Indigenous protests oust governments in Ecuador

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - October 19, 2019 - 12:00am

Unreported in our national media, massive protests have engulfed the capital of a small Central American country over the past two weeks, forcing the government to accept their demand not to comply with an economic program prescribed by the International Monetary Fund.

The protests raging in Ecuador sent the country’s chief executive scurrying out of the presidential palace in Quito, the capital, to set up temporary office in an outlying city. Transportation was paralyzed along the country’s major roads. The president declared a state of national emergency and dispatched the military to Quito to quell the protests.

But the crowds repelled all attempts to stop or just disperse them. Instead, they kept their fighting spirit high by performing traditional dances, singing native songs, and producing artworks visually expressing their protests.

 And the situation grew worse for the government. The protests shuttered businesses and disrupted production and halved the output of oil, a major source of Ecuadorean revenue. The firestorm had been ignited by the withdrawal of a fuel subsidy that for 40 years had supported the daily lives of ordinary citizens. As a result of the withdrawal, the price of gasoline tripled, while diesel fuel doubled.

Backing down, the president, Lenin Moreno, opened negotiations that were covered live by television. He acceded to the people’s main demand: rescind a package of austerity measures – a condition set by the International Monetary Fund for granting a $4.2-billion loan.

Moreno agreed to restore the subsidy, demonstrations and rallies were called off, and the victorious protesters went back to their villages after assisting city government workers to clean up the streets.

The most remarkable aspect in these “People Power” events is that the protests were largely led and sustained by Ecuador’s indigenous people, with the support of students, workers, and peasants, as well as the residents of Quito. They have adhered to using peaceful means and calling for direct negotiations with the government.

Remarkably, the indigenous peoples who achieved this successful outcome represent less than 10% of the country’s nearly 17-million population. “The indigenous movement has been a powerful actor in Ecuador since the 1990s,” noted Mario Melo, head of the human rights center at Quito’s Catholic University. “It’s the only movement which has the capacity to paralyze the country – and the guts to confront these economic measures, which impacted the poorest.”

Even more remarkably, this was not the indigenous people’s first successful protest action in Ecuador. Nor was it their best achievement. Since the 1990s they have initiated and completed, invariably with success, the biggest protest actions over economic, political, sovereignty, and environmental issues.

Three times, their protests (tagged as “uprisings”) led to the ouster of the sitting president: in l997; in 2000 (when they got the military’s backing); and in 2005 (when they ousted the president who had led the military group that supported them in 2000).

The key factors in these triumphant actions have been the IP’s strong unity, their creativity in planning and carrying out the protests, and the resonance among the larger national community of the issues they raised.

In 1986, the 14 indigenous groups of Ecuador founded the Confederation of Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie for short). Their political agenda: strengthen positively their indigenous identity; recover their impaired land rights; foster environment sustainability; oppose neoliberalism; and reject US military involvement in South America.

Throughout the 1990s, Conaie repeatedly mobilized thousands of campesinos to shut down Quito by blocking the roads leading to the city. Their consistent demands related to what we in the Philippines call ancestral domain issues, as well as issues of government neglect, onerous taxes, high prices of consumer goods and respect for traditional culture.

The IP’s first victorious protest was launched in May 1990, on the 500th year of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Dubbing it as the “1990 Indigenous Uprising”, they occupied the Santo Domingo church in Quito “to protest the failure of the legal system to process land claims.”

A month-long standoff arose after police forces surrounded the church. As the protesters began a hunger strike, “hundreds of thousands of Indios, in some areas with the support of mestizo peasants, blocked local highways and took over urban plazas” in support of the uprising. Besides demanding lands, the protesters raised other issues: state social services, cultural rights, and reasonable farm-product prices. The government eventually relented, officials met with Conaie leaders, negotiated and made concessions.

In August 1997, two days of protests led to the amending of Ecuador’s Constitution to enshrine the following:

• Defining Ecuador as a multiethnic and multicultural state; setting the groundwork for respect of IP rights – including the right to maintain, develop, and fortify their spiritual, cultural, linguistic, social, political, and economic identity and traditions.

• Instituting new state responsibilities and standards for environmental conservation, elimination of contamination (of water systems) and sustainable management of natural resources.

Also recognized were the IP’s right to give prior consent before projects can be undertaken in their lands; provisions protecting their self-determination regarding land use, preservation of their traditional political structures; and compliance with the International Labor Organization Convention 169 on the rights of IPs.

In 1996, Conaie took a significant political turn. Distrusting Ecuador’s politicians, the confederation decided to enter the electoral arena through its own party. It fielded candidates in the elections and won many local and congressional seats, but failed to make a mark in the presidential race.

Of course, it wasn’t ever a total victory in any of the protest actions. In every instance, the government has failed to comply with some of its commitments in the negotiations. Ergo, further or new protests have been launched through the years.

There have been costly losses, too. Despite the clear rejection of violent methods by the movement’s leaders, eight Indios, including one leader, died in this month’s protests; 1,300 were injured, and 1,200 others were arrested.

“I believe that peace triumphed,” remarked one indigenous woman. “But I feel a knot in my throat over the loss of the lives of indigenous brothers. There is a lot of pain to be healed, and the government should be aware of this.”

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