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Indigenous languages added to new Ecuadorian constitution

QUITO, Ecuador – Ecuador could soon become the fourth country in the Western Hemisphere to have indigenous languages included in the list of the nation’s official languages.

In late July, the National Constituent Assembly – the political entity that is writing what could become the country’s new constitution – decided to include Quechua and Shuar, along with Spanish, as official languages. The proposed constitution will be put to a national vote Sept. 28.

Originally, assembly members had only listed Spanish in the first draft of that section of the constitution. This exclusion provoked a quick reaction from indigenous participants and their allies.

Activists from two of the largest indigenous organizations, Ecuarunari and the Confederation of Quechua people of Ecuador, called the move racist as well as incongruous for an effort that purports to create a plurinational state. After stating their objections, assembly member Pedro de la Cruz then introduced the amended proposition to include Quechua and Shuar. The initiative passed by a vote of 90 to 40.

The revised language section now reads: “Spanish is the official language of Ecuador; Spanish, Quechua and Shuar are official languages of intercultural relation. The rest of the ancestral languages are of official use for the indigenous peoples in the zones where they live and in terms fixed by the law. The state will respect this and its conservation and use.”

In the week following the amendment’s passage, Ecuarunari convened a special assembly meeting, bringing together more than 500 leaders that included representatives of 15 indigenous communities as well as people of African descent. Participants drafted a series of resolutions and amendments, most of which dealt with the new constitution and their conflicts with Ecuador President Rafael Correa.

In the section titled “Organizational, Social and International,” Ecuarunari voted to “promote the use of the Quechua and Shuar idioms and other indigenous languages, in the written as well as spoken form, in educational centers, public entities and other community spaces as a means of implementation of plurinationality.”

While activists had to advocate the placement of Quechua into an officially protected category, its presence in Ecuador and all of Latin America is significant. Quechua was the official language of the Incan Empire, when it was one of more than 1,750 indigenous idioms spoken by Native peoples. Approximately 700 indigenous languages are currently spoken on the continent.

Of the 8.5 million Quechua speakers in contemporary Latin America, 2.3 million of them are in Ecuador, where the need for Spanish-Quechua translators is growing; whereas Shuar is spoken by about 30,000 people in Ecuador and 20,000 in Peru.

Quechua is also one of the official languages of Peru and Bolivia. Both of these countries have Spanish as the other official idiom. The official languages of Paraguay are Guarani and Spanish.