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Young president pledges to revive Ecuador’s Indigenous Movement

QUITO, Ecuador – On Jan. 31, 32-year old Marlon Santi was inaugurated President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). Santi wore a traditional feathered cap and stood alongside incoming and outgoing members of the organization’s leadership under the indigenous movement’s multicolored wiphala flag.

The CONAIE, founded in 1986, is one of the most powerful social movements in the Americas. It represents many of Ecuador’s indigenous people, estimated to number up to four million, or about 30 percent of Ecuador’s population. Activists hope that Santi will return the CONAIE, in recent years shaken by internal divisions and political setbacks, to its former strength.

The CONAIE is now organizing against President Rafael Correa’s plans to support large-scale mining and other policies that the organization considers a threat to Ecuador’s indigenous people.

Santi worked as a grassroots leader in the Amazonian territory of Sarayaku before his election and has held no previous national or regional positions. He came of age in the 1980s as an activist struggling against the multinational oil giant Arco. For many, Santi signals a return to grassroots community organizing and an end to the opportunism that has characterized much of the CONAIE’s recent history.

Economist and adviser to the CONAIE Pablo Dávalos said that “Santi’s election shows that the CONAIE is a united, strong and solid organization. It is also a sign of support for the Amazonian organizations’ struggle in defense of their territories and resistance to the oil companies.”

In 1990, the CONAIE burst onto the political scene, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in a massive nation-wide uprising demanding land rights and economic aid. Protesters blocked highways, occupied large estates and effectively immobilized the country for an entire week, forcing the government to make concessions. The CONAIE later took the lead in successful mobilizations to stop a Free Trade Agreement with the United States and, in alliance with junior military officers led by Colonel Lucio Gutierréz, overthrew President Jamil Mahaud in January 2000.

But the formation of Pachakutik, a political party to represent the CONAIE and other Leftist social movements, led to problems later down the road — most seriously, the co-optation of leaders and internal divisions under the Presidency of Gutierréz, elected with the CONAIE’s support after their collaboration during the 2000 uprising. Gutierréz quickly turned on the CONAIE and sought good terms with the U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Given these experiences, Santi emphasizes that its relationship with any government will be more circumspect. “There will be no alliances,” he said. “We in the grassroots didn’t want the CONAIE to form an alliance with the government. They became ministers and subsecretaries. In the long run, Gutierrez used them and then got rid of them — and by that time Gutierrez was very powerful. The bonds of unity had been broken.”

Santi is now busy strengthening the organization’s community bases. He says that the process has been difficult. “We have had to walk in all of the communities, the bases, the federations. This is a 24-hour a day job, a superhuman job, revisiting the bases to spread the message that only through unity can we confront our challenges. “

The CONAIE has had a complicated relationship with Correa, despite his Leftist rhetoric. There have been conflicts over issues such as mining, as well as territorial, cultural and language rights. Pachakutik ran former CONAIE president Luis Macas in the 2006 presidential elections. Macas received only 2 percent of the vote and the organization threw their weight behind Correa in the second round, where he faced a right-wing banana magnate named Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s richest man.

In his campaign, Correa picked up the longtime indigenous movement call for a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution that reflected native demands for territorial rights and for Ecuador to be declared a plurinational state. The Assembly, which began its work in November 2007, addressed a number of issues of importance to the indigenous movement.

Pachakutik Assembly Members teamed up with the Leftist and indigenous Members from Correa’s Alianza País party to push their demands. Santi says that the constitution reflects many of the movement’s demands, including the declaration of a plurinational state. But Pachakutik and their legislative allies failed to include a provision requiring communities’ “prior consent” before mining or oil exploitation activities take place on their land. Correa and his party’s more conservative members joined the traditional right wing in opposing these measures.

The CONAIE and most social movement organizations supported the constitution, which voters overwhelmingly approved in a September national referendum. Santi said, “The indigenous movement supports. ... the constitution because the state is recognizing that Ecuador is a plurinational state. It also promotes the rights of Mother Earth or the Pachamama, and the [indigenous concept of] “good living” or sumak kawsay.”

But the heated rhetoric between the CONAIE and President Correa has only increased in recent weeks and Santi says that the organization is now prepared to take action. “The CONAIE now has mobilizing power. We can organize for any mobilization.” The CONAIE will soon be put to the test. The organization and other social movement groups are planning a national day of action against mining in mid-November.

Daniel Denvir is an independent journalist in Quito, Ecuador, and a 2008 recipient of the North American Congress on Latin America’s Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant. He is the editor in chief of caterwaulquarterly.com.