Embracing Diversity

Chile Builds a New Relationship with Its Indigenous Communities

Latin America has a long and contentious history with its indigenous population, which has often been marginalized, underserved, and unrecognized by governments and society for centuries. For the past dozen years, however, Chile took the ambitious step to try to change this historical paradigm by implementing the region’s largest program focused exclusively on supporting indigenous groups.

The program, known as Orígenes and supported by the IDB, was unprecedented in Chile and the region for its scale and methodology to empower nearly 2,000 indigenous communities to carry out their own development projects. The ultimate goal was to establish a new relationship between the government and indigenous peoples by strengthening indigenous identity and culture and improving living conditions.

From the start, the implementation of Orígenes was challenging because it involved changing the paternalistic approach traditionally employed by government agencies in working with indigenous communities. Under the program, the communities themselves took the lead role in selecting and executing projects, so government agencies had to sustain an effective dialogue to help those communities prepare coherent and decentralized long-term development plans.

“The innovative aspect of this project was that while we were provided with the resources, we ourselves had to decide how to use them,” said Zunilda Santos, a member of an indigenous community in Belén in northern Chile.

The project developed an innovative methodology to empower indigenous communities.

Not surprisingly, such an approach proved much more difficult to execute than anticipated because neither the communities nor the government were prepared to deal with the scale and complexity of the program. On one hand, many indigenous communities had little knowledge about project planning and execution or government processes. On the other, the government had limited understanding of how to work collaboratively with indigenous communities. For example, the government initially organized communities based on their legal status, without considering their ancestral or territorial ties.

The result was that the project initially put too much emphasis on developing small projects to solve short-term community needs rather than planning such investments to foster the long-term development of indigenous territories. Moreover, the program suffered long delays in approving and delivering resources for community projects because, in part, third-party consultants without ties to the communities failed to incorporate local priorities and get community validation for the projects they submitted on the communities’ behalf. For their part, the communities often struggled to meet deadlines and properly report how they were spending program resources.

To solve some of these issues, the government provided communities and their leaders training on project planning and management; began working with beneficiary communities according to family relationships and economic, cultural, and historical ties; and set realistic goals and deadlines so both the government and communities could meet their obligations.

“Fixing the program took a lot of work, and the first step was to regain the trust of indigenous leaders with dialogue and going out to the field,” explained Karina Doña, an Orígenes program coordinator.

The Take Away

Despite its initial difficulties, Orígenes established 874 long-term territorial development plans 2 and carried out more than 3,500 community development projects, ranging from the restoration of churches building community infrastructure to providing financing for nearly 9,000 families to buy productive assets such as cattle and forestry and agricultural equipment. Families that received financing to purchase productive assets in the first phase of the program reported an increase of 11 percent in their real incomes between 2003 and 2011.

The program has led to increased self-identification of indigenous ethnicity and helped improve recognition among project communities. In 2011, 32 percent adults identified themselves as indigenous compared with 29 percent in 2003. However, some results fell short of expectations. Some of the long-term development plans lacked strategic vision to strengthen the local rural economy and failed to diminish persistent migration of community members to urban centers, the biggest threat to the preservation of indigenous cultures. One reason cited for this problem was that the program did not include traditional indigenous leaders—who are not formally recognized by the political system—in its dialogue with communities. In addition, procedures required from communities to account for project expenditures were quite cumbersome. Despite initial concerns about accounting for all expenses, at the end of the project only approximately 0.5 percent of the proceeds of the IDB loan was unaccounted for, in great part because some communities had lost receipts and delays by other government agencies in providing documentation for the funds spent. “The most important thing is that resources were not lost. We checked and the projects had been implemented,” Doña added.

Despite its shortcomings, the project empowered indigenous communities and improved relationships with the government. The number of indigenous communities registered with CONADI, the Chilean agency in charge of indigenous affairs, increased 65 percent during the 12 years of the program. Moreover, 67 percent of communities that participated in Orígenes have accessed funds from other government agencies to carry out other development projects.

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For the government, Orígenes’ most important legacy was the creation of a workforce that understands how to work with indigenous communities. Chile Indígena, a new government program to promote the development of indigenous communities put in place after Orígenes was completed, is currently using a similar methodology to empower communities and establish an organized and decentralized dialogue with them. This time, the dialogue includes traditional indigenous leaders.

“Governments want to believe that all their citizens are equal,” explained Doña. With Orígenes, she noted, “Chile has embraced the diversity of its people—the program taught us how to deal with our diversity.”


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