Eye on the Amazon

Electoral Upheaval Rocks Ecuador, as Indigenous and Environmental Defenders Score Huge Gains

Will a new government prioritize protection of the Amazon rainforest and Earth defenders?

Photo credit: CONFENAIE

Ecuador's presidential election is a clash between two visions for the Amazon and the country. Despite allegations of voter fraud, the country is set for presidential runoff on April 11 between Andres Arauz, a self-proclaimed leftist, economist, and protege of former president Rafael Correa, and right-wing banker Guillermo Lasso. Arauz and Lasso both have platforms that continue to promote an expansion of the fossil fuel and mining industries as the financial future of the country, despite its legacy of contamination, deforestation, rights abuses, and failure to be an economic panacea.

The other vision for Ecuador's future was led by Indigenous leader Yaku Pérez, the candidate from the Pachakutik party, one of the political expressions of the Indigenous movement. Pérez ran on an environmental agenda, calling for a ban on new extraction, greater protections for the rights of nature and ecosystems, expanded Indigenous rights to territory and self-determination, as well as alternative and sustainable economic development that would help Ecuador get out of the boom and bust cycles of commodity dependence. The fact that both candidates in the run-off, Arauz and Lasso, share the same policy agenda based on the extractive industry does not bode well for the Amazon or its people.

In fact, their agendas run contrary to other environmental wins during the February 7th election. In the province of Azuay, home to Cuenca, the country's third-largest city, a referendum against mining activities won by a landslide, throwing several large mining concessions into question and ending any future mining activity there.

"The electoral results confirm that the power of Indigenous peoples and the movement for change away from extraction that we've seen in the streets came through at the ballot box, supporting the construction of a platform not only for the Indigenous movement but for the whole country, hand in hand with all the social movements. It is a clear rejection of past policies and political groups that pursued resource extraction, criminalization of protest and Indigenous leaders, denying rights and essential guarantees of the Indigenous communities."

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE)

Amid allegations of widespread voter fraud, Ecuador's National Election Council (CNE) rejected calls for a recount this week. Yaku Pérez was excluded from the run-off elections by 33,000 votes under "questionable circumstances," according to his campaign team.

Yaku's campaign presented allegations of egregious errors in vote counting between hard copy ballots and thousands of vote tallies in multiple provinces. Official investigations into the allegations are ongoing. The inconsistencies of the vote tally, whether through incompetence or manipulation, have called into question the transparency of the electoral process and institutions and provoked protests. Perez led a march of supporters that arrived in Quito yesterday, delivering 16,000 poll statements to the office of the CNE which they say show the irregularities in the vote.

The power of Yaku's presidential run and turnout is historic. He received the highest level of support ever for an Indigenous candidate – almost 20% in a field with 16 candidates – clearly crossing over and winning many non-Indigenous votes. The only other Indigenous candidate to previously run for president received 2% of the vote. The Pachakutik party also took 27 Congressional seats, up from seven, and won all of the Amazonian provinces in a landslide, and all of the Andean provinces except one. The strong and unexpected showing of Yaku is a major rebuke of the country's right-wing and Correa-era policies, signaling a new political landscape and an emboldened Indigenous movement.

Ecuador is facing a current economic crisis, and it is not solely a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last two years, the government of Lenin Moreno has enacted a series of austerity measures that have weakened public services, health care, education, environmental protections and have overwhelmingly increased unemployment. During his tenure, the government also violated human rights and the rights of nature that are enshrined in the constitution and international law.

The vision that the government, and its presidential candidates in the run-off Arauz and Lasso, are offering to Ecuadorians is based on the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources and violates fundamental rights such as free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). It is tethered to the expansion of oil, mining, and logging. This also occurs in a context where the pandemic has highlighted the profound neglect of Indigenous peoples by the health and education systems. Health centers near Indigenous communities continue to be under-resourced, school dropout rates remain high, and communities are losing Indigenous elders and the ancestral knowledge of their peoples to COVID-19, which has taken an incalculable toll on loved ones.

To all this, we can add the impunity granted to the extractive industry and a lack of independence of the judicial system. A clear example of this is the April 2020 spill of more than 15,000 barrels (672,000 gallons) of crude oil in the Napo and Coca rivers – the worst environmental crime of the last 15 years. There are 27,000 Indigenous people who are still without water and facing food insecurity. Almost a year later, the hundreds of families affected remain invisible in the eyes of the government despite this emergency crisis.

Therefore, it is essential that the policies of the incoming presidential administration take into account the historical demands of the Indigenous movement, who seek to have their rights and their lives guaranteed and respected. They are the ones who live by and take care of the rivers, the forests, and biodiversity, and they are the ones who suffer directly from the effects of pollution and the destruction of their lands.

The new representatives elected to the Ecuadorian National Assembly have the obligation to defend and protect the rights of Earth defenders whose lives and freedom are at risk because they speak up against extraction projects and the destruction of the Amazon. The Assembly will also have the arduous task of responding to the demands of civil society. They will need to address demands for amnesty for the Indigenous peoples and activists facing charges from the October uprising over IMF austerity measures, progress towards post-extraction economic alternatives, respect for the right to consent and self-determination, employment security, quality intercultural education and health, and the protection of Indigenous territories.

As an organization dedicated to advancing Indigenous rights and protecting the Amazon, we support the calls from our Indigenous partners for any new government to respect the clear mandate of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and the Andes for an end to new oil and mining extraction and guarantee their rights to territory, self-determination, and to live in an environment free of contamination.

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