Saturday, January 24, 2009

Indigenous Issues: Ecuador - mining law deepens rift between government and indigenous groups

By: Kintto Lucas

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

IPS - Since the start of his term in January 2007, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has had touchy relations with the indigenous peoples' movement, in spite of the fact that it backed his election. But passage of a mining law has deepened the rift between them and triggered protests.

In his report this week to the country's interim Congress, a temporary legislature installed after the country's new constitution was approved in September 2008 and that will function until a new Congress is elected, the centre-left president criticised leftwing sectors and indigenous leaders who are opposed to the mining law.

"Where does the biggest danger to the citizen revolution lie? In the infantile left, the infantile pro-indigenous movement, the infantile ecological movement, which have become active again, holding meetings to push for an uprising opposed to mining," the president has stated.

In a speech from the balcony of the seat of government to hundreds of people this week, Correa said he would accept protests if they were peaceful, but emphasised that he would not allow roadblocks, like those carried out by the indigenous movement in different parts of the country on Tuesday.

"With this law in hand, we will not allow these abuses, we will not allow uprisings, roadblocks, attacks on private property, or obstacles to an activity (mining) that is legal and that is being regulated," he said.

The indigenous movement is opposed to the new mining law because they argue that it is based on a model of large-scale extraction which will affect the environment, pollute water and plunder the natural wealth of the country while providing hardly any benefits to Ecuadoreans, and only benefiting foreign corporations.

The business community is also critical of the mining law, but in their case because they believe it puts mining in Ecuador at a disadvantage compared to competitors in Peru and Chile, for example.

But the government considers that extractive industries such as gold and copper mining are of essential importance to the country's development.

Humberto Cholango, the head of Ecuarunari, an association of Quechua peoples from the Andes highlands and the largest member organisation of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), told IPS that "unfortunately" the government has not been willing to enter into dialogue and the president is surrounded by "rightwing" leaders.

CONAIE, which represents 90 percent of the indigenous peoples' movement, is divided into three regional branches, for the highlands, the coast, and the Amazon jungle areas - Ecuador's three main geographical divisions.

"The president has only to look around him if he wants to see representatives of the right," said Cholango, referring to certain ministers and secretaries who were formerly linked to rightwing sectors.

"The indigenous peoples' movement has fought against the neoliberal model for many years. It has faced repression and members have been killed under different governments, but it has maintained its dignity," he said, clarifying that Tuesday’s protest was not organised to destabilise the government, but to urge it to "correct its course."

Cholango said Correa raised hopes when he took office two years ago, but that he has been incapable of understanding the country’s indigenous people.

"We are open to dialogue. This protest demonstration is against the neoliberal model and against laws that oppose change, like the mining law which endangers water sources, or the food sovereignty law which favours agribusiness monopolies," he said.

He said the protesters were demanding, above all, discussion of the draft water law presented by the indigenous movement, which seeks to conserve and protect water resources.

"We do not accept that a government that says it is in favour of marginalised people should not take their views into account when it makes laws. It's inconceivable that laws as important as those on mining or food sovereignty should be passed without public debate, or that they should contain articles that run counter to the constitution itself, which enshrines the rights of nature," he said.

Urban and youth movements as well as environmental and human rights organisations joined in CONAIE's protest on Tuesday.

The Council of Evangelical Indigenous Peoples and Organisations of Ecuador (FEINE), the second-largest indigenous group, expressed agreement with CONAIE's demands. Its head, Marco Murillo, complained about the total lack of social participation in lawmaking and in the government.

The other, and final, component of the indigenous peoples' movement is the National Federation of Peasant, Indigenous and Black Organisations (FENOCIN), linked to the Socialist Party, which has a much weaker social influence. Some of its leaders occupy mid-level government posts.

Political analyst Alejandro Moreano said Ecuador’s indigenous movement is the country’s largest social movement and one of the most powerful in Latin America.

"It was the indigenous movement that kept the fight against neoliberalism alive in the 1990s, and it has a very substantial social base," he told IPS.

Tuesday’s protests included roadblocks at different points of the highways joining the highlands with the Pacific coast and Amazon regions, and were deemed a success by indigenous leaders. Four protesters and six policemen were injured in clashes, according to local press reports.

Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
Putting principles before profits