Second Indigenous Uprising Secures Concessions on Agrarian Reform

by Robert Andolina

From Abya Yala News V.8; N.3 (Fall 1994), 19-21.

This June, international observers were once again stunned by the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement's capacity to mobilize masses of supporters to defend the interests of this country's Indigenous population. In a mobilization reminiscent of the landmark uprising in 1990, Indigenous organizations nationwide blocked the country's roads and highways, in order to prevent implementation of a new "Law for Agricultural Development" enacted by the government as part of its structural adjustment program. For a two-week period, commerce throughout Ecuador ground practically to a halt. As with the uprising four years ago, Indigenous organizations paralyzed much of the country, endured military repression, forcing the government into negotiations, and finally emerging with significant governmental concessions in hand.

Over 3,500 Indigenous communities as well as campesino and popular organizations mobilized under the leadership of the Confederation of indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) the National Ecuadorian Federation of Campesino and Indigenous Organizations (FENOC-I), and the Evangelical Federation of Indigenous Ecuadorians (EFIE). Over the course of two weeks, at least five Indigenous activists were killed and many more were hospitalized, mostly from gun shot wounds. An unknown number were jailed.

Parties from throughout the political spectrum have debated reform of the country's outdated agrarian laws for years. On May 18, the conservative Social Christian party (PSC) forced a radically new agrarian bill through congress. Over the objections of CONAIE and other popular organizations, president Sixto Duran Ballen signed the bill into law on June 13.

Indigenous organizations rejected numerous aspects of this law that either ignored or threatened interests of Indigenous agricultural communities, as well as those of 90% of the rural population. The law would have encouraged the disappearance of Indigenous communal lands in order to promote formation of agricultural "enterprises." Rodrigo Carrillo, member of the press commission for the Indigenous movement of Chimborazo (MICH) explained, "You cannot simply convert Indigenous communal production into agricultural businesses. This law imposes a vision of agriculture that doesn't fit within Indigenous thought and practice."

Indigenous organizations were outraged not only by the law's content but by the undemocratic and unconstitutional methods used by the Social Christian party to railroad it through congress. The National Agrarian commission (CAN), formed by CONAIE and other indigenous peasant organizations, had drafted (over a period of two years) a detailed proposal for reform of the nation's agrarian laws and had submitted it to the legislature for consideration. The President and the legislature completely ignored this project.

In addition, the PSC failed to submit the proposed law to each member of congress for consideration at least 15 days prior to passage, as required by law. CONAIE criticized the politicians for disobeying the fundamental laws of the land, for excluding the interests and participation of Indigenous people in the development of the law, and for their refusal to develop a law of national consensus instead of one that serves the interests of a small, wealthy sector of the population.

For all of these reasons, CONAIE convened an emergency assembly on June 7 and 8 to prepare for a national "Movilizacion por la Vida" (Mobilization for Life) to protest the law if it were to go into effect. CONAIE released a resolution calling for repeal of the Agrarian Development law. The resolution addressed other issues, to stop unrestrained oil exploration and persecution of Indigenous leaders among other demands. Fundamentally, however, the mobilization was called to protest the PSC's Agrarian Law.

Ecuador paralyzed

On June 13, President Duran signed the Agrarian bill into law. Indigenous protesters converged on strategic points, building roadblocks that paralyzed much of the country. Demonstrations in urban areas and occupations of public buildings also took place. Ten provinces in all were heavily affected. Despite the government and mass media's distortion of events, protectors remained firm in the streets and the blockades were very effective. Alberto Saeteros, Secretary of the Provincial Union of Cooperatives and indigenous Communities of Canar (UPCCC) stated, "Here in Canar we met with the people in the communities to explain to them the negative effects of the law, and we then went out to paralyze traffic to the north, south, and west." Ignacio Grefa, President of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Napo (FOIN) reported, "We maintained the roadblock for a week nothing got through."

Non-Indigenous campesinos, workers and some urban citizens expressed considerable solidarity for the mobilization and offered their support. Left and center-left political parties demanded the Agrarian law be revoked. Hector Villamil, President of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) noted, "Some campesinos and workers mobilized with us. We see this as a positive and significant change. In the 1992 OPIP March on Quito many campesino-colonists reacted against us." According to Rodrigo Carrillo of MICH, "In general, the people of Riobamba (capital of Chimborazo province) understood the important role of Indigenous producers in the supply of staple foods and offered us help during the mobilization."

Military Counter-Mobilization

A week after the mobilization began, President Duran offered to negotiate. CONAIE, however, found the president's mediation commission unacceptable, stating that its representation was heavily weighted in favor of the government and the landowners.

The following day, President Duran declared a military "State of Mobilization," and decreed that blockaders would receive one to three year jail terms. Arrest warrants were issued for Indigenous leaders, including the CONAIE leadership. Highways and Indigenous communities were occupied by the security forces. Although protestors abandoned highways peacefully when the military arrived, several were killed and dozens or possibly hundreds were injured.

Police savagely beat protestors, including children, in the provinces of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. In what was perhaps the Mobilization's worst moment, a mob of Social Christian Party supporters attacked and destroyed the office and community center of the UPCCC in Canar. The community center served to support alternative form of education, commerce and medicine more suited to the needs of Canar's Indigenous and poor peoples. One Indigenous activist was killed and thirty eight injured in the attack, which also reduced a market, carpentry center, library, computer center, radio station, fax and photocopy machines, and several vehicles to ashes (see accompanying interview). Security forces also threatened or shut down Indigenous and popular radio stations in Tunguarhua, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, and Canar, making it difficult for activists to transmit news to the population at large regarding human rights violations and violence perpetrated by the military and para-military forces.

Fortunately, the military was more restrained in some regions. Hector Villamil, president of OPIP, reported, "We in Pastaza are lucky not to have experienced repression this time. Before, we considered the military and police to be enemies, so we see this as a good sign. However, we denounce the repression that took place in other provinces, and for that we remain suspicious of the armed forces."

Commission For Dialogue Formed

CONAIE leaders in hiding called for an end to the militarization and organized a mediation commission composed of national and international religious and human rights representatives. Under considerable national and international pressure, the president agreed to lift the state of mobilization and agreed to a compromise on the committees formation. Congress also pledged to revise the agricultural law. Negotiations began on June 30 and continued into mid-July.

The Struggle's Results: Words or Substance?

The negotiations, like all those where actors with vastly different interests take part, were tortuously difficult. Perhaps in an effort to save face, President Duran, on the one hand hailed the dialogue as a success, while also stating that only words but not substance had changed. However, it is the nature of law-making that words are substance. The reformed law- which went into effect on Aug. 3 - did include real improvements for Indigneous peoples, campesinos and Ecuadorian society in general. It will permit the maintenance of communitarian, cooperative, and small-holder forms of agrarian organization. The new state agrarian development agency will include two representatives of Indigenous/peasant organizations on its executive council. Ownership of water will remain public, and more emphasis will be given to production of food for internal consumption to meet the needs of Ecuadorian society. It also recognizes Indigenous agricultural knowledge, and respects the cultural and social values of the various peoples who are involved in agricultural activities.

Importantly, the reformed law also calls for continuation and improvement of the agrarian reform, including land distribution, as well as increased access to credit, technical assistance, and better infrastructure. It demands the protection of national parks and reserves, and recognizes Indigenous peoples' rights to live from and manage forests. Finally, the law calls for the formation of markets that permit indigenous and peasant producers to cut out speculative middlemen.

Indigenous peoples gains in this mobilization go beyond these legal reforms. Again, the movement demonstrated its strength. This time, Indigenous people sat face to face at the bargaining table with those who used to be their "patrons" (land lords). As described by Rodrigo Carrillo of MICH. "The government now knows that it has to include the interests and participation of Indigenous people in the future. We are now recognized as thinking human beings with rights, not as lazy animals." Ignacio Grefa commented on the process, "We have won new political space and have fortified the space we earned in the 1990 uprising. In that sense this is just a continuation of that mobilization and of our struggle for the past 500 years. This struggle will continue in the future."

For additional information: UPCCC, Correo Central Canar, Canar, Ecuador Fax: (5937) 235266