Ecuador's Indigenous Peoples Reach Quito After 600-km March for Water, Life, and Dignity
March 23, 2012 | Kevin Koenig
Thousands of indigenous peoples led by CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) converged on Quito on Thursday, culminating a fifteen-day march demanding a new water law, land reform, and an end to open-pit mining and new oil concessions. The march, timed to arrive with World Water Day, was the first major indigenous mobilization in recent years, and it was an indictment of President Rafael Correa's environmental and social policies that the left-wing leader has touted as hallmarks of his "Citizens Revolution".
Several hundred indigenous groups from the Andean highlands and the Amazon marched the entire route, which started in the southern highland province of Zamora, the site of the first large-scale open-pit mining project recently signed with the Chinese firm Ecuacorriente. But by the time the march reached the south of Quito, it was nearly five thousand strong, with wiphalas waving, and chants filling the high-altitude air.
"The indigenous movement once supported Correa, but his policies have gone too far, and are threating our rights instead of protecting them," said CONAIE President Humberto Cholango. "Against all odds, we made it to Quito, and we want our voice and our demands to be heard, respected, and implemented," he continued.
As they descended into old town Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reports put their numbers at close to ten thousand – much more than Correa, the country, or CONAIE expected. The marchers wound their way through the narrow colonial streets, and flowed wall-to-wall under bridges and over overpasses, headed to the Arbolito Park to rally and re-group before sending a late night delegation to meet with the head of Ecuador's National Assembly armed with a 19-point list of demands.
Their arrival alone was a major success, given the impressive feat of walking 600+ km in the blazing sun and pouring rain, through the peaks and valleys of the Andes with little to no resources – food, lodging, warm clothes, and, most importantly, another pair of shoes. But it was even more remarkable because a defensive Correa government took unprecedented steps to disparage the march and CONAIE in the press and logistically limit their numbers and opportunities to gather.
President Correa, well-aware that previous indigenous uprisings had ousted several past presidents, rallied his own supporters to Quito. The local press reported that the President and his party paid people to attend, as well as providing them with food and transportation. Correa also sought to fill traditional gathering spaces of the indigenous groups like parks and plazas, leaving marchers with few public spaces in which to congregate or stay the night.
"We have won something important here today, and over this past month. We have shown through peaceful means we will defend our rights, and resist against any effort to sell our lands to the highest bidder – whether it be mining companies, oil companies, or attempts to privatize our water resources," declared CONAIE Vice President Pepe Acacho, of Shuar nationality who hold land title to thousands of acres slated for new oil and mining concessions.
For CONAIE, which has been weakened over the years due to internal divisions and efforts by the Correa administration to undercut the movement, the march for water, life and dignity was a major success and sent a powerful message to Correa that if his "Citizen's Revolution" is just business-as-usual, a pluri-national, grassroots revolution is waiting in the wings, and willing to walk across the country to make it happen.