaciones indígenas:igualdad y diferencia in  Indios, Quito, ILDIS-DUENDE-ABYA YALA,1991.
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  9. The history of the broader peasant movement from which CRIC arose is detailed in Leon Zamosc’s The Agrarian Question and the Peasant Movement in Colombia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). AICO’s ideology is described by Maria Teresa Findji in “From Resistance to Social Movement: The Indigenous Authorities Movement in Colombia,” in The Making of Social Movements in Latin America, edited by Arturo Escobar and Sonia Alvarez (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992). The growth of CRIC and of ONIC is recounted in Christian Gros’ Colombia indígena: identidad cultural y cambio social (Bogota: CEREC, 1991).
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  10. Jean Jackson has detailed the rise of CRIVA, one of these lowland organizations, in “Being and Becoming an Indian in the Vaupes,” in Nation-States and Indians in Latin America, edited by Greg Urban and Joel Sherzer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991).
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  11. An indigenous guerrilla organization, the Quintin Lame Command, was also formed in the early 1980s, seeking a different strategy than the broader indigenous movement. By the 1990s, however, these native guerrillas had negotiated with the state and had returned to civilian life, perceiving their major objective as the creation of a broad indigenous movement, and not the wresting of power from the state by military means.
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  12. The term used by Colombian activists for the land claims process is “recuperación,” which involves the peaceful occupation of lands and their subsequent incorporation into the communal resguardo structure; those who oppose the recuperación process call these entries onto haciendas “invasions.” We have chosen the word used by the Mohawk Nation, “repossession,” as an appropriate translation for the Colombian concept. In some parts of Colombia, such as where the Quintin Lame Command developed, indigenous efforts at repossession did threaten agroindustry, leading to a larger repressive thrust on the part of the state.
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  13. Alfonso Palma Capera and Oskar Benjamin Gutirrez, “Special Indian Districting: Unresolved Political Problems in Colombia,” Abya Yala News vol. 8, no. 3 (1994).
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  14. The 1978 Constitution granted the right to vote to illiterate Ecuadorians. As the majority of the indigenous population cannot read, this profoundly altered access of native peoples to the voting booths.
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November/December 1995, ATC 59