By Fernando Arce

ECUADOR – In 1990, almost 80,000 people flooded the streets of Chimborazo, a central Andes province in Ecuador, in one of the most popular indigenous uprisings of that country. It was called by one of the country’s five main umbrella indigenous organizations, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, by its Spanish acronym.

The rest of the 1990s and the first half of the next decade would see four more such uprisings, with CONAIE at the helm of each.

Indeed, many consider the Ecuadorian indigenous movement to be one of the strongest in South America.

The movement and its demands have matured over the years, but has retained two overarching demands: the recognition of Ecuador as a Plurinational State, and control over traditional territories without government interference.

In 2008, indigenous people celebrated a victory (at least on paper) when the constitution, amended that same year with 64 per cent of approval, reflected those demands. The new document now recognizes Ecuador as a plurinational state, as well as “Castillian, Kichwa and Shuar (as) official languages of intercultural relations,” plus 20 other native tongues which the “state will respect and encourage.”

However, the relationship between some of CONAIE’s leaders and the government has soured, with rifts appearing from around March 2015.

Some of CONAIE’s leaders have been accused of aligning themselves with right-wing opposition parties sharing some of their discontents, and of leading demonstrations against the government.

But not all of its member-organizations agree, with most supporting the idea of holding an open dialogue with the government instead.

An uprising, they say, is nothing to be toyed with.

UPRISINGS ARE ‘A LAST RESORT’

Ecuador is home to about 16 million people, 72 per cent of whom are of mixed European and Native American descent, according to the CIA Factbook. About seven per cent retain pure native blood, though CONAIE estimates that number is actually closer to 20-30 per cent.

At the apex of that organization’s militant prowess in the ’90s, when it called for an uprising, it meant as many as tens or even hundreds of thousands of people could show up.

Miguel Lluco, CONAIE’s former president and coordinator of land conflicts, remembers that time well.

“Eighty-thousand people in Chimborazo (province) came out of their communities and went towards the rest of the cities and towns,” he said in Spanish in a phone interview. “And we were able to articulate 72 land-conflicts which were not being looked after by the authorities.”

However, he said of the current strife, it is still too early for an uprising.

“An uprising is the highest form of resistance of indigenous peoples, and it mustn’t be used for secondary issues,” he said. “It’s used as a last-resort possibility in the resistance…and that’s why it didn’t have the transcendence they probably had hoped for.”

ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTS DIVIDE MOVEMENT

There are a few sectors protesting against Correa and his leftist government, each with their reasons.

Much of the political right, for instance, has been organizing protests since June against two bills proposing to increase taxes on inheritances and capital gains. The Worker’s United Front, one of Ecuador’s main trade union organizations, are also opposed to new labour regulations and proposed constitutional amendments, including one to abolish re-election limits.

Some leaders in the indigenous movement have also made several demands, though their rallying point appears to be an anti-Correa, anti-government sentiment.

Dr. Carlos Perez, president of Ecuarunari, one of CONAIE’s largest member-organizations in the Southern region, said although they wish to change government, the most important thing is to undo this administration’s “hyper-presidential” constitutional amendments.

“We must get rid of those mechanisms that allow for authoritarianism in this constitution,” he said in Spanish over the phone. “With this document, anyone who comes to power will be corrupted and turned to a tyrant.”

Perez has been one of the main organizers at the helm of the anti-government protests that began on August 2, at the province of Zamora Chinchipe, in the country’s southeast.

Lluco said during the multiple-day-march, he saw no more than 40 people passing through Rio Bamba, the capital of Chimborazo. However, he admits, in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, they joined other demonstrators, which inflated the numbers.

But there have been so many different accounts, from so many different people, journalists and publications, that it has been hard to accurately report from overseas.

Some outlets, for instance, estimate nearly 10,000 people were in Quito.

Perez said the number was closer to 200,000, and insists the protests were peaceful.

“President Correa has the tendency to minimize the number of people who oppose him,” he said, though international media has also reported smaller figures.

“To be able to estimate a number on either side, we must be absolutely ethical so that our word is not devalued.”

Lucho Granados Ceja, a journalist in Ecuador, said the number was actually closer to a few hundred only, and stressed the “riots” were anything but peaceful.

“During the day, you had relatively peaceful protests…but once the sun went down, there was extraordinarily, exceedingly violent protests by this group,” he said over Skype, from Quito. He added that though CONAIE denies any ties to it, it was during the march they had organized that all this happened.

In August, Granados Ceja worked on a multimedia piece denouncing The Guardian’s portrayal of the anti-government protesters as “peaceful.”

“Footage by teleSUR from the riots…shows the same anti-government protesters…attacking police with projectiles and fireballs,” the article reads.

While the police did show great restraint, officers eventually reacted with teargas to disperse the violent crowds and prevent them entering the presidential place.”

Lluco, for his part, is calling for dialogue, and said he believes the indigenous movement has progressed with the help of Correa.

“As opposed to others,” he said, “this administration is putting a lot of effort into protecting the environment and disturbing in the least bit possible the communities living in those territories.”

A NEW ERA OF POLITICS

Ecuador was named South America’s leading tourist destination in October of this year, and it broke a Guinness World Record in May after “mobilizing more than 44,000 people to plant 647,250 trees across the country,” reported teleSur English.

Indeed, by many accounts, from 2006, when Correa and the Alianza PAIS movement were elected, until today, Ecuador has radically changed.

During the 2006 elections, the indigenous movement as a whole was instrumental in helping Correa, an economist, win with 67 per cent of the vote.

Perez said this caused some division in the movement, since some supported Correa while others, “the radical, hard-liners,” including himself, pushed for Luis Macas, one of CONAIE’s ex-president. By the second round, however, it was only down to Correa and Alvaro Noboa, a well-known banker and politician who has unsuccessfully competed for the title of president four times.

“So a large sector, the majority, supported Correa because of all the proposals he made, which he took from the indigenous movement,” he said.

“Convoking a constitutional assembly, classifying Ecuador as a plurinational state, collective rights, rights to water, indigenous justice – these were all patented proposals from the indigenous movement that Correa adopted to gain legitimacy.”

In the following years, Alianza PAIS would nevertheless help transform the country.

In 2013, the same year Correa was re-elected with 57 per cent of votes, The Guardian wrote:

Unemployment fell to 4.1% by the end of last year – a record low for at least 25 years. Poverty has fallen by 27% since 2006. Public spending on education has more than doubled, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Increased healthcare spending has expanded access to medical care, and other social spending has also increased substantially, including a vast expansion of government-subsidised housing credit.

Even The Economist, well-known for its anti-leftist angle, recognized that poverty had plummeted from 64 per cent in 2000 to around 27 per cent by 2013.

Despite demonstrated progress, however, many of the government’s controversial policies have been criticized.

CONTROVERSY

Correa made headlines in 2013 for refusing to hold a dialogue over the decriminalization of abortion. He was again criticized at the end of 2014, when the government evicted CONAIE from its headquarters, a building which it has occupied since 1991, for allegedly going against its mandate by engaging in political activity and failing to represent its indigenous bases.

Another controversial topic was Correa’s proposal to the international community. It was a revolutionary petition, asking for donations in order to forgo drilling for oil in the Yasuni, a National Park in the Amazon holding 20 per cent of Ecuador’s reserves. The government proposed that it would not drill for the oil, worth nearly $3.6 billion, at the time, if the international community would help it raise half of the projected revenues.

According to The Guardian, “just 0.37% of the target was provided by international donors.”

So Correa went ahead with Plan B: drill for oil in one per cent of the national park, promising to follow the strictest safety-protocols to protect the environment and the self-isolated tribes who dwell in the Amazon.

But not everyone buys it.

“It was a supreme hypocrisy,” said Perez, adding that the commission created and put in charge of raising the funds was simply not prepared “ethically or ecologically” to carry out such a serious request.

“Correa always had plan B ready.”

Lluco agrees the Yasuni proposal has been controversial. He said he’s also heard of communities in the Amazon who had protested, claiming the government had been violent towards them. However, while he said he cannot confirm or deny this himself, he said he has witnessed this administration’s commitment to working with communities in many other instances, adding that other traditionally poor sectors apart from indigenous people have also benefited.

“A mining company contracted by the government had sent its inspectors, but the communities did not allow them in,” he said, because they had not been properly consulted. “I intervened along with the authority on mining here in Chimborazo province…and they promised to never go in without consulting the communities again. So I do believe this administration respects indigenous peoples.”

GOING FORWARD

At first glance, the indigenous movement does appear to be divided over its feelings towards the current government. Yet, movements go beyond the sum of its leaders. Movements, at their core, are its people, its members.

Perez said he does not believe the movement is seriously divided, adding that those “few ex-leaders” who are supporting a dialogue are “traitors.” He insists on planning more protests and has no faith in dialogue any longer.

“We’ve tried to dialogue, but now we don’t have any confidence in it because it has gotten us nowhere…That’s why we believe the sectors that are proposing dialogue and are against the mobilizations, are a bunch of bureaucrats, people that have been co-opted and who’ve received favours,” he said.

“But there is a reconstitution of the movement, and I see much hope for the global indigenous movement as well.”

Though the current strife has seen indigenous protests against the government, and despite Perez’s harsh and unproven allegations towards his colleagues, many of the movement’s historical bases nevertheless continue advocating for dialogue rather than confrontation.

For instance, groups like the Federation of Ecuadorian Indians (FEI), and the Confederation of Peasant and Indigenous Organizations (FENOCIN), two of the five main indigenous organizations, support a dialogue.

The Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENAIE), and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Coast (CONAISE), also. Both of these are main parts of CONAIE.

Though representatives from these organizations were not available for comment by press-time, Lluco assured they, along with the majority of indigenous people, are in favour of dialogue with a government that has shown itself committed to undoing a legacy of repression towards indigenous peoples.

“Because through dialogue and mutual respect, it’s always possible to arrive at understandings that benefit the state, the people, the communities and the nationalities of Ecuador,” concluded Lluco.

“That’s the state of the indigenous movement in Ecuador.”