Ecuador: Taking On the Neoliberal Agenda

September 25, 2007

By linking the demands of Ecuador's indigenous population and non-indigenous popular sectors, the indigenous movement has moved to the forefront of the popular struggle. In June, 1994, a mobilization called by indigenous organizations in Ecuador shut down the country for two full weeks. The protests were directed against the new so-called Agrarian Development Law, a key piece of the larger neoliberal structural-adjustment pro- gram being implemented by the government of Sixto Duran Ballen. The law approved by Congress called for the elimination of communal lands in favor of agricul- tural "enterprises," along with other measures that favored the interests of the big landowners. It com- Nina Pacari is a lawyer and a leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). She played a key role in the negotiations with the government following the 1994 indigenous uprising. Translated from the Spanish by NACLA. pletely ignored the concerns of Ecuador's indigenous people, campesinos, and small farmers. Indigenous organizations set up roadblocks and boy- cotted marketplaces nationwide to protest the law. Trade unionists called a general strike, stopping the delivery of goods into the city. Commerce throughout Ecuador ground to a halt. There were widespread rallies and protest marches in Quito and other urban centers. In parts of the Amazon, indigenous communities took over oil wells to protest the privatization of Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company. The protesters rallied behind the alternative proposal developed by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) [see "CONAIE's Agrarian Law Proposal", p. 25]. This proposal called for establishing fairer terms of access to land, and improv- ing local technologies and productive capacities. This was not a narrow proposal of and for the indigenous; rather, CONAIE sought to articulate and defend the interests of all sectors of the country by highlighting the basic demand of "food secu- rity" for all Ecuadorians. In the face of this nation- wide protest, the govern- ment declared a "State of Mobilization," putting the Armed Forces in charge of restoring order. Arrest war- rants were issued against indigenous leaders, and peaceful rallies were vio- lently repressed. The army occupied many indigenous communities, harassing and beating the "rebellious Indians" and destroying homes and crops. The army Quichuas march to occupy lan did not even respect indige- September 1991. nous places of worship, where many women, children, youth, and elderly people had sought refuge. Soldiers dragged them out of religious temples and beat them. Four people were killed, and several others received bullet wounds. The provincial administrative office of the bilingual education program in Cafiar was burnt down and destroyed. These attempts to repress and intimidate the indige- nous mobilization did not force the movement to back down. The government finally had to agree to negotiate with the indigenous organizations about how to revise the agrarian law. This marked the first time in Ecuadorian history that an indigenous movement forced the government to enter into a serious dialogue about national policies. While not all of CONAIE's demands were incorpo- rated into the revisions of the law, the government was forced to concede important points to the indigenous movement. As a consequence of this and prior mobi- lizations, the indigenous movement is now widely rec- ognized as a significant social actor in contemporary Ecuadorian politics. The movement derives strength from the growing unity among the country's different indigenous organizations and its extraordinary capacity to mobilize people, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. It has this power because of its strong links to the grassroots, as well as its ability to articulate local d of an absentee landlord in demands at the national level. By linking the demands of Ecuador's indigenous population and non-indigenous popular sectors, the indigenous movement has moved to the forefront of the popular struggle in Ecuador. Eleven different indige- nous nationalities coexist in Ecuador today, comprising 45% of a total population of 12 million inhabitants. An important proportion of this group are Quichua-speak- ing indigenous communi- ties located in the central highlands (or Sierra), the majority of whom subsist on agriculture. A smaller number of indigenous Quichua-speakers also live on the coast, as the growing difficulties of rural life led them to leave their highland homes in search of better economic opportunities in coastal cities. The Amazon jungle region (or Oriente) is home to six indigenous ethnic groups, numbering about 120,000 people, who use sophisticated sustainable sys- tems to cultivate the fragile rainforest soils. One of the first modern indigenous organizations in Ecuador was the Federation of Shuar Centers, founded in 1964 with the assistance of Salesian missionaries. The Federation, located primarily in the southern Oriente, sought to ensure Shuar landholdings and to maintain Shuar culture. The Federation's bilingual- education programs became a prototype for other such programs in Ecuador in the ensuing decades. Provincial and regional indigenous organizations were created in the 1970s. In the Oriente, these includ- ed the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Napo (FOIN) and the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP). In 1980, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENAIE) was founded to represent the indige- nous population of the entire Oriente. In the highlands, traces of indigenous organization can be detected in the Ecuadorian Indigenous Federation (FEI) in 1940s. The direct line, however, began in 1972 with the founding of ECUARUNARI, which focused on land and cultural rights. CONAIE was established in 1986 by CONFE- NAIE and ECUARUNARI, unifying all indigenous peoples in one national organization. In the 1970s and 1980s, indigenous organizations tended to focus on local issues-such as higher wages for farmworkers or access to a piece of land-and cul- tural issues-such as bilingual education-without a broader political perspective. In the 1990s, while these concrete demands remain central concerns of the indigenous movement, they are now accompanied by demands of a more political stripe: the right to self- determination, the right to our cultural identity and our languages, and the right to develop economically according to our own values and beliefs. The struggle against oppression, exploitation and exclusion led by the indigenous movement has coalesced into a key demand: the construction of a plurinational state that tolerates and encourages diversity among different groups in society. Land has become a key rallying point for indigenous groups across the country, and has helped unify the struggle. Unlike the landowners, who see land as an instrument of production like any other, indigenous people see land as an essential foundation for our cul- tural, political, organizational and economic develop- ment, and of life itself. Land in Ecuador is concentrated in the hands of a few. According to 1994 data, in the highlands, 1.6% of farms occupy 43% of the land, while on the coast, 3.9% of farms occupy 55% of the land. Communally owned lands, while legally recognized and protected under the Constitution, represent only 4% of land in the high- lands. Most of this land is located on steep mountain ridges, and is useful only for pasture. Indigenous land ownership, in general, is very limited. cuador, like most Latin American countries, pur- sued a state-led model of development in the 1960s and 1970s. Military rulers in power in Ecuador during a good part of that era sought to devel- op the country through import-substituting industrial- ization, a continuation of the agrarian reform initiated in 1964, state-regulated commercialization of basic foodstuffs, and state control over the oil industry. While industrialization marched on with the help of generous government subsidies, the agrarian reform was stunted by the tenacious resistance of the landowners, grouped in the Chamber of Agriculturalists and the Association of Livestock Producers. The few bits of land given to the indigenous and campesino population were of poor quality and located on precarious mountainsides. Under the rubric of "modernizing agriculture," these regimes promoted the importation of machines and agricultural products, such as fertilizers and insecti- cides. These policies had an immediate impact on rural communities, because the mechanization of agriculture meant that the large estates had less need for laborers. The use of chemical inputs also severely contaminated the environment. At the same time, growing demand for land meant that existing parcels were shrinking rapidly in size and availability. These combined factors led to a drastic increase in un- and underemployment in the countryside, which fueled rural migration to the cities. This general policy orientation continued until 1982, when a crash in oil prices in concert with the drying up of international credit in the aftermath of the debt crisis forced a radical change in policy. Like other Latin American countries with large external debts, Ecuador was pressured by multilateral lending institu- tions to implement structural-adjustment policies. Following the orthodox recipes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the gov- ernment of Oswaldo Hurtado (1979-1984) devalued the local currency, eliminated subsi- dies and price controls, and increased the cost of public services. While manufactured products became more expensive, the price of agrarian products fell or stagnated. At the same time, salary increases failed to keep pace with most peo- ple's dramatic loss of purchasing power. In the agrarian sector, neolib- eral policies later on promoted the cultivation of "nontraditional" exports, such as flowers and tropical fruits like papayas and mangos. Agribusiness, which is closely tied to international consumer markets and has the money to buy the latest in technology, has profited from these market policies. The majority of the rural population, however, remains mired in extreme poverty and lacks access to credit. Because of demo- graphic pressures and the inability of most communities to acquire more land, the situation is growing worse-giving way, for example, to indigenous landlessness, a phenom- enon that would have been unthink- able a decade ago. This combination of the negative impact of neoliberal policies and the growing lack of The army destroyed the offices of the billingual education program in Caiar during the 1994 mobilization. access to land detonated the first indigenous uprising in June, 1990. After weeks of organizing, and frustration with stagnating talks with the government over indigenous land rights, CONAIE orchestrated this uprising that nearly paralyzed the country for a week. Main roads were blocked with large boulders and walls of rock, markets were boy- cotted, water supplies to the urban areas were cut off, and several police and local officials were taken hostage. The mobilization ended when the government agreed to national-level negotiations with CONAIE. While it The government called on the army to restore internal order and beat back the "rebellious Indians." ignored many of CONAIE's 16 princi- pal demands, the social democratic gov- ernment of Rodrigo Borja did finally make two important concessions: the administration gave CONAIE the authority to name the director of the bilingual education programs, and granted large tracts of land to the Huaoranis and the OPIP in Pastaza. All sectors of Ecuadorian society were surprised by the magnitude and the broad-based nature of the 1990 uprising. While the Borja government and the large landowners explained it away as "manipulation" and "foreign interference," progressive sectors of society interpreted the uprising as a response to Ecuador's wors- ening economic crisis. The uprising was not only about alleviating the eco- nomic hardship in the coun- tryside in the wake of struc- tural-adjustment policies. A central element was recov- ering the lands that had been stolen from indige- nous people. The uprising also reflected the fruition of a long-term process in which the indigenous peo- ple recognized the impor- tance of developing our own identity, constructing an indigenous perspective on national politics, and defin- ing our role in the broader struggle for civil, political, economic and cultural rights. It was the first time that the indigenous movem become its central demand: t cle of the Constitution to rec national country. s part of its larger neo government of Sixto replace the Agrarian new legislation that would according to free-market pri "Agrarian Development Law tive proposal developed by E grouped in the Chamber of Association of Livestock Pr' proposal rolled back the few reform, threatening the inter campesino communities alike by Congress in May, 1994 President Durin on June 13, of CONAIE and other popul Indigenous organizations the law's content, but by the which it came into being. Commission (CAN), former indigenous and campesino or detailed proposal for the refo laws and had submitted it to eration in June, 1993. The pro od of two years, was the process of consultations wi constituents, including indige as non-indigenous campesino Members of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) march in the nationwide uprising in 1990. ent articulated what has proposal was completely ignored by both the Congress he reform of the first arti- and the President. Instead, the approved law was draft- ognize Ecuador as a pluri- ed by a small minority behind the backs of the people. The law was never publicly debated, despite the fact that it would have vast repercussions for broad seg- liberal agenda, the present ments of rural society. Durin Ball6n decided to Part of the conceptual framework of the Agrarian Reform Law of 1964 with Development Law came from the conservative think- govern the rural sector tank Institute of Agricultural Strategies (IDEA). nciples. The government's Headed by Neptalf Bonifaz, a member of the Chamber " was based on a legisla- of Agriculturalists, IDEA actively promotes market- cuador's large landowners, based reforms in the agricultural sector. Based on a f Agriculturalists and the number of highly questionable "investigations," IDEA's oducers. The landowners' researchers claim that "the Indians are the new land- gains won by the agrarian lords" in Ecuador. As a consequence, they reason, an crests of indigenous and agrarian reform that would redistribute land is no e. The new law was passed longer necessary. In fact, they argue that the hold that and signed into law by these "new landowners" have on agricultural land is a 1994, over the objections barrier to further growth in the agricultural sector. ir organizations. Based on these premises, the Agrarian Development vere outraged not only by Law proposed the freeing up of communal land to mar- undemocratic methods by ket forces. This would ostensibly permit new invest- The National Agrarian ment and productivity in the rural sector, as well as 1 by CONAIE and other resolve the problem of supposedly inefficient commu- -ganizations, had drafted a nal properties. rm of the nation's agrarian The idea that the indigenous people are Ecuador's the legislature for consid- "new landlords" is absurd. The most fertile lands in the posal, drafted over a peri- Ecuadorian countryside remain concentrated in the outcome of an elaborate hands of a small group of large landowners, and many ith CONAIE's grassroots of those lands remain idle and unproductive. "This will nous communities as well become a serious social problem for indigenous com- ,s and farmers. CONAIE's munities, cooperatives and agriculturalists," says Luis 28NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 28REPORT ON INDIGENOUS MOVEMENTS Macas, president of CONAIE. "By submitting these lands to the market forces of supply and demand, those who have little money will sell their small parcels, and those who have more money will begin to buy up all the land. As a result, the number of rural people who migrate to the city will increase significantly, and the misery in the shantytowns will also increase."' Dividing up communal lands and putting them up for sale is, in reality, a legal dispossession of indigenous land, a kind of counter-agrarian reform reminiscent of colonial times. The law would have led to an even greater concentration of land in few hands, and the pro- liferation of small private landholdings. It was also an unabashed attempt to destroy the principle of communal solidarity, the foundation of the indigenous worldview. In the end, the fragmenta- tion of communal lands would threaten the very existence of indigenous The Dur~in communities. The law also granted administration conditional credit for qual- ified agriculturalists. To believed it could qualify for the money, get away with however, the farmer was required to receive training imposing its by a private agency that knew little about tradition- al forms of cultivation and Agrarian management of highland soil, or the integral use of Development Law resources. These are not without any sort just agricultural tech- niques-they are a funda- of national mental part of the indige- nous worldview. Previous debate. attempts to "reform" the agricultural sector from the outside did not obtain any long-lasting benefits either in terms of increasing agricultural productivity or reduc- ing rural poverty precisely because they did not take into account indigenous knowledge about the environ- ment. "In order to propose strategies to attack the social and ecological crisis:' states one study, "it is imperative to begin with the supposition that the social agents, in this case the popular sectors of the countryside, are in general both knowledgeable and able administrators of their own resources." The way the law defined who was a qualified agriculturalist would have actually prevent- ed indigenous people and campesinos from obtaining credit. The Agrarian Development Law also included an extremely controversial provision that would have pri- vatized the public water supply. The Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INERHI), a government agency, currently regulates concessions regarding water usage. Many landowners were trying to assert their control over the water supply. This was an especially impor- tant issue for landowners who grow flowers for export since flowers require an extraordinary amount of irri- gation. "INERHI should focus on providing the water," said one landowner, "and the water itself should become a negotiable product." 2 The effort to put water under the dominion of the market caused tremendous commotion among Ecuador's indigenous and rural sectors, who argue that water is a natural, public resource. The underlying premise of proposals such as the Agrarian Development Law is that indigenous and campesino agriculture cannot be profitable given the small size of their parcels and the subsistence nature of their agriculture. This, however, overlooks several advantages of this sector. The mutual coexistence of an exchange-based subsistence economy and a money- based economy has facilitated the survival of the indigenous-campesino sector in times of economic cri- sis. This sector also has a high degree of technical and organizational flexibility, which allows it to produce a variety of products. The coexistence of a communal land system with individually- and family-owned small parcels allows us to maintain our values of solidarity and community participation, while permitting individ- ual initiatives. Moreover, indigenous and campesino communities provide 70% of Ecuador's main staples, such as corn, potatoes and barley, despite the fact that the land is of relatively poor quality. "The products that feed the majority of Ecuadorians are produced by small landowners (under 25 acres)":' says CONAIE president Macas. "If the indigenous people and campesinos, who are the primary owners of these small parcels, sell their land, there will be a huge food shortage, which will result in price speculation and price increases. The gov- ernment is apparently not concerned with these prob- lems." 3 If the government implemented policies that developed the potential of the indigenous-campesino sector, food security for all Ecuadorians could be guar- anteed and agricultural production for export could be stimulated. Since the Durnin administration assumed power in 1992, it has tried to minimize, demobilize and destroy the indigenous movement. Government authorities have not hesitated to lash out against indige- nous leaders in a blatant attempt to delegitimize them. Arrogant in the face of the severe weakness of the labor movement and certain that its tactics would also weak- en the indigenous movement, the Durdin government believed that it could get away with imposing its Agrarian Development Law without any sort of nation- al debate. The response of the indigenous movement was imme- diate. Before the bill was signed into law by the Presi- dent, CONAIE, along with the National Ecuadorian Federation of Campesino and Indigenous Organizations (FENOC-I), and the Evangelical Federation of Indigenous Ecuadorians (EFIE), convened an emer- gency assembly in June to prepare for a national "Mobi- lization for Life" in protest. The mobilization's central objective was the repeal of the Agrarian Development Law, though its leaders also called for a halt to unre- strained oil exploration in the Oriente and to the perse- cution of indigenous leaders. Over 3,500 indigenous The indigenous movement's central demand is the reform of the Constitution to recognize Ecuador as a plurinational state. communities representing all of Ecuador's indigenous nationalities participated in the mobilization. Regional federations representing communities from the high- lands and coastal areas joined with groups repre- senting lowland communi- ties in the Amazon. Campe- sino groups, small farmers, trade unions, popular orga- nizations and other progres- sive groups joined the mobi- lization. An impressive array of international human rights and environmental groups offered their support as well. After its attempts to quell the mobilization by violent means failed, the government finally agreed to negotiate the terms of the law with the indigenous organizations. The Catholic Church mediated the negotiations. Delegates from the Indigenous Initiative for Peace, an organization founded by Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchd, and the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Institute for Human Rights, helped monitor the process. A commission was established to debate proposed reforms to the Agrarian Development Law. The indige- nous organizations demanded that the negotiation process be broadcast without interruption on the radio to ensure both the transparency of the dialogue and the government's serious consideration of the indigenous proposals. The radio broadcast also helped stamp out rumors propagated by some sectors of government that "the indigenous leaders sold out" and that "the leaders are tricking the people, they haven't even read the law." 4 The negotiation process was extremely difficult for the indigenous movement, which had the weaker hand. As sociologist Alejandro Moreano observed: "the Indians had to negotiate with the Damocles' sword of the approved law and the power of the state over their heads." The persistence of colonialist mentalities pro- hibited the country's elite from really considering the proposals set forth by the indigenous movement. Racist comments against the indigenous people were constant- ly batted around by the government to mobilize public opinion against the indigenous cause. "I do not know if it is ignorance or premeditated, but the government fails to see the historical anguish that is the basis of the indigenous peoples' actions," wrote the journalist Javier Ponce Cevallos in the Quito daily Hoy. "The govern- ment prefers to imbue the political debate with its own arrogance in order to hide its incapacity to understand the historic dimensions of these problems.... The coun- try does not want to discuss its most profound dramas." One of the key conceptual points conceded by the government was that the process of agrarian reform had not terminated, and that the redistribution of land-- especially the most fertile land that remains in the same few hands as always-was an ongoing necessity. In addition, the government agreed that the communal lands would not be divided up and sold. The government also expressly recognized the diver- sity of actors in the rural sector, and the state's obliga- tion to respect their cultures, forms of organizing, and technologies. The government promised to fund train- ing workshops and other efforts by indigenous organi- zations to improve productivity in the indigenous- campesino sector. The article in the law regarding the privatization of water was also completely modified. The government agreed to recognize water as an essen- tial public resource that cannot be privatized. Little was gained, however, regarding the issue of land expropriation. While the law now formally recognizes demographic pres- sures as one of the reasons why land is taken over, the practical value of this change is unclear. Much will depend on the strength of indigenous and campesino organizations to make it a reality. Building upon the organizational develop- ment that has been achieved thus far, the indigenous movement is trying to formulate an alternative project to defend our commu- nities against the dangers presented by the neoliberal model. Our demands are not based only on immediate economic con- cerns. Nor do we object only to the state's administrative apparatus. We are demanding that the government recognize the different )test the indigenous nationalities that exist in Ecuador. We are questioning the very con- cept of an "Ecuadorian Nation" at the same time that we question the model of capitalist develop- ment that sustains it economically and the "civilizing project" based on material progress and individualism that sustains it culturally. In essence, we are question- ing the ongoing exclusion of our collective rights as peoples. We are conscious that we are an essential part of the country, and that we possess a substantial part of the human potential as well as productive resources of Ecuador. Our true capacities have, however, often been neutralized by the context of domination in which we have subsisted for 500 years. The nationwide indigenous uprisings of 1990 and 1994, as well as more regional actions such as the March of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza in 1992, have helped indigenous people reaffirm our identity realize our limits, and develop our proposals. The uprisings also illustrate that our demands go beyond a concern for agrarian issues. The movement is focusing on the historic necessity of changing the rules of the political game: how resources are distributed, how the state is structured, and how policies are formed. Because we are not the only sector of society that has been marginalized, we have found important allies in our struggle among non-indigenous people. As one observer suggests, "there are many reasons to believe that at the heart of the present crisis of civiliza- tion, the hour of indigenous people has arrived. Their presence as historic subjects is undoubtedly one of the greatest events of this century, with tremendous import for the future." Ecuador: Taking on the Neoliberal Agenda 1. Hoy (Quito), May 9, 1994. 2. Hoy (Quito), May 9, 1994. 3. El Universo (Quito), June 21, 1994. 4. Hoy (Quito), May 9, 1994.

Tags: Ecuador, indigenous movement, neoliberalism, protests, CONAIE

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