Indigenous groups rise up in Ecuador

President Correa under pressure over failed Yasuní initiative and plans for indefinite reelection

The already tense relationship between the government of Rafael Correa and Ecuador’s indigenous communities has been further tested by nationwide protests, which have so far led to over 140 arrests and show no signs of abating. The environment and the president’s attempts to change the constitution to allow indefinite reelection are at the center of the storm. Having garnered support from all over Ecuador, indigenous organisations of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (Conaie) arrived in Quito to present a long list of complaints to Correa. After 10 days in the capital city and clashes with police, Conaie ended their protest – but only temporarily. It has already announced another nationwide demonstration for September 16. Correa pledged not to give in to violence and claimed that the indigenous groups’ protests were part of “the [political] right’s game” to destabilise his and Latin America’s other progressive governments. Correa claims that mobilisations are orchestrated by powerful national and international organisations and insists that his and other aligned regimes are facing “quiet coups” – where internal and external agitators seek to turn dissidence among a minority into a majority position. “The government has violated indigenous peoples’ historic rights and the country’s constitutional rights,” Jorge Hererra, the president of Conaie, told Diálogo Chino. “Correa had committed to structural political and economic change, but he ended up giving in to the capitalist system,” Herrera said. The arrival of oil and other mining companies in Ecuador, many of which are Chinese, forms an important part of Conaie and other organisations’ complaints. In the past few years, the government has reoriented its development agenda towards extractive industries and has accrued large debts with China. Correa has already agreed to the sale of untapped oil in exchange for Chinese finance, since many extractive projects are not yet operational. Indigenous communities have strongly criticised Correa for not following the process of ensuring their prior consent. “The government has tried to expand the oil frontier but this stopped because we rejected it,” representatives of Confeniae, an indigenous organisation from the Ecuadorian Amazon, told Diálogo Chino. Beyond these projects, one of the main triggers of the protests has been the failure of the Yasuní initiative, which proposed not drilling for oil in a national park in exchange for significant contributions from the international community. The anticipated funds were not forthcoming. Indigenous communities claim that Correa’s alliance with multinational companies meant the project wasn’t successfully followed through. “The environment has an important role in the protests, especially after the Yasuní initiative,” said Michel Levi, coordinator of the Andean Center of International Studies at the Simon Bolivar Andean University. “Its failure had a huge political cost for the government because environmentalists support it and supported Correa. Instead of looking for reconciliation, he turned his back on them,” Levi added. Controversial laws Indigenous groups also oppose two other pieces of environmental legislation; a water law and a land law. The Hydraulic Resources Law designates control of all Ecuador’s sources of water to a single government authority. Historically, rural and indigenous communities living in high or remote areas have been able to source water from aquifers, which would change under the new legislation. In June, Conaie claimed the law was unconstitutional as it violated the rights of indigenous peoples who had not been properly consulted on it. The policy affected the community management of water and failed to create a mechanism that would prevent hoarding, the organisation claims. “We asked for the Hydraulic Resources Law to be annulled since it was introduced undemocratically and in preventing the participation of indigenous peoples it violates our territorial rights. They are looking to exert political control over organisations and are placing efficiency and productivity above the human right to water and food sovereignty,” Herrera said The Organic Law of Rural Land and Ancestral Territories has also been challenged. The policy creates one rural authority, which will seek to solve the problem of Ecuador’s lack of productive farmland. In 1970 Ecuador had 1.63 hectares of farmland per person but by 2014 this figure had fallen to 0.43. It is expected to drop to 0.31 hectares this year. Rural landowners whose land is ‘underutilised’ will be notified by the farming authority and instructed to make it productive within a period of one year. Expropriation threatens those who do not comply with the order. Indigenous groups say it is necessary to clearly establish the reasons why land might be deemed unproductive in order to avoid unjust expropriations. Complaints are not only about the environment. Rural and other organisations also question the recent Inheritance Law, which increases tax paid on inheritance or donations. And the Capital Gains Law, which introduces a levy on capital gains of up to 75% on certain goods. Correa began his first term as president of Ecuador in 2006 with a staggering approval rating of around 90%. Is is now hovering around 60%, according to recent polls. Having already been in power for a decade, Correa aims to extend his leadership beyond the end of the current term, which ends next year. Indigenous groups have rejected his plans for constitutional reform to allow his reelection. Assembly and next steps Following the hundreds of arrests in Quito, Conaie held a general assembly at which it declared an uprising between August 2 and 23. However, it has now committed to continuing the protests and has organised the next nationwide protest to take place on Spetember 16. Herrera told the assembly; “since the beginning, the national government has promoted various strategies to divide the indigenous movement. But through this uprising we have successfully demonstrated that Conaie stands firm and more united than ever. It wasn’t just an action in the mountains and in the Amazon, but in three regions nationwide. Our commitment will carry us on.”