Regional Outlook : A New Call for Indian Activists : 500 years after Columbus, Latin America’s indigenous militants grabbed the world’s attention with protests. But will concrete gains match the commotion?

This article was reported by Times staff writers Juanita Darling in Mexico, Tracy Wilkinson in Guatemala and William R. Long in Peru and by special correspondent Stan Yarbro in Colombia. It was written by Long

Tupac Amaru, fed up with the oppressive treatment of Peruvian Indians in the 18th Century, headed a bloody native rebellion against the Spanish colonial Establishment until he was captured and brutally executed. The Spanish crushed the revolt but ended up granting a few of the reforms that Tupac Amaru had demanded.

The struggle for Indian rights in Latin America, it seems, has never been easy.

But the struggle goes on.

In 1992, 500 years after Latin America’s great cultural conflict began, Indian militancy in the region reached a new and noisy peak. Perhaps never has so much publicity been given to so many meetings, manifestoes, protests and demands by native peoples in the former New World colonies of Spain and Portugal.

But now that the quincentenary year has passed and the stridence has subsided, it seems once again clear that concrete gains from the struggle are far less impressive than the commotion it caused.

“This occasion of the 500 years has made a lot of noise but it has yielded little,” commented Roberto Espinoza, a Peruvian adviser to Amazon Indian organizations.

The noise is not unimportant in itself. Like almost everyone else, Indians are familiar with the Media Age equation: Noise plus publicity equals awareness. And one of the common goals of militant Indian movements around Latin America is to raise awareness in dominant national societies as well as among native peoples themselves.

Growing awareness, many native leaders hope, will fuel their movements in the long run as they continue the struggle for political and cultural recognition, education and economic development, human rights, land rights and environmental protection. Those goals are the common threads of Indian militancy today in Latin America.

At this point, however, it is even far from clear exactly who all the Indians of Latin America are. Imprecise statistics and conflicting definitions result in estimates ranging from about 20 million to 40 million native people.

At that, the 40 million figure amounts to less than one-tenth of all Latin Americans. And even in countries where Indians are a major segment of the population--Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia--they lack the clout that their numbers might be expected to produce.

Still, political developments and growing pressure, including international interest and urging, have brought some advances in recent years.

The wave of democracy that swept across Latin America in the 1980s has given native peoples better footing for organizing and for negotiating their demands with government authorities, who often are more sympathetic than were conservative military rulers of the past.

The stage was set, then, to make 1992 a banner year for the struggle--or at least for publicizing it. Commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing provided a sonorous fanfare for Indian movements.

On Oct. 12, Columbus Day, about 10,000 Indians marched in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, protesting against racism and imperialism. Like other Indian protests associated with the quincentenary, the Bolivian demonstration reflected a crescendo in militant action around the region.

And Latin American Indian leaders hope that the momentum generated during 1992 will continue in 1993, which has been declared by the United Nations as the Year of Indigenous Peoples. The United Nations plans various activities at the national and international level to strengthen global cooperation for solving the problems faced by the estimated 300 million indigenous people living in more than 70 countries.

Other events and developments in 1992 reinforce the impression of boom times for the Latin American movement:

* The Organization of American States started drafting a Declaration of Indigenous Rights.

* Among several major international meetings of native leaders in Latin America, the biggest was a gathering of 650 representatives of indigenous groups from around the world in Rio de Janeiro. The meeting was held in conjunction with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

* At the Earth Summit, world leaders signed a Declaration on Environment and Development that called on countries to recognize and support the identity, culture and interests of indigenous peoples.

* Later, Latin presidents meeting at a Madrid summit signed a pact to create a Development Fund for Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.

International declarations of support and aid for Latin American Indians, like laws to guarantee their rights, are not new and have rarely produced dramatic progress on a large scale. But over time, their cumulative force could help overcome obstacles to progress.

A major obstacle is a strong tendency for dominant societies and governments in Latin America to regard Indian demands for cultural or political autonomy as threats to the nation as a whole.

“Governments argue that the indigenous demand for autonomous development delays plans for needed economic modernization, as well as the creation of a national culture,” wrote Donna Lee Van Cott for the current issue of Hemisphile, a publication of the La Jolla-based Institute of the Americas.

Here is a sampling of recent actions, advances and setbacks for Latin American Indians:

Mexico

In Mexico, which has the region’s largest population of indigenous people, Indians have participated in the growing pressure for democracy and clean elections. Last summer, Tzeltal Indians staged a sit-in in the southern Mexican city of San Cristobal de las Casas to demand the ouster of an allegedly corrupt mayor in their nearby township.

Indian leaders also organized a 600-mile March for Peace and Human Rights from Palenque in southern Mexico to the capital. The march protested false arrests, unpopular appointed officials, taxes, lack of public works projects and farm loan terms.

Indian groups throughout the country arrived in Mexico City on Oct. 12 to press claims for more dignified treatment. They joined groups that had marched from Alaska in the north and Peru’s Machu Picchu in the south.

In one especially striking incident, 85 Indians armed with sticks and clubs hijacked a city bus and used it to block the entrance to the Congressional Palace. There they demanded the release of 16 Indians jailed over land disputes.

Historically, Mexico has boasted one of the most progressive Indian policies in the region. However, as other countries reform their constitutions and pass laws to protect Indian rights, Mexico is changing little. Leading Indian rights advocates predict the country will fall behind in this area.

Guatemala

Indigenous organizations that previously worked clandestinely have begun to work openly in Guatemala. A long and bloody guerrilla war has subsided, repression has eased and democracy appears to be taking hold.

Recently, leading Indian activists have campaigned in the countryside to spread the word to villagers that they do not have to join the military’s anti-subversive Civil Patrols. Although the patrols are technically voluntary, those who resisted joining in the past often were beaten.

But the campaign is working. As the war winds down and confidence grows, thousands of Indians have felt sufficiently secure to stay out of the patrols.

Last week, about 3,000 Indians marched in Guatemala City to protest alleged forced induction of rural youths into the army. “We will not tolerate the army trampling us anymore,” said Rosalina Tuyuc, a demonstration leader. “The time has come to rise up and pressure for our human rights.”

A monthly newspaper supplement published in Indian languages was started six months ago, and, after years of attempts, a group of intellectuals last year set up the Academy of Mayan Languages for the preservation of Guatemala’s 22 Indian tongues. Significantly, the academy receives some government funding.

All of this progress, say most observers, is still tentative and comes in little more than baby steps. “This is just beginning to change, but it is the minimum amount of change,” said Guatemalan poet Humberto Ak’abal, who has for years struggled to get his poems published in his native Quiche language.

Many in Guatemala hope the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Rigoberta Menchu, who fled her native Quiche region after her parents and brother were killed, will improve the plight of Indians.

“This will accelerate history here,” said a Western diplomat. “For the first time an indigenous person will sit at the table, will be taken seriously.”

Colombia

Colombia’s 82 Indian groups are moving toward greater political participation and autonomy as a result of guarantees in the country’s new constitution, passed in 1991, and the later election of two indigenous representatives to the Colombian House and three to the Senate. Never before had Indians been represented in the national legislature.

But despite recent gains and heightened hopes, some observers say that Indian leaders are having problems adapting to their new roles as politicians. Their alliances with political parties have broken down.

Alfonso Palma, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, said political movements “want to co-opt us. We’re determined to maintain our principles, to vote on each piece of legislation as we see fit and not to turn over the Indian movement to anyone.”

In late January, senior government officials and Indian leaders from around the country held the first meeting in what is to be a six-month consultation process to decide on the form of legislation to codify Indian rights guaranteed in the new constitution. Indians are especially interested in laws defining their territories.

“If they remain alone in their efforts to pass a territorial law, it will be buried,” said Luis Jose Azcarate, director of the government’s Indian affairs office. “They have to make alliances and learn to use pressure from international organizations.”

A deadly problem for Colombian Indians has been violent repression, often a result of the battle over rural property. Palma said at least 500 Indians have been killed in fights over land since 1960.

Azcarate maintains that such cases are now the exception. “Five years ago if Indians were murdered, people just didn’t seem to care. Now because of the extraordinary changes of the past few years, you can’t touch an Indian without a strong popular reaction and pressure on the government to do something.”

Ecuador

Indigenous leaders in Ecuador are accusing conservative President Sixto Duran Ballen of trying to roll back many gains made by Indians under his predecessor, Rodrigo Borja.

“This government represents a paralyzing of the advances of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples and an effort to dismantle our organizations by seeking to divide us,” charged Jose Maria Cabascango, the human rights director for Ecuador’s National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities. The confederation, known as CONAIE, is the country’s main Indian organization.

CONAIE leaders say they are also concerned by an increase in paramilitary activity in recent months, especially in the northern sierra, where the organization accuses armed bands of forcing at least 1,000 Indian inhabitants off their lands and raping at least 50 women.

“We’ve tried to get the government to intervene to stop this activity,” Cabascango said. “But so far there has been only silence.”

A scene of more conflict is sure to be the Amazonian region known as Pastaza. After a dramatic march to the capital of Quito last year, the region’s Indians persuaded Borja to hand over title to 1.15 million hectares in the region, one of the largest Indian territories set up so far.

Led by the Organization of Indian Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP), the marchers originally demanded autonomous control over their territory’s development but finally agreed to leave the delicate topic out of the agreement.

The battle over who will control development in the oil-rich region is likely to reach its climax during Duran Ballen’s administration. The president seems determined to develop the Pastaza, especially after last year’s discovery by Atlantic Richfield Co. of 164 million barrels of oil reserves there.

OPIP leaders say they are equally determined to stop incursions by foreign oil companies. They cite numerous environmental reports as showing that three decades of petroleum exploration and exploitation in Ecuador have been an ecological disaster for Amazon regions north and south of Pastaza.

Peru

Peru’s Indians have yet to reach the level of militancy of their brethren in neighboring Ecuador, but activist stirrings increased last year.

In conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, Peru’s Indian Council of South America demanded that Cuzco, the Spanish spelling for the pre-Hispanic Inca capital, be changed to Qosqo, the spelling preferred by Quechua scholars, to emphasize the distinctiveness of their culture.

“We have increased awareness with this little word,” said Eleuterio Ramirez, general coordinator of the council. “It has helped make people aware of the differences among the cultures that exist in Peru.”

Quechua villages in the Peruvian Andes have been ravaged by a brutal war of nearly 13 years, waged between the government and the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, guerrillas. Thousands of Indians have died at the hands of guerrillas and government forces, but Ramirez observed that such shedding of native blood is not new in Peru.

“Sendero is only one more example of the violence directed against us,” he said.

While most of Peru’s Indians are Quechua and Aymara highlanders, 63 different languages are spoken in the Amazonian lowlands of northeastern Peru. And one of the country’s most militant native groups, the Inter-Ethnic Assn. for Peruvian Forest Development, represents Indians of that area.

Under an agreement with the Ministry of Education, the association has helped start a project to train bilingual Indian teachers for village schools. The first 18 teachers graduated from the six-year program last April and are now being assigned to permanent teaching positions in government primary schools.

Francisco Shajian, the association’s vice president, said a serious problem for Peru’s lowland Indians is Spanish-speaking settlers who plant coca, the raw material of cocaine. Shajian said coca planting brings drug traffickers, guerrillas and soldiers, who in turn bring cultural disruption and violence.

He said Huambisa Indians have recently warned settlers in the towns of Poza and Democracia, on the Santiago River, to stop planting coca or they will be expelled by the Indians.

For eight years, the association has been trying to get officials to mark borders for expanded indigenous territories around villages in the Amazon region. Last year, under an agreement between the association and regional government units, demarcation began along the Putumayo, Ucayali and Maranon rivers.

Brazil

Under international pressure, the Brazilian government finished demarcating a huge reservation last March for the beleaguered Yanomami Indians in northwestern Brazil. The area officially reserves 37,000 square miles, twice the size of Denmark, for about 10,000 Yanomamis.

But since September, when federal police vacated the region, miners have been pouring back in. President Itamar Franco has again ordered their evacuation.

Also, malaria, once under control, is again reaching epidemic proportions among the Yanomami. In 1992, about 6,000 cases were registered, and 187 Indians are known to have died.

Meanwhile, the non-Indian population in the state of Roraima is lobbying to reduce the size of the Indian reservation.

Last month, Indian advocates chalked up another victory in Brazil when a federal court judge interdicted illegal roads opened by logging companies on indigenous lands in the Amazonian state of Para. The request for the injunction was filed by the Brazilian Nucleus for Indigenous Rights and the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund. This suggests that courts could prove an important tool in future fights for Indian rights.

Sydney Possuelo, a lifelong Indian advocate appointed to head Brazil’s government Indian agency in late 1991, has brought new energy to the inefficient and sometimes corrupt entity. In a year and a half, Possuelo has managed to push through the bureaucracy and Congress the long-pending authorization to designate about 100 indigenous areas--more than in the previous history of the 25-year-old agency.

But the agency, called Funai, received only 10% of its requested budget for last year, and this year’s budget is stalled in Congress. There is no money for demarcating the newly designated Indian lands, and without demarcation, these are merely paper reservations.

Eduardo Leon, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church’s Indigenous Missionary Council, said European and North American native-rights groups have helped Brazilian Indians increase their political awareness and put pressure on the Brazilian government.

“Indigenous peoples have won more land rights in recent years, but a reduction of government budgets for Indian affairs has really hurt their cause,” Leon said. “There is no vigilance of their rights. The loss of land is going unchecked, and the spread of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis is spreading.”

According to Funai, a total of 700 Brazilian Indians died of infectious diseases last year.

Chile

A movement of young Mapuche militants, called the Council of All the Lands, last year rekindled Indian defiance with a campaign that has included the peaceful occupation of farms and symbolic “recoveries” of ancestral homelands. After more than a dozen of the temporary recoveries, authorities arrested Aucan Huilcaman, the group’s top leader, and five other members. The arrests triggered a series of protest demonstrations.

It all helped focus national attention on the Mapuches at a time when the Chilean Congress is considering important legislation on Indian issues. The government-sponsored bill would extend new legal and economic benefits to Indians--including a Fund for Indigenous Lands and Waters to expand tribal territories and a National Corporation for Indigenous Development to promote economic and social progress for Indians.

That isn’t enough for the Council of All the Lands. It proposes a kind of autonomy for Mapuches in southern Chile. “Our ultimate goal is to share political, economic and administrative power in this region,” Huilcaman said in an interview while he was in jail last year.

Voicing the anguish of Indians throughout Latin America, he protested: “We are being destroyed culturally. Every day the language is spoken less. Every day a Mapuche migrates to the city. The Mapuche cultural fabric is falling apart, and the moment could come when it would even be irreversible.”

Times special correspondents Mac Margolis and Jeb Blount in Brazil, and Adriana von Hagen in Peru also contributed to this article.

* Seizing the Power: Indigenous Activists How many indigenous people are in Latin America? Estimates vary widely, from about 20 million to 40 million. Here are profiles from selected nations: MEXICO Indigenous population: 8 million (8.6% of total population) Status: Indians participate in growing pressure for democracy and clean elections. Government policies are progressive compared to many in region. GUATEMALA Indigenous population: 5.2 million (53.1%) Status: Clandestine movements have begun to work openly, campaigning against forced induction into the army and working to preserve Indian languages. COLOMBIA Indigenous population: 800,000 (2.3%) Status: Working with government to codify Indian rights granted in 1991 constitution. Several serve in House and Senate. ECUADOR Indigenous population: 3.5 million (32.0%) Status: Leaders complain of harassment by paramilitary bands and accuse President Sixto Duran Ballen of trying to roll back their gains. Current focus: who will develop their oil-rich Amazonian land. PERU Indigenous population: 6 million (26.4%) Status: Less militant than Ecudoreans but beginning to be active. Thousands have died in lengthy war between government and Maoist guerrillas. BOLIVIA Indigenous population: 4 million (54.6%) Status: 10,000 marched against racism and imperialism on Columbus Day last year, reflecting a crescendo in militant action in the region. BRAZIL Indigenous population: 250,000 (0.1%) Status: Aided by North American and European supporters, Yanomami Indians won 37,000-square-mile reservation. But intruders, disease and Indian agency cutbacks have set them back. CHILE Indigenous population: 500,000 (3.7%) Status: Mapuche militants have occupied farms and claimed ancestral homelands, triggering arrests. They want more autonomy. Government is considering expansion of tribal lands and aid programs. SOURCES: Times staff writers; government agencies and institutes. All figures are estimates. * The Global Villagers This is the United Nations’ International Year for the World’s Indigenous People. The goal is to “focus the attention of the international community on one of the planet’s most neglected and vulnerable groups of people,” says coordinator Antoine Blanca. Some facts from the United Nations: WHO: “Indigenous peoples are descendants of the original inhabitants of many lands.” HOW MANY: “At least 5,000 indigenous groups can be distinguished by linguistic and cultural differences and by geographical separation . . . The world’s estimated 300 million indigenous people are spread across more than 70 countries.” SOME ISSUES: * Colonialists and others compete with indigenous people for living space, food and resources. Land is confiscated, deforested or signed away. * Under development and modernization, traditional culture is eroded. * Life spans are cut short by poverty and exposure to foreign diseases. * When integrated into national society, indigenous people face discrimination and exploitation. * Theft and unauthorized sale of indigenous artwork and cultural artifacts rob the creators of money and their cultural patrimony. * The annual market value of drugs derived from medicinal plants discovered by indigenous peoples exceeds $43 billion. But the profits are rarely shared with them.