Ecuador's Pan-Indian Uprising

September 25, 2007

ON MAY 27, 1990, ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY Indians occupied Santo Domingo Cathedral in the heart of the old city of Quito. They demanded the immedi- ate resolution of land disputes in six highland provinces. The takeover marked the beginning of a nationwide uprising which shut down the country for over a week. The uprising was called by the Confederation of Indig- enous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), in the name of the regional federations from the highlands (sierra), the Amazon (Oriente), and the coast. The takeover also marked an end-the end of hundreds of years of life on the political periphery for the 40% of Ecuador's 10 million people who are Indians.' Everywhere the demand was the same: give back the land that once belonged, and still rightfully belongs, to indigenous communities. "The indigenous peoples of this country will continue to struggle until we achieve our rights," CONAIE' s president Crist6bal Tapuy declared in a press conference. "We are tired of offers and promises, of being berated and looked down upon. We are prepared now, with our own ideas and our own criteria."' 2 By Monday, June 4, the mobilization had paralyzed the sierra provinces of Bolfvar, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, and Tungurahua (all to the south of Quito), Pichincha (where Quito is located), and Imbabura (north of Quito). The Indians' strategy involved placing large boulders, walls of rock, and tree trunks across the Pan-American highway and other major roads. Within a day, the block- ade created spot shortages of certain products in provin- cial capitals and outlying towns, revealing the country's dependence on native farmers. In the provinces of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, where Indians were already engaged in open struggle for land with estate-owners (hacendados), they took police and local officials hos- tage. At one point, the governor of Chimborazo was reportedly in the hands of the Indigenous Movement of Chimborazo (MICH). In Cotopaxi, indigenous farmers actually expelled hacendados from lands that had been usurped generations ago. The central government deployed the national police and the army throughout the sierra to roll back the insur- rection. Troops in full combat gear swept through the countryside, making free use of tanks, tear gas, night- sticks, and, in some cases, bullets. Police arrested and imprisoned many of the Indians blockading roads, par- ticularly those identified as leaders. MICH leaderOswaldo Cuwi was killed by police in Riobamba, the capital of Chimborazo, even as the government invited the national leadership to negotiate. VOLUME XXV. NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) E 2 w 0 Les Field teaches anthropology at the University of New Hampshire. 39The First Nations The First Nations On June 8, President Rodrigo Borja designated several upper-level ministers, including the head of the Agrarian Reform Ministry (IERAC), to negotiate with the native leadership. The Archbishop of Quito acted as mediator and CONAIE vice president Luis Macas was the movement's main spokesperson. Eleven days after the occupation of Santo Domingo Cathedral began, the Indi- ans left the church in a disciplined manner, having cleaned the building thoroughly. As they departed, Indian leaders released a list of 72 priority land conflicts in the sierra requiring immediate resolution, as well as 16 demands that summarize how CONAIE proposes to end the subjugation of indigenous peoples, particularly in the sierra. [See sidebar p.41] These demands outline a program of land distribution and community economic development, investment in basic infrastructure and the removal of barriers the state bureau- cracy places in the way of the indigenous economy, such as debt, lack of credit, regressive taxation, and a punishing price structure for indigenous agricultural products. The 16 points mandate a cultural rights campaign based on bilingual education, indigenous control of archaeological sites and government support for native medicine. The program also envisions an amendment to the Ecuadorian constitution to recognize the country as a pluri-national, multi-ethnic state. T HE CONSERVATIVE QUITO DAILY EL Comercio called the uprising "the sixth Indian insurrection"-the others having taken place in 1578, Shuar representative Rafael Pardam at the CONAIE congress in August. CONAIE envisions a national economy based on territorial autonomy and indigenous forms of development. A 1599, 1615, 1766 and 1892-and described the succes- sion of rebellions as one on-going battle to regain lost lands. CONAIE, however, has compiled a list of no less than 145 distinct insurrections between 1533, immedi- ately following the Conquest, and 1972, when the re- gional federation Ecuarunari organized the entire sierra. 4 Indigenous historians cite 12 distinct rebellions in Chimborazo alone and historians of the Canari people from Cuenca recount repeated attempts to turn internecine Creole conflicts into a struggle for indigenous rights. Despite a thread of continuity, CONAIE and its con- stituent organizations view the 1990 uprising as qualita- tively different from earlier indigenous resistance, which was "in general, local in character, reaction to abuses, in defense of land," and as such vulnerable to the centralized repressive apparatus marshalled by the Ecua- dorian state.' When the Spanish arrived, native peoples had been living in the sierra for over ten thousand years. A constel- lation of small chieftain-states, particularly around the modern cities of Otavalo, Quito and Cuenca, conducted active trade in coca leaves, cotton, bird feathers, gold, potatoes, fine textiles, pottery, and many other commodi- ties, among the three regions of Ecuador (sierra, Oriente and coast) and with peoples in the modern territories of Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Central America. The sierra chieftain-states constructed large earthen pyramids, stone temples, and irrigation works. Though these hierarchical societies were dominated by powerful families, land was held communally and labor performed collectively (the minga). Like communal land, the persistence of the minga infuses contemporary indigenous identity with a distinctive vision of social organization. The Inca conquest of Ecuador, approxi- mately 50 years before the arrival of the Spanish, likely maintained communal and collective social institutions, which also characterized the social base of Inca civiliza- tions. By contrast, Spanish subjugation undermined com- munal land and the minga, and severed the relationship between the native leadership and the farmers who com- prised the majority of the population. The Spanish Crown issued land-grants throughout the sierra to prominent conquistador families. The Spaniards then forcibly settled indigenous farmers in colonial towns and instituted a labor-draft (the encomienda) to create a workforce for the haciendas they established on confis- cated land. The Spanish Crown at times attempted to mitigate the harsher aspects of this neo-feudal system, but hacendados continued to dispossess Indian communities of their lands throughout the colonial period and after independence. The communities struggled to maintain traditional social structures, but these dwindled as the decades passed. From early on, the sierra became a stronghold of subsistence and stagnation. While hacendados reinvested their income in the much more dynamic, export-oriented cacao plantations on the coast, indigenous farm families REPORT ON THE AMERICASwere allowed only tiny plots to cultivate after performing obligatory labor on the hacienda. The sustainable prac- tices of indigenous cultivation, a "science" which utilizes complex systems of crop diversity, crop association, and organic composting, enabled indigenous people to sur- vive the brutality of colonial exploitation. Yet the Spanish deliberately froze the trajectory of indigenous technologi- cal and economic development, even though sierra towns and cities depended on the produce that Indians brought to market. This dependence, which expanded in the inter- vening centuries, lay at the heart of CONAIE's strategy during the uprising of 1990, and provided a crucial advan- tage for the movement. The only dynamic sector of the indigenous economy in the sierra that the colonial administration maintained and exploited was the ancient textile industry at Otavalo. 1 The Incas had prized Otavalefio textiles, and soon after the Spanish Conquest, the colonial administration built enor- mous primitive factories in the town. These produced the clothes that garbed the slaves who toiled in the mines of Bolivia and Peru. The factories also made the uniforms of the armies of independence in the early nineteenth cen- tury. CONAIE's historical rendering of national indepen- dence relates that "the creation of the Republic of Ecuador did not mean any change in our living conditions; it was nothing more than the passage of power from the hands of the Spaniards to the hands of the Creoles."' Today Indians commonly describe independence as "the last day of despotism and the first day of the same." Hacendados yoked indigenous farmers to their estates by debt-peon- age (the huasipungo system), while free-trade policies allowed cheap machine-made English textiles to flood the country, destroying the export potential of Otavalefio weaving and weakening the internal market. A century later, however, Otavalefios discovered they could imitate the styles of foreign imports and compete effectively in urban markets, due to the comparative advantage of their underpaid labor. Their growing suc- cess beginning in the 1920s-the only departure from the overall picture of indigenous rural poverty-created a model of indigenous capitalism and exercised an impor- tant influence on the political platform of Ecuarunari and CONAIE. O TAVALEI&O WEAVERS BEGAN BY INVEST- ing their tiny profits in new, inexpensive synthetic dyes, as well as in any machinery they could afford. 9 Successful weavers then began a long-term policy of using their small profits to purchase farmland for their families. By buying land with whatever funds they could amass, the Otavalefios resolved the underlying problem confronting them and the rest of the Indians of the sierra: access to farmland stolen by the haciendas. Otavalo's capitalist development occurred during the same period that small workers' syndicates and artisans' guilds emerged. President Eloy Alfaro, the radical general CONAIE'S SIXTEEN DEMANDS 1. Return of lands and territories taken from indigenous communities, without costly legal fees. 2. Sufficient water for human consumption and irrigation in indigenous communities, and a plan to prevent pollution of water supplies. 3. No municipal taxes on small properties owned by indigenous farmers. 4. Long-term financing for bilingual education programs in the communities. 5. Creation of provincial and regional credit agencies to be controlled by CONAIE. 6. Forgiveness of all debts to government ministries and banks incurred by indigenous communities. 7. Amendment of the first article of the constitution to proclaim Ecuador as a multi-national state. 8. Immediate delivery of funds and credits currently budgeted for indigenous nationalities. 9. Minimum two-year price freeze on all raw materials and manufactured goods used by the communities in agricul- tural production, and reasonable price increase on all agricul- tural goods sold by them, using free-market mechanisms. 10. Initiation and completion of all priority construction on basic infrastructure for indigenous communities. 11. Unrestricted import and export privileges for indig- enous artisans and handicrafts merchants. 12. National legislation and enforcement to provide for strict protection and controlled exploration of archaeological sites, under the supervision of CONAIE. 13. Expulsion of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, in accordance with Executive Decree 1159 of 1981. 14. Respect for the rights of children and greater govern- ment awareness of their current plight. 15. National support for indigenous medicine. 16. Immediate dismantling of political party organiza- tions that parallel government institutions at the municipal and provincial levels, and which manipulate political con- sciousness and elections in indigenous communities. and nationalist hero of the Ecuadorian Left, aided these anarchist and liberal organizations, which were profoundly influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1926 radical artisans, workers and intellectuals formed the Socialist Party, which began organizing peasant unions in the sierra, particularly around Quito, and in Imbabura, the Otavalehios' province. These unions (with names like The Inca, Free Land, and Bread and Land) emphasized the struggle for a fair agricultural wage, shorter hours, and improved working conditions.1 In 1944 the newly formed Communist Party and the leftist Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers helped in- digenous unions, artisan guilds and communities to orga- nize the Federation of Ecuadorian Indians (FEI). "This organization," according to CONAIE, "brought together unions, cooperatives and communities, and for the first time did so in the name of representing indigenous people."" FEI limited its activities to the sierra, and VOLUME XXV. NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) 41The First Nations struggled for specific agrarian goals: elimination of the huasipungo, break-up and return of hacienda land to Indians, a shorter workday, and the like. Because FEI's program did not "take into account the totality of our problems, that is both class exploitation and ethnic discrimination," according to CONAIE, "and be- cause most of [FEI's] leaders were not indigenous, this organization could not...represent the totality of our aspi- rations."" FEI's success, aided by the Communist-led Federation of Peasant Organizations (FENOC), encour- aged a parallel effort on the part of the Ecuadorian Federation of Catholic Workers, in an attempt to limit the growth and influence of the Communists. The net result was an insistent wave of pressure for land reform, which peaked in the 1960s. Under the added incentives of the Alliance for Progress and the Cuban revolution, the mili- tary overthrew the democratically elected government in 1964, vowing to both fight communism and carry out land reform. The agrarian reform law of 1964 focused on promoting farm efficiency, and did not set a maximum allowable farm size. The military agreed with the hacendados' assessment that the real inefficiency in sierra agriculture lay in the tiny size and subsistence nature of indigenous farms. The reform became a way to help large landowners develop dairy and meat industries to feed the growing urban population. It did abolish the huasipungo, which meant the end of the paternalistic domination of the hacendados. The law also promised to distribute hacienda lands to former huasipungeros, but failed to do so in the vast majority of cases. The agrarian reform legitimized native demands for land, while it frustrated the expectations of indigenous farmers. Only in Otavalo did the reform help to change conditions of rural poverty. Indigenous weavers, liber- ated from the onerous huasipungo, augmented their pro- duction of textiles significantly. Dovetailing with the slow but steady increase of foreign tourism in the late 1960s, which created a ready-made market for Otavalefio textiles, the process of indigenous capital accumulation and investment in farmland accelerated. The failure of agrarian reform undermined FEI's class- based ideological platform in the eyes of indigenous farmers. But seasoned FEI activists went on to play a significant role in the building of new ethnically defined and locally based indigenous organizations, culminating in Ecuarunari's founding in 1972. T HE SIX INDIGENOUS ETHNIC GROUPS OF the Oriente began organizing a region-wide move- ment in the late 1960s, when petroleum gushed from wells drilled in their rainforest territories.'" Only then did these peoples, who utilize sophisticated sustainable systems to cultivate the fragile rainforest soils, confront an Ecuador- ian regime determined to confiscate their lands. Their movement, the Confederation of Indigenous Amazonians (CONFENIAE), and the local federations that comprise it Since the 1990 uprising, indigenous people, like these women from the village of Salasca, have faced a campaign of police intimidation and harassment. reject the ecologically destructive extractive industries the Ecuadorian state and economy have imposed in the Oriente, and seek to obtain title to the territories Oriente peoples have inhabited for centuries. The military has maintained a strong presence in the Oriente since a conflict with Peru in the 1940s led to the loss of over half of Ecuador's claim in the Amazon. The discovery of petroleum delivered a massive prize into the military's hands-since the generals hardly considered the presence of indigenous peoples in the region signifi- cant-and inspired another coup in 1972. The junta prom- ised to nationalize the oil industry and carry out reformist development projects with the profits that petroleum produced. The military's second agrarian reform, announced in 1973, also stressed efficiency and productivity, and allo- cated funds to promote capital-intensive export crops, accessible only to large land-owners. IERAC, the government's new Agrarian Reform Ministry distributed even less land in the 1970s than the first reform had in the 1960s. Soon thereafter, police in Chimborazo and Tungurahua assassinated two of Ecuarunari's principal leaders, Lizaro Condo and Crist6bal Pajuna. The organization's second congress, in 1975, focused specifi- cally on resisting the state's crackdown and fighting the injustice of the 1973 reform. REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 42 'IrCEcuarunari's platform at that time introduced a "class- based conception of the peasant-indigenous movement," and by 1979 it was promoting a program that combined land revindication with bilingual education and cultural rights. It called for waging both economic and cultural struggles in the context of community development ef- forts.'" This platform reflected the growing power of the provincial and community-based organizations Ecuarunari had set out to create. Ecuarunari's ideological platform and increasing emphasis on grassroots control set the organizational tone for both the Orient's CONFENIAE and the national CONAIE. In the Oriente, petroleum development greatly im- proved access to rainforest terrain, allowing thousands of mestizo farmers to carve out agricultural plots in indig- enous domains. The military junta viewed this as an opportunity to alleviate the "land shortage" in the sierra, and put IERAC in charge of a colonization program. Notwithstanding increasingly clear signs that mestizo farmers did not know how to utilize rainforest soils in a sustainable fashion, IERAC continued to support coloni- zation. The oil companies (both foreign and national) and IERAC accepted the presence of U.S. missionaries among the six indigenous ethnic groups of the Oriente, in the hope that they could "civilize" indigenous societies, par- ticularly by reducing indigenous peoples' attachment to their land. To combat the open conspiracies against their lands and cultures, in 1980 a meeting of organizations repre- senting the two largest ethnic groups of the region-the Quichua-speakers in the north and the Shuar in the south-founded CONFENIAE. The Quichua-speaking peoples, descended from sierra people who had fled to the east during the colonial and republican regimes, inherited a long history of successful violent resistance to Spanish and Ecuadorian penetration of their territory. Their resis- tance limited government activities to extractive indus- tries such as gold mining and rubber tapping. In the southern Oriente, the Shuar successfully repelled all Span- ish and Ecuadorian incursions into their territory until the last years of the nineteenth century. In both regions, indigenous organizations seek to title their land, to protect their cultures from predatory mis- sionary groups-particularly the infamous Summer Insti- tute of Linguistics (SIL)-and to fight against the succes- sion of ecologically ruinous extractive industries that reached their nadir with oil. Oriente peoples' revulsion against missionary activity thrust their demand for the expulsion of SIL onto CONAIE's list of 16 points pre- sented during the 1990 uprising. Ecuarunari and CONFENIAE gave birth to CONAIE in 1986, after six years of experimenting with looser and less effective forms of coordinating indigenous struggles nationwide. AS NEGOTIATIONS DRAGGED ON THROUGH the summer of 1990, the social democratic admin- istration of President Rodrigo Borja expressed optimism that the dialogue with Indian leaders was advancing, and that the restitution of indigenous farmland confiscated over 400 years would be resolved. Gonzalo Ortiz Crespi, secretary to the president, displayed a positive attitude toward CONAIE's demands, and took pains to describe "how much land we have distributed and how much money we have already spent on infrastructure" in Indian communities." CONAIE director Rodrigo de la Cruz expressed guarded skepticism, citing the case of Chimborazo, where the government had done nothing about the landlessness of Ecuador's most impoverished Indian farmers. In late August, CONAIE and CONFENIAE intro- duced a new document outlining an ambitious program of territorial autonomy and community development for the indigenous peoples of the Oriente province of Pastaza. CONAIE's previous negotiating positions demanded only the return of land confiscated over the centuries, particu- larly in the sierra. The Pastaza plan explicitly demarcated proposed territories for the four resident Indian ethnic groups. The proposal reserved for them approximately 90% of the land and its sub-soil resources, confining mestizo Ecuadorians to one comer of the province, around the provincial capital, Puyo. CONAIE vice president Luis Macas justified the allocation and titling of most of Pastaza to indigenous peoples by invoking "the total validity of traditional rights" of Indian people to territo- ries they have inhabited for thousands of years.' 6 President Borja denounced the proposal and brought the negotiations to an abrupt end. He claimed that the document was really a master plan for creating a "parallel state" within Ecuador's borders, in which national laws would have no power over "traditional rights." The presi- dent appeared particularly incensed over CONAIE and CONFENIAE's request that the government discontinue oil exploration in the indigenous territories of Pastaza and elsewhere in the Oriente, where the vast majority of Ecuador's sizeable petroleum deposits lie. "We are not trying to erode Ecuadorian sovereignty," Macas responded, but rather establish "space to develop our communities in a collective form, in order to prevent an exodus of Indians from the Oriente to the cities, as has occurred so tragically in the sierra." The document de- fined autonomy as necessary to "stimulate our own model of development using traditional techniques within the ecological equilibrium, using what modern technology can offer." Macas stressed that the titling of indigenous lands should be communal, because individual plots "in no way favor the small farmer." Since the demise of direct negotiations, a campaign of police intimidation and government harassment has at- tempted to return Ecuador to politics as usual. In the sierra, the secretary general of the Federation of Indig- enous Farmers of Imbabura was assassinated in May by "paramilitary squads" organized by hacendados, accord- ing to Juan Dfaz Picuasi, a local leader in that province. Numerous other sierra leaders were imprisoned by the VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER I981)43 VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) 43The First Nations police, and some have been killed. In several disclosures to Hoy, the liberal daily affiliated with Borja's own party, which generally sympathizes with the indigenous posi- tion, Macas cited specific instances in which the army has militarized indigenous communities and impeded politi- cal activities.' 7 The government then opened the door to oil exploration in Yasuni National Park, an ancient spe- cies refuge in the Oriente, rich in endemic plant and animal life. But the cat cannot be put back in the bag. Rather than retreating from their initial political platform of land reform, cultural rights and economic development, CONAIE's leadership, particularly Luis Macas, aims to go farther, to "delineate a political alternative for the transformation of all of Ecuadorian society."'" 8 Their vision is fundamentally new: a national economy deter- mined by uniquely indigenous forms of economic devel- opment, and a politics of territorial autonomy and self- determination which contemplates neither separatism nor the seizure of state power. As such, it stands apart from the traditional postures of both Marxists and revolutionary nationalists. The community-level organizations that make up CONAIE's rank and file plan to pursue land acquisition and community development by recreating institutions of communal land and collective labor. Given CONAIE's decentralized organizational structure, its overall strategy will be determined by the results of such local experimen- tation. These could pave the way for the transformation of the country from the bottom up, or presage repression the likes of which this small nation has never seen. Five hundred years after the Conquest, building dy- namic indigenous economies and reviving indigenous language, culture and social organization would be diffi- cult even without the racist opposition of national elites and the studied ignorance of political parties. Having survived into the twentieth century to forge a compelling political and economic vision, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador can already claim a victory which the conquista- dors would never have imagined possible. Ecuador's Pan-Indian Uprising 1. David Corkill and David Cubitt, Ecuador: Fragile Democracy (Lon- don: Latin America Bureau, 1988) 2. El Comercio (Quito), June 6, 19910. 3. El Comercio, June 18, 1990. 4. CONAIE, Las Nacionalidades Indfgenas en el Ecuador: Nuestro Proceso Organizativo (Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1989), pp. 295-304. 5. Ibid. pp. 173-174 and 193-194. 6. Ibid. p. 26. 7. Otavalo was called Sarance before the Conquest. See Frank Salomon, Native Lords ofQuito (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). 8. CONAIE, Las Nacionalidades Inhigenas, p. 26. 9. Ironically, some of the seed money apparently came from local hacendados. See Lynn Meisch Otavalo: Weaving in the Marker (Quito: Ediciones Libri-Mundi, 1987) 10. One of the government's responses to this incipient mobilization was the 1937 Law of the Communes, which abolished the power of traditional leaders (curacas) and substituted government-sponsored town councils (cabildos). CONAIE and provincial indigenous federations view this infiltra- lion of the state into indigenous society as particularly heinous. CONAIE, Las Nacionalidades Indigenas, p.13 I 11. Ibid. p. 31. 12. Ibid. pp. 31-32 and p. 276. 13. The six groups, in descending order of population size, are: Forest Quichuas, Shuar, Achuar, Huaorani, Siona-Secoya, and Cofan. Coastal Ecua- dor featured large, complex and materially wealthy indigenous civilizations at the time of European contact. Plagues and the conquistadors' firearms quickly exterminated coastal cultures. The three small coastal indigenous peoples who survived have also organized themselves into federationsandjoined CONAIE. 14. CONAIE, Las Nacionalidades Indigenas, pp. 216-222. 15. El Comercio, June 23 anid June 25, 1990. 16. This and subsequent quotes on the Pastaza Document are from Hoy (Quito), Aug. 23 and 31, 1990, and El Comercio, Aug. 23, 25 and 28, 1990. 17. Hoy, Nov. 13, 1990. 18. CONAIE, Las Nacionalidades Indigenas, p. 268.

Tags: Ecuador, indigenous politics, Protest, CONAIE

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.