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Ecuador votes for a new constitution

QUITO, Ecuador – More than 64 percent of Ecuadorians voted to accept a new constitution Sept. 28; and while the new law brings some changes welcomed by indigenous leaders, their support was only partial. Serious problems exist between Native communities and the government of President Rafael Correa on a number of issues, but the news for progressives in Ecuador was considered positive.

According to poll observers, this latest election was conducted peacefully and the 10 million voters who went to the polls sent a strong message of support for Ecuador’s 20th constitution since 1860. The new constitution, drafted by Correa and his allies in the newly formed Constituent Assembly, contained 444 articles that, among other things, enact the following:

• prohibition of discrimination and of the privatization of water;

• official recognition of indigenous communities and their administrations;

• universal health care;

• free education up until the university level;

• pensions for stay-at-home mothers;

• a continuation of the rights of private property while also allowing the government to seize fallow, unused lands;

• renewed negotiations of contracts with big mining and oil companies for increased funding to go back to the state;

• gay couples’ rights to civil unions; and

• increased emphasis on environmental protection.

The constitution’s articles that specifically address environmental issues show the strong influence of the indigenous movement in Ecuador.

In the chapter titled “Rights for Nature,” Article 1 states the following: “Nature or Pachamama [a Quechua word meaning Mother Earth], where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

In the section immediately following are provisions that encourage legal action against polluters by giving more people legal standing in such cases: “Every person, people, community or nationality will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public organisms.”

Article 2 states: “In the cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including the ones caused by the exploitation on nonrenewable natural resources, the state will establish the most efficient mechanisms for the restoration and will adopt the adequate measures to eliminate or mitigate the harmful environmental consequences.”

These environmental measures were among the items supported by indigenous leaders such as Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Kichwa (Quechua) People of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI), an organization that represents millions of Quechua-speaking people in the country.

“For us, the land is the fundamental basis,” he explained in press statements after the passage, in relation to the constitution’s mining mandate section. “The assembly took the decision to return those concessions. … The mining mandate is an important step towards returning the lands to the country and to renegotiate with the businesses.”

But for Cholango and some of the other indigenous leaders of the larger entities, the mining mandate and the environmental protections did not go far enough and the constitution did not address many significant goals of the movement, including those that were points of significant conflict with Correa.

“But our final objective is the nationalization of the mining and oil industries in Ecuador,” he continued. “We want to make this very clear: we are not against investment or development; sometimes we need investment … but an investment that respects the country, so that the people and the communities are not affected, and without it becoming a master-servant relationship, such as it has been up to now.”

Three other points of conflict between the government and Native communities involve control of territory, prior consultation with communities by businesses seeking to develop projects within indigenous lands, and plurinational recognition – all of which were sought by indigenous advocates in the assembly and elsewhere.

In interviews given the week after the vote, Marlon Santi, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), addressed these problems and others.

“In the constitution, there appears, for example, circumscriptions of indigenous territories but not the control of the ancestral territories or the natural resources in them. Now, it’s even worse in that we don’t have the right to be consulted and to decide the destiny of our territory. It [the constitution] recognizes the nationalities of the communities, their political and administrative structures, but it doesn’t recognize the application of these powers in the area of territory.”

Santi emphasized the importance to Native peoples of the absence of prior consultation rights in the constitution; these rights are granted by the U.N.’s Convention 169 (and this law is also being cited in the ongoing struggle in Peru).

“It was over this issue that we ended our dialogue with the national government,” he said. “The idea of prior consultation was in the Constituent Assembly, but at the end they eliminated it and they included an article of which we knew nothing. In the U.N.’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 this point appears, but this constitution contradicts it.”

Santi and other leaders have noted that problems involving mining extraction and the lack of recognition of a plurinational state are major issues that have not been resolved. They also reiterated that they did support the “yes” vote for the constitution, but not Correa. The onetime ally of indigenous people at one point called the movement’s objections to his proposals “indigenous infantilism” and at another juncture scoffed at Native political power by noting that their former presidential candidate, Luis Macas, only received 2 percent of the vote in the election.

But Santi of CONAIE asserted that the movement still has strong organizing skills and power.

“On last March 11 we convened a march and we took the city [Quito]. The government saw the indigenous movement is growing anew and that it has the capacity to paralyze the country if the Correa government starts to act like the old governments. … The bases are solid.”

In light of the remaining conflicts, members of CONAIE, ECUARUNARI and other large indigenous organizations planned to meet in Cuenca in October to make decisions regarding these issues.