Ecuador’s Amazonian Indian confederation faces varied threats

Approximately 100 representatives of Ecuador’s Amazonian Indian nations recently gathered in the community of Union Base, near the southeastern town of Puyo, to celebrate the inauguration of new leadership for the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE).

The ceremony was held in Spanish and several Native languages as leaders took oaths while clutching a spear and drank chicha de yuca, a beverage made from the rainforest tuber cassava, after which they enjoyed traditional dances and music. The mood was festive, but the speeches and conversations soon turned to the challenges their people face, and the recent violence between police and their indigenous brothers in the neighboring country of Peru.

“I want to stress to you that we need be vigilant. The enemy is very close,” said Ines Shiguango, CONFENIAE’s incoming vice president. Shiguango, a Kichwa Indian, explained that the Ecuadorian government’s promotion of mining, oil exploitation and hydroelectric projects in the Amazon threatens indigenous lands and natural resources.

“The spirit of our ancestors is present in all of our nations, and in the common idea that we need to defend our territory – our territory is not for sale. Our territory is protected by all of our nations, because we are part of our territory.”

Various participants noted that the inauguration marked a resurgence of CONFENIAE, which suffered a crisis of leadership during the first half of the decade. Founded in 1980, the organization led a series of major protests and negotiations during the ’90s that pushed the Ecuadorian government to legalize vast indigenous territories in the Amazon lowlands.

But in 2003, several CONFENIAE directors joined the government of President Lucio Gutierrez, which caused deep divisions among the 13 indigenous federations and organizations it represents. After Gutierrez was forced from power by popular protests in 2005, those leaders squandered CONFENIAE funds, leaving the organization broke and debilitated.

Incoming president Tito Puanchir, a Shuar Indian, said CONFENIAE’s leaders would never again form political alliances. Instead, he intends to establish a dialogue with the current administration, and wants to avoid the kind of confrontations that led to the deaths of indigenous protesters and police officers in Peru in June.

He hopes to present the government with a proposal for the autonomy of indigenous territories, noting that the country’s new constitution provides an opportunity for greater self-determination.

Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa has overseen the drafting of a constitution that recognizes Ecuador as a “pluri-national state “ – a reference to the country’s 13 indigenous and afro-Ecuadorean minorities, who constitute more than one-third of its population. That constitution also enshrines the rights of nature, but since its approval, Correa has opened the door to oil exploration and mining on or near indigenous land.

Named for the equator that bisects it, Ecuador is a geographically and culturally diverse nation rich in natural resources. In an area smaller than the state of Nevada, it holds such varied landscapes as the Andes Mountains, the Galapagos Islands and a corner of the Amazon Basin. Its lush Amazon lowlands are home to eight indigenous groups, as well as 500,000 non-indigenous colonists who have moved into the region during the past 50 years to establish farms, or work in the oil industry.

The Amazon region was almost solely indigenous territory until the 1970s, when Texaco began drilling wells in its northern half and built a pipeline to connect those oil fields to a Pacific port.

The company drilled hundreds of wells and dumped billions of gallons of petrol-tainted water and other waste into rivers and open pits before selling its operations to the Ecuadorian government in 1992. In a lawsuit currently being heard by an Ecuadorian judge, 30,000 local plaintiffs seek billions of dollars from Chevron, which now owns Texaco, to clean up the environmental damage the company left behind.

According to Esperanza Martínez, Ecuador coordinator for the international environmental group Oilwatch, several other companies are currently extracting oil in the country’s Amazon region and the government has awarded various oil concessions in the southern Amazon, where indigenous organizations have long resisted the industry.

She said the Correa administration is also pushing a mining project in the Cordillera del Condor, in Shuar Indian territory, despite local opposition.

“There are plenty of reasons to say no to oil exploration here,” said former CONFENIAE president Domingo Ankuash, Shuar. He said 40 years of oil extraction in the northern Amazon has hardly benefited the region’s indigenous inhabitants, but all of them have suffered from the pollution caused by oil spills and poor disposal of toxic wastes.

“Eighty percent of the money from oil leaves the country, and most of the 20 percent that stays here is robbed by a few corrupt politicians. What little goes to the municipalities near the oil wells is spent in urban areas, so it doesn’t even reach the (indigenous) communities.”

Ankuash said during the past 50 years, oil companies and colonists from other parts of Ecuador have usurped nearly half the country’s Amazon region. “They say that we (Indians) have a lot of land because we haven’t cut our forests down, so they continue trying to invade what little land we have left.”

Shiguango’s priorities as CONFENIAE vice president are to strengthen ties with the 350 communities the confederation represents to help them defend their lands and natural resources. She said the Amazonian people want better health care and education, but they reject material gains at the cost of environmental degradation.

“The development we want is based on the concept of ‘good living,’ which encompasses our health, clean water, a healthy environment and a strong culture.”

A lawyer and veteran indigenous activist, Shiguango said CONFENIAE has no funds to pay her and the other leaders. Nevertheless, she is proud to be able to serve her people.

“The blood of our ancestors runs through our veins, which is why we defend our territory as they taught us to do.”