Ecuador: Taking On the Neoliberal Agenda

September 25, 2007

By linking the
demands of
Ecuador's indigenous
population and
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
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
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
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
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
central demand
is the reform of
the Constitution
to recognize
Ecuador as a
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
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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