Indigenous peoples of Latin America: more recognized, still marginalized

indigenous peoples Latin America

New World Bank report reveals progress and challenges for the Latin America’s 42 million people.

They are the first inhabitants of the American continent, speak 560 languages and have varied and very rich customs: they are the 42 million indigenous people of Latin America.

However, despite the fact that 70 million Latin Americans emerged from poverty in the last two decades, the continent’s first settlers were left out of the bonanza and, today, almost half of them are poor, according to the World Bank’s new report Indigenous Latin America in the 21st Century.

Representation of indigenous populations


There were improvements in indigenous representation in political life in the region, as well as in access to primary education (the same levels of schooling were achieved between indigenous and non-indigenous in Mexico, Nicaragua and Ecuador), electricity (almost 50% more in Panama and Peru) and sanitation (60% increase in Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica).

But there are still considerable gaps between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations. “Being born to indigenous parents dramatically increases the likelihood of growing up in a poor household,” the report says.

They are also facing new realities: for example, almost half of the region’s indigenous people already live in cities, which poses new challenges on how to preserve their culture and respect their identity.


The study proposes, among other things:


  • Increased efforts to implement laws that protect the rights of indigenous peoples.
  • That legal and practical solutions be implemented to address the needs and visions of the most vulnerable groups within indigenous societies
  • More work on a culturally appropriate education
  • Overcoming linguistic, geographical and social barriers to indigenous participation in decision-making, including electoral processes.


More government involvement


To prevent the disappearance of indigenous peoples, ECLAC recommends that Latin American governments “include indigenous peoples and their contributions in the development of the region; consolidate improvements in their well-being and living conditions, political participation and territorial rights; and promote the construction of multicultural societies that benefit us all”.


And the reality is that it is the duty of governments to defend the indigenous population, the original peoples of Latin America, from the threats of the big extractive companies, which exploit and destroy their ecosystems to extract natural resources and, therefore, end their way of life and their possibilities of subsisting.


For more information about cultural aspects, read our Focus on category.