As Ecuador’s Presidential Election Looms, Its Fractured Indigenous Movement Takes Center Stage

A Shuar family. Photo via Nature and Culture International

Gabriela Garces is 17, and over the past four years she has watched as the land of her ancestors transformed into an oil drilling battleground between her people and the state. The homes of her community near Puyo, Ecuador’s southeast Amazon, have been evacuated and destroyed; their leaders persecuted and incarcerated.

“The Earth is so beautiful, but to see it destroyed, to see there’s nothing left of what we lived of…” Gaby told Remezcla, “if only they’d understand what the Earth is…”

Gaby will have to cast her vote for a new President on February 19, but admits she doubts whether any candidate truly understands what makes the land so sacred to Indigenous people like her.

While she hopes the center-left candidate Paco Moncayo will win, the latest polls indicate President Rafael Correa’s appointed candidate Lenin Moreno and the banker-turned-politician Guillermo Lasso will likely battle it out in the second round of the elections on April 2.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa (R) embraces former vice president and presidential candidate Lenin Moreno. Photo: Vicepresidencia Ecuador.
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“To choose between those two (Lenin and Lasso)…I don’t know, they follow the same line, they are both people who would kill us,” the Kichwa high school student said.

“But if I had to choose, it would be Lasso. Our strategy is to go for Paco Moncayo or any candidate other than Lenin, someone new. Choosing someone new would allow us to liberate our compañeros who have been processed and imprisoned,” she added.

Three successive presidents fell at the hands of organized Indigenous power.

In August 2015, Gaby was one of thousands of Indigenous people who took part in an “Indigenous uprising” across the country against a series of President Correa’s policies, including water privatization, large-scale extractivism, and agricultural reforms they say are largely designed to benefit multinational companies.

With right wing anger taking to the streets against an inheritance tax for wealth redistribution that summer, opposing political factions strategically united around one common demand: to stop a constitutional reform allowing indefinite reelection, that could have handed Correa a fourth term in 2017. While the electoral reform passed, the odd alliance proved strong enough to make Correa officially drop his bid for presidency.

El levantamiento Indigena was the latest in a series of organized attempts to dethrone a head of state, something Ecuador’s Indigenous movement has gained a notorious reputation for.

In 1997, Indigenous activists in coalition with union workers, students, feminists, and campesinos removed President Abdalá Bucaram from power within six months of his taking office. In his campaign, Bucaram had promised a “government of the poor,” but when push came to shove, he implemented reform that crushed the most vulnerable, including cutting subsidies for basic services and freezing the minimum wage.

“Our base was convinced that this was a revolutionary government.”

In 2000, President Jamil Mahuad was forced to flee the presidential palace after Indigenous leaders, union workers and military officials occupied it alongside the buildings of the Supreme Court and Congress. Presiding over one of the worst economic crises to grip the country, Mahuad buried el Sucre for the US dollar under the watchful eye of the IMF, bailed out banks which had reportedly financed his campaign and, through harsh austerity measures, made el pueblo pay for it too.

The ousted president has so far evaded an eight to 12 year prison sentence for embezzlement by taking exile in the United States, where Harvard University has regularly hosted him for lectures on Latin American politics and leadership.

In 2005, history repeated itself when popular protest brought down President Lucio Gutierrez for betraying an ostensible left-wing government. Gutierrez, who led the 2000 coup in his role as military general, partnered up with the newly formed Indigenous political party Pachakutik and made history for including its members in his cabinet. While Indigenous leaders weren’t at the forefront of the revolt this time around, they played a big part in tarnishing Gutierrez’s credibility. In 2003, Pachakutik accused the president of representing the business class rather than the people and abandoned his government.

Some 6,000 indigenous people take part in a protest against a polemic government bill on water resources or ‘Law of water’ in Quito, Ecuador, 08 April 2010. EPA/JOSE JACOME
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The fall of three successive presidents over the span of nearly a decade at the hands of social movements, especially organized Indigenous power, made it clear that any government seeking to govern long-term had to either meet and be loyal to their demands, or play the game differently.

La Revolucion Ciudadana: pero, whose revolution is it anyways?

Rafael Correa Delgado rose to power in 2006 riding the anti-establishment tide created by social movements at the time. In his role as Minister for the Economy in 2005, Correa became popular for his spitting criticism of neoliberal policies, the unchecked power of local elites and the encroachment of US influence in national sovereignty. Promising a “citizen’s revolution” in his presidential campaign, the former academic included the demands of social movements like the call for a new Constitution, removing a US military base, and nationalizing natural resources into his own political agenda.

The Correa honeymoon quickly ended when the National Assembly sought to pass new mining and water laws that threatened Indigenous rights.

“His discourse managed to reach the hearts of the people, our base was convinced that this was a revolutionary government,” Severino Sharupi, head of Territories and Natural Resources of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), told Remezcla.

“In the beginning the government did deliver concrete things, like housing and monthly hand-outs. Although they were crumbs, no other government had done that before. This is why a lot of people supported Correa,” the Shuar Indigenous leader added.

The belief that Correa’s government promised a better future for Indigenous people was hard to discredit when a 2008 referendum overwhelmingly approved of a new constitution that saw many of their historic demands represented.

This included the recognition of Ecuador as a plurinational state, broader collective rights for Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian pueblos, the nationalization of natural resources, the conception of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) as a subject entitled to rights and protection, and the right of Sumak Kawsay—an Indigenous philosophy for ‘buen vivir’ or ‘living well’ intended to harmonize notions of development and progress with respect for nature.

Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa.
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The honeymoon quickly ended however, when just a year later a Correa-controlled National Assembly sought to pass new mining and water laws that threatened those very rights they had struggled for. The laws, Indigenous leaders feared, would take away communal control over water and offer transnational companies new liberties to extract minerals on native territory.

Trying to appease local communities concerned over new mega-mining projects in the southern Amazonian, allowed under the new law, Correa said: “I am an economist specialized in development … I know what is necessary for this country, to emerge from its underdevelopment and how to take care of the poorest. We cannot sit still like poor people on top of a sack of gold.”

Resistance to the state’s development plans virtually became coded into law as terrorist activity.

The bills kicked off a cycle of mass protests among Indigenous peoples, who accused Correa’s government of hypocrisy talking the talk about a green-friendly constitution, without walking the walk.

In what many saw as a punishment of dissent, Correa stopped funding the Council for the Development of Peoples and Nationalities of Ecuador (CODENPE), a semi-autonomous agency run by and for Indigenous peoples to pursue their own development agenda. He further stripped Conaie from control over the National Directory of Intercultural Bilingual Education (DINEIB), which gave Indigenous communities the authority to run an education system based on their own cosmovisions.

As Indigenous protest marches continued, police repression heightened. Bosco Wisum, a 43-year-old Shuar teacher and father of six, became the first casualty of the crisis after police shot and killed him during a protest in Morona Santiago in September 2009.

Despite Wisum’s death, Correa continued dismissing the demonstrations in defense of land and water as an expression of “infantile leftism and environmentalism” that had become “the greatest threat to our political project.”

This echoed a previous statement in 2007, when, in response to an oil strike in the southern Amazon, Correa said: “Don’t believe the romantic environmentalists, anyone opposing the development of this country is a terrorist.”

Correa’s words did not rest at mere rhetoric. Resistance to the state’s development plans virtually became coded into law as terrorist activity, and provided a means to justify the persecution and incarceration of dozens of Indigenous leaders.

By 2011, the Center for Economic and Social Rights found there were 189 Indigenous people in the country accused of terrorism, sabotage or crimes against the security of the state. This included key Indigenous figures for their leading roles in the water law protests, like Conaie’s president Marlon Santi and vice-president Pepe Luis Acacho; Deflin Tenesaca, president of Ecuarunari representing Indigenous people in the Sierra; and Marco Guatemal, president of the Federation of Indigenous and Peasants of Imbabura (FICI).

Correa poses a dilemma leftists have long struggled with: what is the price of economic development?

The harsh repression in the battle over the exploitation or protection of natural resources, according to Severino, comes as a result of a transformation of the state under Correa’s government, from “a rather weak state to a strong one,” in which “the structures, policies and laws changed in order to deepen an extractivist model to the benefit of private and transnational capital.”

“To build this strong state and control the natural resources of every territory,” Severino added, “it was necessary to control society’s organized sectors; and for this it was important to divide, buy off, incarcerate and assassinate [us].”

The extractivist nature of Correa’s economic model became most evident in 2013, when the president called off his international campaign to avoid drilling for oil in the uniquely biodiverse Yasuni National Park in return for financial compensation from wealthier countries. But unlike Conaie’s view that this only serves the interests of foreign capital, the President made it about the ethical duty to end poverty in the country.

“Do we protect 100 percent of the Yasuní and have no resources to meet the urgent needs of our people,” Correa said, “or do we save 99 percent of it and have $18 billion to fight poverty?”

José Isidro Tendetza Antún measuring the water quality in a local river. Photograph: Ronald Reategui for the Guardian
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The question raises a dilemma leftists have long struggled with. After all, the socio-economic conditions for Ecuadorians, it’s often argued, have generally improved under Correa’s citizen revolution. His government raised the minimum wage from $170 to $366 a month, created cash bonus transfers for those living in extreme poverty, and created subsidies for electricity, gasoline and natural gas. Thanks in large part to these social benefits and the country’s oil boom, the poverty rate in the country dropped from 38 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2016.

The price of development however, has been costly. The contamination of rivers, destruction of forests, the death and forced migration of native animals, the violent displacement of Indigenous people and campesinos from ancestral and sacred territory, as well as disproportionate violence against anyone that dares to oppose this path of development.

Such has been the case of the controversial Mirador and San Carlos Panantza projects in the country’s southern Amazon, where Indigenous Shuar have been answered with forced evictions, incarceration, and murder for their resistance against mega-mining on ancestral land.

“This government, unlike any in the past, inserted itself inside our movement and neutralized us.”

Jose Isidro Tendetza was a Shuar leader speculated to have been killed for actively opposing The Mirador Project, Ecuador’s first large scale copper mine in the southern Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe. His body was found tied-up in the river with clear torture marks a few days after he went missing in December 2014. A year later, up to 16 families in the rural parish of Tundayme were forcibly displaced from their homes to make room for the project, now in exploitation phase.

The province of Morona Santiago, where Chinese company EXSA EcuaCobres has been given 41k hectares of land for large-scale mining, has been under a state of exception since December 2016. Military and specialized police forces have been deployed there to protect the company after a group of Indigenous Shuar tried to take over its mining camp. The take-over erupted in clashes between Indigenous Shuar and security forces, resulting in the death of one police officer. The conflict came after the military evicted 32 Indigenous Shuar from their homes in August that year, in the community of Nankintz, where the company now operates.

Tough choices for a fragmented Indigenous movement: what way forward?

Since its founding in 1986, the Conaie organization has been a militant defender of Indigenous and campesino rights – predominantly across Ecuador’s rural areas, where neoliberal policies have sought to privatize and exploit natural resources.

Their ability to protect native land from transnational companies and presidents seemingly acting on their behalf has been unmatched, but Sharupi says the Correa government has made it harder for Indigenous people to fight back as a united front.

“This government, unlike any in the past, inserted itself inside our movement,” Sharupi told Remezcla, “and neutralized us.”

“He (Correa) made close relations with key and historical leaders who pull a large following in the Indigenous movement, like Ricardo Ulcuango who was appointed ambassador to Bolivia. They betrayed Conaie’s position, but you know these important posts pay well,” Sharupi added.

A warrior of Ecuador’s indigenous Shuar community protests against a Chinese copper mine set to be built in the country’s Amazon region. (Rodrigo BuendiaAFP/Getty Images)
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Conaie and its political wing Pachakutik officially decided to back center-left candidate Paco Moncayo as a way to prevent a reactionary opposition against Correa that would play in the hands of right-wing parties. Backing the Moncayo candidacy, they say, forges an alternative political path that neither backs the Correa establishment, nor sides with the neoliberal right.

But far from being a cohesive and homogenous movement, not everyone agrees with Conaie’s choice. Indigenous organizations like Ecuarunari and the Confederation of Nationalities and Indigenous Peoples of the Ecuadorian Coast (Conaice) have accused Conaie of having backed Moncayo undemocratically.

“The bases were never consulted, we just found out when the official announcement of the support for Paco Moncayo was made,” Edison Aguavil, president of Conaice, told Remezcla. “We do not know how the process went, where the support was born, how the proposals were made, we weren’t aware of anything.”

The Indigenous movement is far from being cohesive and homogenous.

In a split from Conaie, the coastal group officially put its support behind Correa’s candidate Lenin Moreno; saying dialogue with the government has been successful in delivering concrete changes for Indigenous communities in Ecuador’s coast.

“When a few of their demands weren’t met, Conaie stopped supporting Correa and they closed off dialogue,” Aguavil said. “Us, as Conaice, instead of ending dialogue, we have had useful meetings (with the government) that have given us some kind advances like a presence in delegations to have a say in decision-making, the improvement of roads, job placements, and our own community media.”

“If you ask the Tsachila nation, sometimes they are clearly against some of the government’s policies. And that should be said, but that doesn’t mean that we are against the political project,” Aguavil added. “We are sure there is a defined project in the Citizen Revolution and this has made us say, let’s support this project and let’s see what other advances we can make.”

The traditional binary of left vs right politics has never really served Indigenous peoples to begin with.

Meanwhile Monica Chuji, an activist from the Amazonian Kichwa community of Sarayaku who became Secretary of Communication under Correa’s government in 2006, officially supports candidate Guillermo Lasso.

Chuji, who left Correa’s government within one year as protest against his policies, says Lasso will defend Indigenous peoples’ rights, including prior consultation over resource extraction projects on their land.

“They had kept us with the idea that we cannot dialogue with the right, that we should always talk with the left,” Chuji told Radio Tropicana. “But we must emphasize that we are an ancestral people and we have our own ideology. That we have ideological coincidences like social justice, workers’ rights, is fine. The problem is that this left has done exactly the same thing that has generated left, right and indigenous dictatorships.”

For many White-Mestizo leftists the possibility of Indigenous people backing a right-wing candidate might be difficult to understand, an indication that there is a misrecognition of Indigenous diversity on the one hand, and on the other that the traditional binary of left vs right politics has never really served Indigenous peoples to begin with.

“People don’t understand this choice, they insult us. Say we are ignorant,” Gaby told Remezcla, echoing Chuji’s words. “But they don’t understand what we live through, why we are always protesting. Not just for us, but for them too!”