Rural villages such as the ones located in the Andean mountains of southern Peru present an interesting dilemma. For an external observer, there is usually little doubt that people from these villages should be considered as indigenous: they are the descendants of pre-colonial societies, speak an ancestral native language (Quechua), and have worldviews, social norms, economic systems, and cultural practices that are different from the ones of the rest of the country’s population. When asked if they consider themselves as indigenous, however, most of them would probably argue that they are not. They self-identify as “campesinos,” members of agrarian communities but not indigenous by any means. Why is such distinction important? In a region with a history of exclusion and discrimination against indigenous groups, the aversion to the term “indigenous” may be largely a reaction to the stigma associated with this term.
This reluctance to identify as indigenous, however, can have negative implications. One instance where this matters is in development projects funded by multilateral financial institutions. Along with the positive impacts of these projects, they also involve the risk of causing adverse impacts. To prevent these impacts, or mitigate them in case they are unavoidable, most multilateral financial institutions have policies in place to avoid, reduce, or compensate for the potentially adverse impacts of the projects they finance. The Inter-American Development Bank, for instance, has had an operational policy on indigenous peoples since 2006. However, if the affected population is not recognized as indigenous, the safeguard policies of these organizations specifically designed for indigenous peoples may not be triggered, and consequently, the provisions of such policies to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and recognize their cultural specificity may not be implemented. These policies also seek to promote that indigenous communities participate in the development benefits of a project.
The recognition of indigenous peoples is a challenge that requires the participation of the different actors involved in the design and implementation of development projects in areas where indigenous peoples live or use for their subsistence, particularly considering that the risk of exclusion is present even among groups that self-identify as indigenous, since self-identification does not mean that they will always be treated as indigenous. For instance, government agencies sometimes do not recognize some populations as indigenous, and even in situations when the indigenous character of a community is not in question, in many cases the socio-environmental impact assessments of investment projects are done in such a superficial way that they end up not registering the presence of indigenous peoples in the project’s area of influence.
Accordingly, we need to pay closer attention to the presence of indigenous peoples and promote their inclusive recognition. Even if some communities do not identify themselves as indigenous, this should not be a reason to exclude them from benefits equivalent to the ones implemented for communities that do self-identify as indigenous. While the recognition of indigenous peoples is not the only challenge in investment projects funded by multilateral financial organizations, it is a starting point that would trigger a closer analysis of the situation to determine the best way to apply safeguard measures, and to promote indigenous development in a way that is consistent with the specific needs and cultural values of indigenous peoples.
A key factor to remember in the implementation of safeguard policies on indigenous peoples is that such policies are based on a recognition of their situation of social vulnerability, cultural discrimination, and historical exclusion, which has placed them in a disadvantaged position to express their concerns and defend their interests using the resources and channels normally available to non-indigenous populations.