It has been eight years since Ecuador’s indigenous leaders last met with the leader occupying the country’s presidential palace. But Ecuador’s new president, Lenin Moreno, has taken a different approach, summoning various actors who were considered opponents by the previous government to a “National Dialogue”.
The indigenous movement, represented by the national indigenous federation, CONAIE, are part of this Dialogue. At their first meeting in July, President Moreno pledged to restore intercultural bilingual education and to guarantee the lease of CONAIE’s headquarters for 100 years.
While the meeting was an important victory, agreement was not reached on other points on the agenda, such as the opening of an intercultural university, community transportation, construction of a national irrigation plan, support for small farmers, and the pardons CONAIE is demanding for 177 indigenous leaders being prosecuted for participating in protests against the previous government.
Another pressing issue for the Amazonian members of CONAIE has been official recognition of their elected chairperson, Marlon Vargas, which has been denied for more than a year.
So in late August, nearly 200 indigenous leaders from the Ecuadorian Amazon converged on Quito to demand that government authorities engage constructively with their organizations and recognize their elected governing council.
Two Years of “Indigenous Rising”
The government’s refusal to recognize Vargas stems from the “Indigenous Rising” protests during August and September 2015, when indigenous people and campesinos (small-scale farmers) staged protests around the country. The protesters demanded several changes: the withdrawal of a proposed constitutional amendment to allow continued presidential reelection; the repeal of a water law, the withdrawal of a problematic bill on land rights, the reestablishment of the intercultural education system, free university education, an end to large-scale oil and mining projects, and the repeal of several decrees that affect the labor sector.
The “Uprising,” in which thousands of Ecuadorians of all stripes participated throughout the country, demonstrated that indigenous and campesino organizations have the power to influence public opinion and draw huge crowds. The indigenous movement and related social organizations also demonstrated their increasing distance from the politics of then-president Rafael Correa. This, however, led to a strong propaganda push by the government in the media, in an attempt to delegitimize the indigenous movement and its leaders. The government also resorted to police and judicial tactics, resulting in at least 132 arrests during the protests.
The indigenous movement’s distancing from the government led the government to adopt yet another strategy: cooptation. It set about trying to influence various indigenous organizations by attempting to infiltrate them and install new leadership. It focused, in particular, on organizations from the Amazon, like that of the Achuar nation (NAE), the Shiwiar nation (NASHIE), and CONFENIAE.
Not only that, and ignoring the rights to free association and sovereignty for indigenous peoples established in Ecuador’s constitution, the Correa administration issued decrees in June of 2015 endowing an executive agency with the authority to recognize – or not – the leadership of indigenous organizations.
In the early hours of last week’s mobilization, the Amazonian indigenous leaders arrived for a meeting with government officials, carrying their chicha (a traditional drink). Outside, supporters played drums and loudly chanted, “Recognition NOW!”
While they waited for the government officials to arrive, Marlon Vargas addressed those assembled and stated, “We will not return to the Amazon without this document [of official recognition]”.
Unfortunately, the government official in charge of this issue, Minister Paola Pavón, did not participate in the meeting, instead sending an advisor and undersecretary. Nonetheless, the representatives of the various indigenous nationalities, like the Waorani, the Achuar, the Kichwa, expressed their support and recognition of Marlon Vargas as the legitimate president of CONFENIAE.
Without Minister Pavón’s presence, however, the issue could not be resolved. So the CONFENIAE representatives and members announced their intention to stay put until their demands could be met. They spent the night there, and early the next morning Marlon Vargas held a press conference in which he announced that he had just received a signed statement from Minister Pavón in which she agreed to meet with them.
When the meeting finally took place, Minister Pavón requested that CONFENIAE hold an assembly in which each of the its member organizations could publicly express their agreement to confirm Marlon Vargas as President of the organization. CONFENIAE agreed.
Massive Participation in the Assembly
The assembly was held on August 29th at the headquarters of CONFENIAE in Puyo. Attending the event was a government oversight committee that included representatives from the Public Defender, the Human Rights Ombudsman, the National Electoral Council, the National Secretariat of Water, and the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin. It was attended by around 1,500 people representing sixteen organizations of nine indigenous nationalities; only four organizations and two indigenous nationalities were absent.
Jorge Herrera, president of the national indigenous federation CONIAE, presided over the assembly. In turn, he gave the floor to each of the presidents of the affiliated organizations, all of whom unanimously ratified Marlon Vargas.
In their speeches, the indigenous leaders highlighted this process as an opportunity for positive change in the relationship between the government and the indigenous movement, and they said that they hoped that governmental institutions and authorities would refrain from further attempts to intrude upon and divide their organizations for political purposes. They also expressed hope that this process would lead to further restoration of the rights of indigenous peoples, especially freedom of association and the self-determination of indigenous organizations.
Second Meeting with the President
At the second meeting with President Moreno on September 4th, the parties reviewed progress on CONAIE’s demands, and CONAIE requested that within three months the government deliver definitive results on the issues raised, especially those related to pardons. In addition, CONAIE requested that government finally issue the official recognition of Marlon Vargas as the elected leader of CONFEANIAE.
The very next day, Marlon Vargas and his Governing Council received official notice of their recognition by the Undersecretariat of Plurinationality and Interculturality of Political Management, the government agency in charge of such matters. The document was presented by the Deputy Minister Daniel Ortega, who stressed, importantly, that although this recognition was emitted by his office, this does not imply that the government can interfere in the legitimate decisions of CONFENIAE’s membership.