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From colonial cultures of planning towards indigenous urbanisms in Latin America

By Dr Philipp Horn, Lecturer in Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield

Across the world, colonial cultures of planning have profound spatial, social, cultural and economic implications and contribute to processes of displacement and exclusion. This is particularly the case in Latin America where colonisers destroyed precolonial cities and built new ones on top of their ruins.  

The colonial Latin American city was associated with a specific group of inhabitants – ‘whites’ or people of ‘mixed blood’ – who were granted citizenship rights. In contrast, the countryside was conceived of as the space of the 'other', home to the ‘non-white’ indigenous population.

Indigenous peoples were denied citizenship rights and excluded from the imagery of the ‘modern’, ‘developed’ and ‘planned’ city. Such strict ethno-racial rural-urban divides could, of course, never be fully sustained. While expelled from the ‘planned’ colonial city, indigenous peoples often resided in dire conditions within the ‘unplanned’ urban peripheries – the informal settlements of tomorrow – and engaged in low-wage urban trade and construction.

Such rural-urban divisions blurred since the second half of the 20th century, as previously isolated rural indigenous communities and territories have been affected by urbanisation, and indigenous peoples have increasingly participated in rural-urban migratory flows. As a result, by the turn of the millennium, 35 percent of the region’s indigenous population lived in cities, often in informal settlements which lack access to basic infrastructure and services. The number of indigenous peoples residing in cities is likely to rise to 50 percent by 2030.

Guardians of the forest

While a growing indigenous majority lives in urban concrete jungles, mainstream research and practice on indigeneity and indigenous development continues to focus on rural places, often offering an essentialist perspective of indigenous peoples as ‘guardians of the forest’. The combination of being simultaneously ‘urban’ and ‘indigenous’ thus remains a conundrum and largely unaddressed by policy makers and planners.

Notable exceptions to this trend are the countries of Bolivia and Ecuador who, as part of constitutional reforms in the 2000’s, seek to consider the interests and needs of urban indigenous peoples in planning interventions and respect the organisational modalities of indigenous communities within participatory processes. In my recently published book, I refer to these reforms as ‘indigenous rights to the city’.

In practice, planning for urban indigenous peoples, even in seemingly progressive settings such as Bolivia and Ecuador, is a process characterised by colonial continuities and often conflicting interests and needs. Present-day national and city government officials remain guided by colonial understandings of ethno-spatial relations. This is evident in this testimony by Bolivia’s minister of decolonial affairs:

“In cities where modernity has been developed, we respect private property and individual rights according to the liberal model. By contrast in rural areas and particularly in our indigenous territories we subordinate individualism to collective indigenous rights.” (Interview undertaken by the author)

Passive victims?

Considering that senior government officials hold such preconceptions, it is not surprising that policy and planning practice continue to fail to recognise specific indigenous rights (such as rights to prior consultation, indigenous justice, territorial autonomy, intercultural healthcare and education) within cities. Instead, government authorities simply treat indigenous peoples as ordinary urban residents and, following a liberal model of urban politics, consider them recipients of universal rights to tenure, housing and basic services.

Progressive constitutional rhetoric on ‘indigenous rights to the city’ also stands in tension with economic priorities of local authorities. In Quito, local authorities focus on development models that seek to boost economic growth through large scale infrastructure projects that often occur on indigenous territories. For example, Quito’s airport which opened in 2013 is situated on the lands of a Kichwa community which was not consulted about this infrastructure intervention in the crucial planning stage, nor compensated for the loss of territories during the subsequent construction stage.

In short, then, despite ambitious constitutional rhetoric, current urban policy and planning practices in Bolivia and Ecuador continues to dramatically reshape the territories and identities of indigenous peoples, often contributing to their displacement and exclusion from urban rights and services. But indigenous peoples are not passive victims and, instead, actively challenge patterns of exclusion and promote their own alternatives. Such alternatives are visible within self-help practices around collective urban land management, within newly established indigenous housing collectives, or in the cultural practices of urban indigenous youth tribes. Urban indigenous groups also articulate their planning priorities in negotiations with the state or, as evident in recent large-scale insurgent uprisings, through protests, street blockades and violent and non-violent direct action.

Urban indigenous peoples are here to stay, despite planning’s ongoing colonial cultures. Through their different day-to-day practices, they are planners of their own who constantly shape, imagine and transform urban space. Policy makers and planners should pay more attention on such practices and incorporate indigenous knowledge into their own interventions. Only then will it be possible for Latin American cities to move towards more inclusive and sustainable futures where, to use the language of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, no one is left behind.

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