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Ecuadorian government cracks down on Native leaders

An acrimonious relationship between Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and Native leaders took a turn for the worse in July when the government charged Delfin Tenesaca, Puruha Kichwa and Marlon Santi, Shaur, the presidents of the country’s largest indigenous organizations, with terrorism and sabotage. The charges were filed following a protest outside a summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas June 25 in the Ecuadorian town of Otavalo.

The summit, which was presided by Presidents Correa, Evo Morales, of Bolivia and Hugo Chavez, of Venezuela, was dedicated to the region’s Native and African-American peoples and was attended by many members of those ethnic groups. However, the government declined to invite representatives of the country’s principal Native organizations – the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the Kichwa confederation ECUARUNARI – both of which once supported Correa, but have grown critical of him over the past two years. Their leaders consequently organized a protest outside the summit and attempted to deliver a letter to Morales, but were prevented from entering the summit by the police, which resulted in a shoving match.

“We haven’t acted in a way that we should be accused of anything,” said Tenesaca, president of ECUARUNARI. “The only thing we’ve done is to demand that they respect indigenous people and their organizations.”

Correa, who has governed Ecuador since 2007, is instituting “socialism of the 21st century” in an attempt to improve life for the country’s poor majority. He oversaw the drafting of a new constitution in 2007-2008 that recognizes Ecuador as a “plurinational state” and guarantees the respect of Native peoples’ rights. It also acknowledges the rights of nature and the indigenous concept of “good living,” which includes a healthy environment. Yet since then, Correa has facilitated the expansion of oil exploration in the Amazon basin and large-scale mining and farming to help finance his social programs.

“The principal problem of our ancestral peoples and communities of African descent has been, and continues to be poverty,” Correa said during the summit. “We have to change this in a rapid, revolutionary way; of course, while respecting our plurinationality and cultures.”

According to Santi, the president of CONAIE, many of Correa’s policies and laws that his party has passed go against the spirit of the new constitution and threaten Native rights, which has led to protests. His organization has fought a proposed water law and is demanding that a mining law passed in 2009 be reformed. Santi said that he and Tenesaca are just two of 45 Native activists who have been accused of crimes against the state because of their opposition to mining and other natural resource extraction. Government officials have denied that claim.

“We face charges for being against mining and the extraction of natural resources and for asking the government to stop being so racist,” Santi said.

Correa has accused Santi of being an extremist who is destroying CONAIE and has called upon the organization to elect a new leader. During an address to the nation July 10, Correa claimed that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are fomenting Native protests and threatened to expel, or shut down organizations that influence the politics of the indigenous movement.

“How many of these NGOs belong to gringuitos (little gringos) and Europeans who give money to the Indians and make them say things that aren’t part of their reality?” Correa asked.

Santi denied the accusation. “The indigenous movement has been organized for more than 30 years and has been resisting for 500 years. This is false information that the president is giving to all the citizens.”

Cecilia Cherrez, president of Accion Ecologica, an Ecuadorian organization that has joined Native groups in protesting laws and projects that threaten the environment, or rural communities, said Correa’s anti-NGO stance is nothing new. She explained that in March of 2008, the president signed Executive Decree 982, which allows the government to shut down organizations that compromise national interests, or security. One year later, the government revoked Accion Ecologica’s legal status, but after six months of national and international condemnation, it provided the organization with new papers.

“Both ecologists and indigenous peoples are questioning the very foundations of the development model that Rafael Correa is proposing,” said Cherrez, who explained that this had made them enemies of the current administration. She criticized the government for granting oil and mining concessions to foreign companies with little regard for the impact on the environment and rural communities.

“We indigenous peoples are tired of governments selling our territories, the places where we live, to transnational companies,” Santi said. “This is a model that all governments have promoted and it is a lie because the riches of our subsoil are taken by the world’s economic powers and all that the Native people here get is poverty.”