For Ecuador’s indigenous nations: A new constitution and familiar problems

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Decades of activism by Ecuador’s indigenous peoples have earned them considerable political power, and last year the government approved a constitution that incorporates many of the rights and concepts they long demanded. Yet, some indigenous leaders complain that little has changed in practice and that their people face the same threats they did under previous governments.

Ecuador’s current constitution, which was drafted by an assembly that included ample indigenous representation, was approved by popular vote in September 2008. It was a project of President Rafael Correa, a socialist allied with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and whose País Party dominated the constitutional assembly that produced the document.

The new constitution strengthens government control of the economy, but also recognizes the rights of nature and states that Ecuador is a “pluri-national state” composed of various ethnic groups, which should open the door for greater indigenous participation.

But according to Luis Yampis, a Shuar Indian and one of the directors of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the new constitution has done little to change the government’s relationship with indigenous peoples. He complained that delegates from the País Party overruled most of CONAIE’s proposals to the constitutional assembly and that the Correa administration has since approved oil and mining concessions on or near indigenous land without proper consultation.

“The government should consult with the leaders of our indigenous organizations, but instead they want to choose certain people with whom to negotiate,” Yampis said. “We don’t want the recognition of a pluri-national state to be nothing more than words on paper. We demand that the government fulfill that promise. We demand our right to prior consultation.”

Ecuador, which comprises parts of South America’s Pacific Coast, Andes Mountains and Amazon Rainforest, is home to more than a dozen indigenous nations that constitute between 20 and 40 percent of the country’s population. Those ethnicities include a Kichwa-speaking majority, who are descendents of peoples who formed part of the Incan empire five centuries ago, the Awa and Chachi, who are related to tribes in Colombia’s Pacific lowlands, and various Amazonian ethnicities related to the Jibaro and other peoples in Peru. The country’s population of more than 14 million also includes a small Afro-Ecuadorian minority, the descendents of colonists from Spain and other European nations and a mestizo majority with a mix of indigenous and European heritage.

CONAIE, Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, has traditionally allied itself with unions, farmers groups and leftist parties to pressure the government to repeal laws it opposed, or to force unpopular presidents from power. In recent decades, CONAIE has led massive protests that shut down the Ecuadorian capital of Quito and forced three presidents to resign.

In 1996, CONAIE created the political party Pachakutik, which has won various mayoral and congressional races. But in recent years, many indigenous and labor leaders have joined Correa’s País movement, which has diminished CONAIE’s political power.

Yampis complained that while Correa celebrates Ecuador’s ethnic diversity, his administration has weakened intercultural health and bilingual education programs that indigenous leaders spent years fighting for.

Dr. Rosa Alvarado, an Amazonian Kichwa and vice president of the international Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, noted that while the Correa administration has improved rural health care in much of the country, it has done a poor job in the Amazon region, where it abandoned an intercultural health program she helped create. Alvarado, a public health specialist, said the intercultural system combines Western and indigenous medicine, and uses local health promoters to provide care in remote communities.

“The current administration wants just one health system and one education system.”

Yampis said Amazon indigenous communities are threatened by illegal logging, hydroelectric projects that could reduce the flow of the rivers they depend on, and exploitation of new oil concessions.

He said CONAIE opposes a new mining law and a proposed gold mine in the Cordillera del Condor, a mountain range along the border between Ecuador and Peru that holds the headwaters of rivers Shuar communities depend on.

According to Esperanza Martinez, Ecuador coordinator for the international environmental group Oil Watch, indigenous leaders have legitimate concerns. She said Correa is trying to move Ecuador away from its dependence on oil exports, which account for more than one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, but in order to finance economic diversification, he wants to exploit new oil reserves. She said there are 20 oil concessions in the country’s Amazon region, most of which overlap indigenous territories.

Yampis said one of CONAIE’s priorities is the consolidation of indigenous territories, noting that the government has given title to colonists who invaded indigenous lands, but has resisted indigenous demands for collective title.

Ecuador’s Amazonian indigenous groups won legal recognition of vast territories through a series of marches, road blockades and other protests in the 1980s and 1990s, but according to Yampis, much of their ancestral territory has yet to be titled.

“This government doesn’t want to legalize our communal lands. We are demanding the legalization of indigenous territories, as is guaranteed by the constitution.”

CONAIE is formulating a series of proposals for the government, including measures for autonomy of indigenous territories. Yampis said if the Correa administration doesn’t respond, CONAIE may organize national protests.

Though Alvarado echoed Yampis’ concerns, she expressed hope that the country’s indigenous organizations can take advantage of the new constitution to lobby for laws and development models that respond to their needs. “The advantage of the new constitution is that it respects our rights and our cosmovision; so it can be seen as an opportunity to propose projects to the government.”

Angel Medina, a Saraguro Kichwa leader Correa appointed executive secretary of the Development Council of the Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador, said the constitution’s recognition of a pluri-national state is a result of decades of organizing and protests. He said it opens the door for indigenous organizations to propose mechanisms to make the government more inclusive.

“We have won rights, but we haven’t abandoned our struggle. We demanded the recognition of a pluri-national state, and it is now up to us to decide what needs to be done to make the pluri-national state a reality. We need to fight to make ourselves part of this state.”