Indigenous Groups Defend Their "House" Against Government Grab in Ecuador

Determined to defend their territory in the city as well as the jungle, several hundred indigenous activists trekked from the Amazon to Ecuador's capital this week to start an extended occupation of a building that has served as their urban political center for more than two decades.

The 18 indigenous nations that make up the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) are vowing to defend their headquarters after the government tried to oust them from the building earlier this week. A spokesman for the group told Fusion that indigenous leaders have set up a rotational occupation of the building until the government of President Rafael Correa reconsiders its decision to turn CONAIE's Quito headquarters into a state-run drug-rehab clinic.

"We're not leaving this house; it's ours," proclaimed Jorge Herrera, president of CONAIE.

The standoff has been weeks in the making. The Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion (MIES) decided to terminate the CONAIE's lease on the building last December, and gave CONAIE until Jan. 6 to evacuate the premises. The indigenous group refused to leave, and instead marched on the presidential palace in protest — a decision that was met with police truncheons and teargas.

"The gas burned my eyes and mouth," said Gloria Ushigua, president of the Association of Sapara Women of Ecuador. "Others were thrown on the ground and beaten."

When the dust settled, however, the government agreed to momentarily suspend the eviction notice and consider the CONAIE's appeal. A final decision is expected in two months.

Critics of the Correa administration view the decision to oust CONAIE as a politically calculated move to further marginalize indigenous groups that are critical of the government's efforts to exploit the Amazon for oil and minerals. So no one really expects the government to reverse its decision to take the building. Still, even a two-month reprieve is considered a victory of sorts in a country whose government has taken a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of social protest.

"This is a political triumph for CONAI," said a spokesman for the organization Land is Life, who spoke to Fusion under the condition of anonymity for fear of political reprisal. "The Correa government has criminalized protest and been very hard on social movements, environmentalists, and indigenous groups. So this is a victory — even if it only last for two months."

That "victory" could be a harbinger of trouble to come for the president, who is in China this week asking for more help for his struggling economy. China has become Correa's main benefactor since his government defaulted on a $3.2 billion debt in 2008.

"With the economy in trouble, tensions with the country's indigenous movement and an array of opposition forces could well intensify over the coming year, posing the most significant political challenge yet to Correa's rule," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-America Dialogue in Washington, D.C. "There is likely to be greater turbulence ahead."

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