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Ecuador – Andean watch A presidential candidate, a U.S. oil company eviction and the peoples’ continuing struggles

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QUITO, Ecuador – From late April to early June, news involving indigenous communities and individuals appeared almost daily in the major Ecuadorian newspapers. The two biggest stories dealt with the national and international consequences of opposition to a free trade deal with the United States and a related problem with a North American oil company (massive Native-lead protests against the free trade agreement had shut down the country in March); and along the way, the country’s largest indigenous political party nominated one of its own to run for president in October.

Other situations such as violent conflicts, some accords between illegal loggers and indigenous communities, a Native shaman participating in the preparations for Ecuador’s run in the World Cup and miscellaneous stories received coverage on a weekly basis. But the big ones revolved around oil, protests and the United States.

The two largest daily papers in the capital city of Quito, El Comercio and La Hora, as well as the biggest newspaper in the other large city of Guayaquil, El Universo, ran a variety of pieces involving Native players and issues.

The first and most controversial story – the one with the widest ramifications – involved the eviction of a huge U.S. oil firm from Ecuador and the subsequent suspension of free trade talks by the Bush administration in what most Ecuadorians see as retaliation for the prior action.

By the last week of April, Ecuadorian authorities had already lodged complaints with Occidental Petroleum for what the officials claim were illegal financial activities on the part of Occidental, known as “Oxy” in Ecuador, which potentially could invalidate the contract between the country and the oil company.

Roots of the controversy stretch back to November 2000, when Occidental and City Investing transferred 40 percent of its economic interests in the company to EnCana of Canada.

According to Ecuadorian officials, this transfer required prior authorization from the government. Oxy rejected this argument and the fight continued for another five years.

Late April was also when Ecuador passed their Hydrocarbons Law, which compels foreign oil companies to pay 50 percent of their profits on crude oil to the government, and saw the introduction of new environmental and human rights requirements for foreign oil companies operating in the country.

Among these new regulations were laws protecting the lands of indigenous peoples as well as obliging these same companies to prevent anyone from entering the specially protected areas known as the “untouchable zones,” which include the home areas of tribal peoples who have no contact with the outside world.

These special laws were also adopted by Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela as part of the Amazon Treaty of Cooperation.

Within days of its passage, U.S. trade representatives made it clear that free trade talks would not resume until Ecuador repealed the Hydrocarbon Act.

From that point on, there were several stories in May where there “appeared to be openings” to resuming the free trade discussions according to statements made by a variety of Ecuadorian ministers and spokesmen.

Ecuadorian President Alfredo Palacio made several public statements about wanting to “set a date to restart” negotiations.

Popular opposition to restarting the talks was also made very clear. Among the first to react were leaders from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and Pachakutik, the country’s largest indigenous political organization.

Protests sprang up in communities all over the country, including many Native areas. Some protesters made pilgrimages to the capitol while others made speeches and wrote essays, many of which asserted that opposition to the proposed free trade agreement was based on Ecuador’s desire to retain its sovereignty after seeing how multinational companies were allowed to ignore the laws of many other nations that had signed similar treaties.

Ecuador Attorney General Jose Maria Borja then announced that Oxy would be allowed some further legal maneuvering, prompting CONAIE President Luis Macas and representatives from two leftist parties to file a lawsuit demanding that the high court sit in as official observer to any negotiations between Borja and Oxy. But in a few weeks, the issue became moot.

On May 16, the government announced that the contract with Oxy had “expired.” Indigenous and leftist leaders heralded the news as being a “triumph of the struggle against the empire.” Humberto Cholango, director of the large Quechua organization known as Ecuarunari, stated that this was an achievement “of the March mobilization” when thousands of Native activists paralyzed the highways during 13 days of protest against Oxy and the free trade pact. “In the international context,” he continued, “the nationalization of hydrocarbons in Bolivia, the progress of the Bolivarian project of President Hugo Chavez and the expiration of the Oxy contract are all part of the new winds blowing across Latin America.”

Macas added, “The indigenous movement will not cease in its struggle to close the negotiation of this treaty that is so prejudicial against our country.”

Both Macas and Cholango were also important participants in the organizing process leading up to this fall’s presidential election.

On April 30, Pachakutik – which has five of its members in the National Congress as well as dozens of mayors and provincial officials across the country – announces its tentative support of leftist candidate Rafael Correa of the Alianza Pais movement.

Some leaders within Pachakutik were reserving their support in the beginning; unattributed quotes appeared stating that certain people were afraid of a repeat of the disastrous decision to back now-disgraced former President Lucio Gutierrez.

Macas had been Gutierrez’s Minister of Agriculture for a time before he resigned in protest to the serious problems he was seeing in that administration.

Another powerhouse within the movement, Mayor Auki Tituana, of the town of Cotacahi, clearly voiced his opposition to Correa (who also had been Gutierrez’s minister of the economy).

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Tituana even said, in the beginning of May, that “I will accept being a presidential candidate always and only when the conditions are right and the first condition is that there be unity.”

Within days of those comments, Pachakutik spokesmen announced that they would not be supporting Correa and that they were considering three candidates from within: Macas, Auki Tituana and Julio Cesar Trujillo.

For the next few weeks different stories appeared noting agreements between Correa and other groups with the Pachakutik Congress, as well as rumors of Correa naming an indigenous candidate as his running mate.

Correa also asserted that the left needed to stay united, as the CIA had already started to work with the smaller but well-funded Ecuadorian right-wing groups. He also pointed out that “Luis Macas and others in the movement are old friends of mine.”

All three candidates appeared in news stories in the ensuing weeks. Macas, as president of CONAIE, released a press statement urging Ecuadorians to look to Bolivian President Evo Morales as “a great example we all should follow”; this came on the heels of news about the land reform program Morales was implementing throughout his country.

The last three weeks of May featured many stories that required comments from the Pachakutik candidates. Arguably, the biggest story involved allegations of a massacre of 30 to 40 Taromenani people in the Pastaza province in the southeastern part of the country abutting part of the giant Amazon rain forest.

At this point the official investigation had begun, spearheaded by two of Palacio’s cabinet. The larger Huaorani ethnicity had some limited contact with the Taromenani who, as a rule, lived apart and away from mainstream Ecuador. Huaorani spokesmen asserted that they and other allies in the environmental movement were attempting an investigation of their own.

Marcello Orellana, a leader of the Ecological Action organization, also announced he was presenting this information and many other accounts of attacks and slaughters to the visiting representative from the United Nations.

Government spokesmen then announced that they had found no evidence of a massacre. Native leaders asserted they would continue with their inquiries, but stories involving conflicts and unusual agreements appeared all throughout the season, several of which included different Huaorani communities.

Possibly the least-publicized one appeared in late April, when military officials announced the death of one and hospitalization of another logger operating illegally in the Amazon forest; both men suffered from “lance or spear” wounds.

Another story featured the comments of a local Huaorani leader in the border area of Orellana in the very large Yasuni National Park.

Manuel Cahuiya is a sort of guardian of the river in his area and he made no apologies for his relationships with the timber companies. “We don’t want the military to come, nor the environmentalists, nor the Huaorani officials, nor the priests – none of them. This is my river. I authorize the loggers to take wood from this forest. They give us money and food. Only I authorize. The state gives us nothing. The loggers pay us so we can eat. For this reason, I defend them.”

Other members of the Huaorani decried his position and noted that he was being grossly underpaid for the timber. While Cahuiya’s stance is different from many Huaorani, who are famous for conflicts with loggers and oil company employees, he is not alone. On the other side of the country, along the northeastern border with Colombia, a story appeared chronicling the desperate situation of a group of Awa people who, due to extreme circumstances, had to sell lumber to survive.

For many generations the Awa had been farmers and hunters, but that had changed recently. The main figure in the Awa article, Juvencio Nastacuas, expressed a sentiment similar to that of the assertive Cahuiya but sadder: “Before, in the forest, there was very little sickness; now with the dirty water, we get sick more often. If we don’t have anything, we will have to exploit what is ours.”

Along with the stories of desperation and struggle, including a piece in June describing the thousands of indigenous Colombian refugees fleeing the devastation in their country, there was another positive story. On May 25, Pachacutik spokesmen announced the nomination of Macas for president. Macas had the support of hundreds of thousands of indigenous members and large numbers of other left/progressive groups as well.

In an interview soon after the announcement, Macas explained part of his platform: “It will include themes such as the free trade treaty, which has not been fully defined or explained; the Oxy situation, which has not been worked out either because the company has filed a lawsuit against Ecuador claiming that the expiration of the contract amounted to theft; also, we want to establish a process for a constituent assembly, not only to revise the institution but to construct a pluralistic state, one that covers everyone, that permits us to achieve a radical change, a structural change in the Ecuadorian state.”

From late May through mid-June, one main story dominated Ecuadorian news: the World Cup. Leading up to the series, the Ecuadorian government mounted what they called a “cultural offensive” to entice European tourists.

Part of the group, which included folkloric dance troupes, different musical groups and Miss Ecuador 2006, was Tzamarenda Naychapi, who was described as a Shoar shaman. Naychapi conducted public purification rituals in each of the stadiums slated for use in the series.

The second-largest story involved the June 13 meeting in Quito of the Andean Community of Nations, known by its Spanish acronym of CAN, which includes Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. In April, soon after the nomination of Morales to become the new CAN president, his colleague, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, pulled his country out of the group due to Peru and Colombia’s signing free trade treaties with the United States.

Palacio had called Chavez by phone on a number of occasions to try and get him to attend, similarly, in a preceding summit in Vienna, Austria, Morales spoke with Chavez about attending, also, to no avail.

On his first day in Quito, Morales attended a special honoring ceremony hosted by leaders of CONAIE and ECUARUNARI where the assembled announced they were nominating Morales for a Nobel Peace Prize.

From that event Morales went on to the business of trying to keep the CAN together, and looking for more trade deals similar to the ones just brokered between Ecuador and Venezuela, where Venezuela would process some of Ecuador’s crude oil as part of the effort to develop replacement partners for Oxy.

One final note in the miscellaneous category: it was announced in the third week of June that Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, “Don Quixote,” had been translated into Quechua and a distribution deal was being worked out.

Some of the articles, however, covered ongoing issues in this Andean nation where more than half of the population can claim indigenous heritage.