By Professor Peter Rivière, Oxford University (Edited Version)
This article is based on Professor Peter Rivière’s article specially prepared for presentation at the pilot Jabuji Debate at Eton College held in March 2014. It is based on his decades of experience as an anthropologist specialising in Amerindian culture.
We do not know exactly how many Amerindians lived in Latin America before the Europeans first arrived in the 16th century. However, the most recent research, based on detailed analysis of satellite images suggests that there may have been many millions of Amerindians living there. Indeed, pre-conquest, the tropical forest housed a complex and populous civilisation.
The two main reasons why the indigenous populations disappeared were: war and disease. The demographic collapse in Latin America following the European arrival was a similar phenomenon to what occurred in Europe following the Black Death; land became plentiful as people became scarce. This forced the remnant populations to retreat away from the richer resource areas into the interior. For those that survived and formed new settlements, there were strict rules to adhere to. The construction of irrigation or drainage systems clearly points to some form of recognised land ownership which require high degrees of cooperation or control to operate properly.
Several centuries later, the notion of land ownership and territoriality became less strict. From then on, land ownership was based on current usage, or usufruct. On an individual level, a farmer owns a plot of land as long as he is cultivating it and harvesting it, but as soon as he stops doing so, he looses his legal right to the land. This same system is still used today because shifting cultivation is the norm in Latin America; one field is used for a few years and then abandoned in favour of a new, more fertile one.
On a communal level, the system for land ownership is fairly similar. The village claims a right to the land over which its residents hunt and forage for. As well as the system of shifting fields, villages are regularly moved. Accordingly, each time a settlement is relocated, the boundaries of the village territory are redrawn. In short, land ownership and territoriality have no fixed boundaries but are continually being redrawn.
After colonization, some Amerindians had a higher level of organization whereby groups of villages (usually on the same river valley) became members of a basic unit where most social, political, economic and ritual activity take place. Nowadays, this last form of organization has largely disappeared, and been replaced with a more clearly defined notion of territoriality. This has been brought about by the creation of Amerindian reservations by national governments. These are clearly defined using fixed boundaries.
Even though Amerindian groups tend to own the rights to the land, villages and individuals continue to operate on the usufruct model just described. In theory this seems like a good solution, but in practice, it can be problematic. Many groups have difficulty maintaining the integrity of their reservations, especially when gold or diamonds are found there. They are at risk of being invaded by illegal miners and private enterprises. Furthermore, the very authority that founded the reservation, the government, may be equally guilty of infringement.
A good example of this can be seen in Guyana, where an Amerindian group has taken the Guyanese government to court because the latter is issuing permits to foreign companies for logging and prospecting within their reservation. Despite the fact that this case has been going on for 15 years, the court still has not made a decision in favour of either party. Although it is highly unlikely that the court will rule against the government, even a decision against the Amerindians would allow them to appeal through international arbitration, where the verdict it is much more likely to go in their favour. In the meantime, the government can very lucratively go on selling permits.
Peter Rivière, Emeritus Professor of Oxford University , pioneer in study and teaching of Amazonian peoples. Member of 1957-8 Oxford and Cambridge Expedition to South America.