Advancing Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Ecuador

The State of Indigenous Rights in Ecuador

The presidency of Rafael Correa (elected in late 2006 and re-elected in 2009) should represent an improved scenario for Ecuador's estimated 4 million indigenous people. Correa's campaign pledge was to foment a "people's revolution", and he touted his connection to indigenous people, having learned to speak Kichwa in his youth.

President Correa pushed a constitutional assembly, which resulted in a re-writing of the Ecuadorian constitution in 2007. Prominent concepts include the construction of a "pluri-national" state (incorporating indigenous people and Afro-Ecuadorians for the first time), the Kichwa idea of Sumak Kawsay ("Living well", or a distinct form of development which, amongst other things, protects sacred sites) and the unique concept of the rights of nature, in which nature has the "right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution" and mandates that the government take "precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles." Additionally, oil development is prohibited on national park lands and within areas intangibles (designated "no-go" zones), though this can be overturned if an area is determined to be national priority.

Internationally, new rights recognitions for indigenous peoples enshrined in a United Nations declaration 22 years in the making have raised the bar and set a new standard for indigenous rights. Though UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) is non-binding, it has given indigenous groups in Ecuador and beyond a new instrument to defend their lives, land, and culture. Guaranteed throughout the Declaration is the right to a process of "Free, Prior and Informed Consent" for indigenous peoples when faced with decisions, projects, or legislation that may affect their people and/or territory.

As the modern day benchmark for indigenous rights, the Declaration also shines a light on weaker national level constitutional protections and legislation that have paved the way for extractive resource projects to move ahead on indigenous lands. Article 57 of Ecuador's Constitution recognizes the right to "Free, Prior and Informed Consultation", which does not give indigenous peoples the right to oppose projects slated for their lands or policies that may affect them.

In Ecuador, the government owns all subsurface mineral rights, and auctions them off in concessions to foreign and sometimes national companies. Indigenous groups in Ecuador are demanding that a process of Free, Prior and Informed Consultation be carried out with the people before the concession is offered and contracts signed.

Ecuador's Indigenous Movement

Ecuador's indigenous movement is widely considered one of the strongest in South America, if not the hemisphere. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) – comprised of regional and local indigenous federations from the Amazon, Andes, and Coast – is a major player in Ecuador's political history, having toppled several governments and led levantamientos or uprisings that have paralyzed the country in response to legislation, international trade agreements, and extractive projects that threaten their rights.

One such powerful uprising occurred due to the negotiated Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between President Palacio and the U.S. government in 2008. To Ecuadorians, the FTA meant that the U.S. would have inundated Ecuador with inexpensive goods, potentially destroying the agricultural sector and indigenous culture along with it. Countrywide protests and indigenous roadblocks expressed outrage over these negotiations. Subsequently, the Ecuadorian government declared a state of emergency in 2006. When former President Palacio repudiated indigenous demands to stop negotiations, CONAIE promised to shut down the capitol city of Quito, and did. The government ultimately backed away from the FTA. Similar nationwide strikes led by CONAIE brought down former presidents Jamil Mahuad, Lucio Gutierrez, and Abdala Bucaran, and major mobilizations put a stop to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). CONAIE and its president, Marlon Santi, stress the ever-growing danger that indigenous cultures face with increased resource development and FTAs.

Persecution of indigenous organizations

Predictions about the improvement of indigenous relations with the Ecuadorian state under President Correa have unfortunately proven overly optimistic. The government has pursued contradictory policies, promoting widespread natural resource extraction while shopping the innovative Yasuni proposal. Government efforts to expand extractive industries in indigenous territories have sparked widespread protests, to which the government has responded by efforts to criminalize legitimate social protest and crack-down on indigenous organizations and their supporters.

In June of 2010, the Correa Administration charged indigenous leaders with terrorism and sabotage after a march and protest outside of the ALBA summit (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales of Bolivia. The attack against the leaders and their organizations was the culmination of months of government-sponsored attacks on the airwaves that made slanderous and baseless allegation against CONAIE and leaders, attempting to portray them as violent incendiaries. Correa's campaign of persecution is a bold move from a self declared ‘progressive' government leading a "people's revolution" that is instead carrying out a campaign of persecution aimed at criminalizing the indigenous movement that even Ecuador's past right-wing presidents did not attempt. The charges against CONAIE and its members are still pending.

Analogous to accusations against indigenous leaders are those aimed toward non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work with indigenous peoples. In an effort to characterize NGOs as foreigners bent imposing their agenda and subverting the Ecuadorian state, Correa warned Ecuadorians that these greedy "gringuitos" manipulate indigenous people into rejecting oil and mineral extraction on their lands, ultimately leaving the indigenous more poor than before. Implicit in such accusations is the racist notion that indigenous people don't possess their own critical facilities, are ‘weak minded' according to Correa, and must be under the influence of outsiders if they are successfully insisting on respect for their rights. Leftist governments like Correa and Evo Morales have increasingly used this paternalistic rhetoric, adopting a discourse virtually indistinguishable from rightist governments in Colombia and Peru.

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