The Ecuadorian Indigenous People's Movement: Autonomy and the Environment

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The Ecuadorian Indigenous People's Movement: Autonomy and the Environment

The Conflict

Indigenous people in Ecuador overthrew the president in January 2000, leading to the establishment of a junta, a small military government.


  • The indigenous people want legal, constitutional acknowledgement of the multicultural and multiethnic nature of their society.
  • Indigenous people want to fully participant in the political system of the country.


  • An economic shift from rural to urban and from agriculture to manufacturing has impoverished many Indians and dislocated them from their culture.
  • Indigenous people have sued Texaco over the use and ownership of land and oil.

For the first time in the history of Latin America an alliance between elements of the military and an indigenous people's organization conspired to overthrow an elected president. On January 21, 2000, hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians, mainly from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, known by its Spanish acronym CONAIE, flooded the streets and squares of the capital, Quito, to protest the newly proposed dollarization of the economy. Dollarization is the adoption of the currency of another country—in this case the currency of the United States. The rebel leaders took over the congressional and presidential buildings. Antonio Vargas, leader of CONAIE, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, and former supreme court president Carlos Solórzano soon formed the junta of National Salvation. A junta is a group controlling the government following a violent overthrow of the government. Colonel Gutiérrez promptly deferred to his superior, General Carlos Mendoza, who took his place on the ruling council.

The military-civilian junta did not last long. Within a few hours the United States expressed its vehement disapproval of the non-elected government and most industrialized nations followed suit. At this point, General Mendoza announced his resignation from the junta and threw his, and the military's, support behind Vice President Gustavo Noboa. Noboa, upon assuming office from President Jamil Mahuad, announced that the dollarization program would continue as part of the government's economic reorganization plan. Hours later, the indigenous people went back to their highland towns, feeling betrayed by the military high command, and put the new government on notice that it was being watched and judged. They reaffirmed their right to return to the capital should the government's performance fall short of their expectations.

Historical Background

The Origins of CONAIE

Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America. It is about the size of Colorado or a little smaller than Malaysia, and has 12.5 million inhabitants. Twenty-five percent of the population is indigenous—natives to Ecuador who pre-date the colonization by Europeans—and most can be found in the Ecuadorian highlands. Nevertheless, most of the population has some indigenous blood. Until the mid-twentieth century the indigenous people were seen as obstacles to modernization because of the difficulty of integrating them into the market economy. The indigenous people generally participated in the traditional economy of the hacienda—a large farm or ranch that is controlled by an elite family but worked by indigenous people—in which they produced most of their own subsistence needs. A market economy is an economy in which the means of production, most notably land and labor, are sold in the market. The concept of selling their labor was foreign to the indigenous people. Most of the native people were poor and illiterate and were seen as not being interested in productive pursuits. The Catholic church, as well as the Communist party, were interested in organizing the indigenous communities to protect their rights. The Ecuadorian Federation of Indigenous (FEI) was organized in the 1940s and supported by the Communist Party. The communists taught them how to organize and showed them how striking could serve as a powerful tool of resistance.

The main issues affecting the indigenous people were the 1964 agrarian reform and a top-down project geared at integrating the indigenous population into the rest of the society. For the most part, the needs of the indigenous communities were neglected. In the late 1960s and 1970s the progressive wing of the Catholic Church became more active. It began to put into practice the preferential option for the poor, a doctrine of the Catholic Church's which grew out of the theology of liberation and held that the poor should be given more opportunities than the rich in order to help them escape their disadvantaged social position. The Church became involved in creating indigenous organizations based on the needs and aspirations of the communities.

At the same time, other organizations were being formed to address the needs of indigenous people. One of these organizations was the Federation of Shuar Centers. Its proximity to the Peruvian border made it susceptible to not only Peruvian border raids but also to being conquered and made part of Peru. As a result the federation fought in numerous border skirmishes to protect Ecuadorian territory and resources. In fact, since 1942 Ecuador and Peru had disputed a sizable area of territory. This border conflict was resolved by a peace treaty in 1998 in which, according to the Ecuadorians, they lost 14,300 square kilometers. The Federation of Shuar Centers, assisted by the Salesian missionaries, established a pattern that was followed by other indigenous communities such as Quichua, Siona/Secoya, Cofán, and Huaorani. The pattern consisted of the formation of a federation to resist the incursion of "foreign interests"—anything outside of the community, including the Ecuadorian state, foreign corporations, and religious missionaries. Resistance employed by the Centers consisted of emphasizing self-direction, bilingual education, attainment of title to traditional lands, and anything else that created a counter-ideology in opposition to nationalist ideas and practices. Together they reached one hundred thousand people. In 1980 the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, or CONFENIAE, was born as an organization to represent indigenous demands and pursue unity while respecting the diversity of the communities. In the highlands, the Confederation of Quichua Communities in Ecuador (ECUARUNARI) was formed in 1974 with the support of the Catholic church. ECUARUNARI's initial goal was geared toward land issues; in the 1980s, it began to emphasize the defense of indigenous cultures and promote more political participation.

CONAIE was organized in 1986. One of its main objectives was to gather all of the indigenous communities, which had previously been isolated, into one large, organized, and representative body. Its goal was to claim for the indigenous people the political voice that they had long been denied. They were concerned not only with land reforms and labor issues, but with redefining, through legislative reforms, the national identity, bilingual education, and traditional medicine. CONAIE unified its efforts by including not only the highland communities of the Quichua, but also the Awa, Chachi, Tsáchila, and Epera of the Pacific Coast; and the Quichua, Cofán, Siona-Secoya, Shuar, Achuar, and Huaroni of the Amazon Basin.

CONAIE aims to provide democratic representation to the indigenous communities. One of the tools that it uses is the Institute of Indigenous Cultures, which was established in 1986—the same year that CONAIE was organized. One of the main goals of the institute is to teach courses to indigenous students, who then return to their communities to teach what they learned in the institute. The courses are in several fields, including law, economics, ecology, and indigenous cultures.

CONAIE has succeeded in preserving the unity of the three indigenous organizations that had previously represented the highlands (ECUARUNARI), Amazonian communities (CONFENIAE), and the Pacific Coast (COINCE). It has succeeded in doing this because of the similar goals that all indigenous communities have, chief among these being recognition of their political and legal organizations within the context of Ecuadorian society.

The most important achievement for CONAIE was the successful campaign to adopt, as the first article of the 1998 constitution, the recognition of Ecuador as a state with many cultures and ethnicities. Similar constitutional reforms had already been adopted by Guatemala (1985), Brazil (1988), Mexico (1992), Paraguay (1992), Peru (1993), Argentina (1994), and Bolivia (1994). These reforms reflect a shift of perspective in the conception of the nation state by Latin Americans. The prevailing historical notion had been that indigenous people should be integrated into Western culture. The goal was a homogenous national culture in which indigenous culture was seen as little more than an embarrassing vestige of the past that would be eradicated. By acknowledging that Ecuador is a pluri-cultural and multiethnic state, the constitution acknowledged the existence of the indigenous people as both individuals and groups. This was seen as the first step toward a social recognition, which would give them the human rights that had been frequently violated in the past. Moreover, these reforms recognize the citizenship of indigenous people and by implication the affirmation of their separate identity as a group.

The acknowledgment of a pluri-cultural and multiethnic state was an outgrowth of extensive work in promoting bilingual education, established in 1988 by an agreement between the government and CONAIE. Language is believed to be one of the major components of redefining national identity. Since the conquest in 1492, Spanish has been the only official language of Ecuador, while Quichua and other Indian languages have been confined to use in the local communities. Quichua is the most common language of the highland indigenous people; however, since Quichua is an Indian language most Ecuadorians do not speak it, believing that it is beneath them. Languages are more than a means of communication; controlling a people's language is one way to control the people. By diminishing the use and therefore the value of Quichua, many indigenous people felt that Indian culture was relegated to an inferior status. Efforts to change this situation can be found in the 1945 and 1984 constitutional reforms, which allowed Quichua to be taught alongside Spanish, especially in areas in which the majority of the population was indigenous. The biggest step, however, was made outside of official state institutions. In the late 1960s Archbishop Leonidas Proaño of Riobamba launched a program called Popular Radio Schools, the goal of which was to organize literacy campaigns. The program was very successful, and in the following years the progressive wing of the Catholic Church offered bilingual education programs in order to extend the use of Quichua throughout the highlands. By the end of the 1970s the Catholic University was offering Quichua courses and had formed a Center for the Investigation of Indigenous Education.

The bilingual education program in the province of Bolivar is another success. This program, which originated in the School of Andean Education and Culture of the state financed Bolivar University, began in 1992. Students can earn a bachelor of arts in bilingual education and community development. The two languages taught are Spanish and Quichua. While the majority of the students are indigenous, a third are mestizos, people whose ancestors were both European and indigenous. The goal of the students is to be able to teach in rural communities and, even more, to redefine a sense of indigenous pride that makes them feel like members of a distinct group.

Mobilization and the Agrarian Problem

Because CONAIE stressed the value of diversity in the indigenous communities, it has been able to maintain its initial unity. That unity has been reflected in major mobilizations to oppose and protest various issues. The first successful uprising since CONAIE was established was in 1990. This uprising began with a symbolic act: the occupation of the Dominican church, one of the oldest churches in Quito. It seems that this church was selected because it was the church staffed by the Domincan order of Catholic priests in Quito. The indigenous feel a special bond with the Domincans because of the famous Dominican priest and defender of the indigenous in the sixteenth century, Bartolome de las Casas. A few days after the occupation, indigenous people blocked highways with tree limbs or by digging big holes into roads so that transportation could not move smoothly. Though the police blamed CONAIE, they could not identify the leaders since the leaders had left by the time the police could get to the highways. This uprising introduced a new way of protesting; the protesters were peaceful and showed the unity of CONAIE. The influence of the progressive wing of the Catholic church was evident in the peacefulness of the uprising; Archbishop Proaño had preached a peaceful alternative method for demanding that the needs of the indigenous people be met. His work between 1954 and 1985, and that of his successor, Bishop Victor Corral, concentrated mainly on the struggle over land and community organization. Bishop Corral not only supported the indigenous uprising but also celebrated a victory mass when the uprising reached agreement with the government.

The indigenous uprising was a result of rising expectations generated by the incumbent president of Ecuador, Rodrigo Borja (president from 1988-92). Borja gave the indigenous people hope of solving their ongoing land conflicts. He even gave legal status to CONAIE a few days after he entered office. The indigenous people's expectations, however, were not fulfilled by Borja's government. Though he created offices for indigenous affairs, Borja did not adequately address the land issues that were the main concern of the indigenous people.

The 1970s presented the military regime with the possibility of completing a modernization project for the economy based on oil revenue. There were two agrarian reforms, in 1964 and in 1973 respectively, and since then the indigenous people, as both individuals and communities, have been involved in numerous unresolved land conflicts. Part of the military's modernization project was to complete the agrarian reform that began in 1964. The military regimes in the 1970s were interested in giving land back to the indigenous communities, and they created the National Development Bank to promote credits for small landowners and developed stores with controlled prices for basic products. The military governments of the 1970s gave the indigenous people an estimated thirty-five percent of the land and tried to subsidize the rest of the agricultural production, though the result was not very beneficial to the indigenous people. Instead of creating rural employment, the small plots consisted, for the most part, of poor-quality land that did not produce enough for a family's consumption, much less the community's. Therefore, the indigenous people migrated to the cities, and this created both unemployment and underemployment. Between 1970 and 1985 the land available for basic cultivation fell by approximately thirty-three percent, while the area for commercial pasture use grew by 136 percent.

Migration to the cities had several effects on indigenous communities. The people became more dependent on the market economy. Their diet and clothes changed. Before the 1970s they ate what the land provided, mainly potatoes and corn in the highlands. But in the 1970s the indigenous people began eating new foods ranging from bread, bananas and Coke, to rice and noodles. Before they wore ponchos and alpargatas, traditional sandals, that were produced in the community. In the 1970s they began wearing tennis shoes, jackets, and hats that could be bought outside the indigenous community. The result was that they became "modernized" and depended on buying more products from the market, instead of making these products for themselves.

When recession hit Ecuador in 1982 the price of Ecuador's main natural resource, oil, dropped. Not only did inflation result from the drop in oil prices, but the indigenous people also lost the employment opportunities in construction and manufacturing that they had become dependent on in the 1970s. The drastic decline in wages, almost thirty percent, left the indigenous people in dire straits. From 1982 to 1986, when CONAIE was established, the indigenous communities went through a process of organizing and began to develop a sense of the need to defend their own rights. When President Borja seemed to recognize the indigenous people's needs, but failed to deliver the promised agrarian reform, the indigenous organization was mature enough to engage in its first important mobilization of the twentieth century.

With the 1990 indigenous uprising the majority of themestizo Ecuadorians learned that the indigenous people were organized and willing to participate in a mobilization to demand their rights to the land and to protest against inflation. However, the 1990 uprising was more than a protest for land rights and inflation control. It was the beginning of indigenous demands for full participation in the political system of Ecuador. For the first time, they talked about changing the constitution so that Ecuador would become a plurinational and multiethnic state that recognized indigenous culture.

This 1990 movement also made the rest of Ecuador aware of the meaning of the land to indigenous people. The indigenous people believe that pachamama, "the land" in the Quichua language, represents the mother of everybody, and who gives and receives from her children equally. Since the land is sacred, it should not be exploited, and it should not be seen as private property. Therefore, when the indigenous people lost their land, part of them died and the link between the indigenous communities was weakened. This is the heart of the indigenous people's fight to reclaim their land. By the end of the Borja presidency, the Amazon indigenous had received approximately 1,116,000 hectares.

Texaco and the Land

In another effort to protect their land, the Ecuadoran indigenous people sued a U.S.-based international oil company in U.S. federal court. CONAIE and environmental groups sued Texaco Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of Texaco, which began operations in Ecuador in 1964. In 1993 CONAIE accused Texaco of being responsible for the decomposition of the indigenous communities, especially the Cofán, and thus the destruction of their culture and environment. Because the oil operations were taking place in the original Cofán community, the people had to be moved and this displacement caused deterioration in their basic living conditions. Moreover, the extraction of oil has contaminated the water, damaged the food supply, and caused disease—mainly skin and respiratory infections. Texaco claimed that it had complied with the regulations, but the water tested by the researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that the water contained dangerous levels of carcinogens, cancer-causing agents. Texaco maintains that the environmental damage is due to the influx of people into the region; regardless, it is obvious thatto environmental observers and visitors that damage has been done. Reports note that a salty crust covers the soil in places and at times black particles fill the air, born from thick black pools that spot the soil.

The interesting issue in this trial is that CONAIE has insisted that Texaco be tried in U.S. courts, specifically in Manhattan, New York. The reason CONAIE is suing Texaco in the United States is that Texaco is headquartered in the United States and that is where the corporate decisions were made. Furthermore, CONAIE was interested in making the people of the United States aware that the indigenous people of Ecuador exist and that they have a different way of viewing the behavior of Texaco in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Finally, Ecuadorian courts do not have the experience or appropriate legal remedies in environmental disputes, so the largest fine in Ecuador could only amount to a few thousand dollars.

In response to CONAIE's charges Texaco claimed that even though, in 1964, when it entered Ecuador, there were no rigorous environmental regulations, they were firmly committed to protecting the people and the environment of the regions in which Texaco operated. The U.S. company maintained that it had not dumped toxic wastewater into the Ecuadorian Amazon. It explained that when the oil was produced it was done through a method in which water and oil, both of which were trapped in a geological formation, were brought to the surface together. The oil was then separated from the water, and at this point the water, which is called "produced water," was discharged into nearby rivers and streams. This process was approved by the company's Ecuadorian partner, Petroecuador, and had been examined by two independent international consulting firms, AGRA Earth and Environmental Ltd., and Fugro-McClelland. They produced independent environmental audits and concluded that there was no lasting environmental impact from this process, which is used in other parts of the world.

Other sources contend that Texaco has spilled around seventeen million gallons of crude oil in Ecuador, fifty percent more than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. The company has discharged twenty billion gallons of toxic brine waste-water into the waterways of the region and has abandoned around six hundred uncovered waste ponds. Only 139 ponds have been cleaned.

Regarding the claim by the indigenous people that they have contracted diseases, Texaco does not accept the study presented by the plaintiffs and published by the Ecuadorian Union of Popular Health Promoters of the Amazon. Texaco maintains that the study does not address issues such as "harsh conditions of the jungle, diet, the lack of medical care," colonization, and the development of other industries such as agriculture, mining, and logging. Moreover, Texaco relied on the opinion of one of the leading toxicologists in the United States who believes that the report, indicating increased rates of cancer among the population where Texaco drilled, was alarmist. The toxicologist pointed out that eight cases over ten years among people ages five to eighty-six does not constitute a cluster of similar illnesses in which it can be established that a common factor is at work. Based on this evidence and analysis, Texaco declined to conduct a comprehensive health monitoring and treatment program for oil-related illness. The suit was still pending in mid-2000.

Texaco believes that it worked hard to prevent oil spills and that when oil spills did occur the company responded quickly to remedy the situation. Texaco provided as an example of its quick response the actions following the damage to the Trans-Ecuadoran Pipeline during the earthquake of 1987. Additionally, Texaco conducted a forty million dollar remediation program that began in 1995 and concluded in 1998. This remediation program consisted of closing producing wells and pits, modifying produced-water systems, replanting cleared lands, and improving contaminated soil. The Texaco program was approved by the Government of Ecuador; Petroecuador was made responsible for the remaining sites.

The remediation program has not eliminated the problem. River-water samples from the areas where Texaco conducted the program, tested by Greenpeace Research Laboratories, continue to show high levels of hydrocarbon concentrations. The pumping stations will not be upgraded, so the toxic water will still be dumped each day into the rivers. While Texaco has accumulated $1.53 billion of reserves to cover these costs and has posted high and growing levels of profit, only 2.5 million acres of deforested area will be replanted.

Although petroleum exploitation has made Ecuador a minor oil exporter, the presence of Texaco has influenced not only the environment but also indigenous people's organizations. Texaco has given the indigenous people an incentive to organize, and their organization has gained worldwide recognition. In 1994 Dr. Luis Macas, a Quichua lawyer and first president of CONAIE, won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his negotiations to transfer three million acres of rain-forest back to indigenous control.

International Influences

During this time period there was strong growth among international indigenous organizations. In 1989 the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 169, the most comprehensive international document recognizing the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. Convention 169 not only calls for respecting the culture, ways of life, traditions, and customary laws of indigenous people, but also supports the right of these people to decide their own economic, social, and cultural development. Some of the main issues that Convention 169 seeks to address are bilingual and bicultural education, self-direction of programs that affect indigenous communities, and land rights. Codifying these rights in the Ecuadorian Constitution of 1998 provides indigenous people equal opportunity based on respect for their cultures.

Before Convention 169, the U.N. Economic and Social Council and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights established a Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. In 1995 this working group produced a draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The council not only promoted the International Year of Indigenous Populations of the World (1993) and the International Decade (1995-2004), but introduced new concepts regarding indigenous rights.

One of the most controversial concepts was the term "self-determination." This term caused problems because many governments see it as an attempt by indigenous groups to secede, or withdraw, from the countries in which they live. However, self-determination can also mean the right for a group to develop its own culture, enrich its language, practice its medicine, and refine its artistic manifestations within the existing country. Under this definition, the state that recognizes self-determination accepts new forms of political organization that will give indigenous people not only the right to political participation but also to self-management.

Archbishop Proaño played an important role in promoting self-determination by restoring the moral codes of the indigenous—do not be lazy, do not steal, and do not lie. Aside from these codes, the indigenous communities started a process of understanding the meaning of having one God, father of everybody. For the indigenous people of Ecuador having one god means that all are brothers and sisters and, therefore, everybody has the same rights and responsibilities. These rights are the citizenship rights that the indigenous people are entitled to as individuals and as communities. Understanding these citizenship rights caused the indigenous people to undergo a process of rediscovery of their own cultural roots and to build their own community identities.

Multilateral lending institutions, bilateral aid agencies, and private foundations have expressed interest in adopting polices regarding indigenous people. The World Bank is revising the lending operations and environmental analyses that concern indigenous groups. The Inter-American Development Bank has adopted principles of action for projects that affect indigenous people. The United Nations Development Program is working on guidelines to support native groups. One obvious aim of these international agencies is to provide indigenous people with basic human rights based on their own cultures and to avoid the earlier violations of their rights by being more sensitive to how projects and programs will affect their well-being.

A New Alternative: Pachakutik

Until 1995 CONAIE's political strategy was to boycott the electoral process by urging its members to invalidate their votes by spoiling their ballots. Voting is a legal duty of Ecuadorian citizens—it is illegal not to vote. One method of boycotting elections was to simply stay home, and the other was to invalidate the ballot by either drawing an "X" through it or by voting for more than one candidate for each office. In 1995 CONAIE helped form a political movement to run candidates for elected office. The new political movement was named Pachakutik, which means return of the good times, and signifies change, rebirth, transformation, and the coming of a new era. Pachakutik expresses changes in the conception of society and the state. It is based on three main moral principles—do not be lazy, do not steal, and do not lie—that are present in everyday life and which the indigenous people want to incorporate into political practice. In doing so, they revive the traditional beliefs of their ancestors and enforce their identity, actions that CONAIE believes will help build a new society in which diverse cultures will be respected and will share responsibilities.

In 1996 Luis Macas, the first president of CONAIE, won the office of national deputy in the National Congress. He ran as an independent candidate on the Movimiento Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik-Nuevo País (Pachakutik-New Country Movement of Multinational Unity) ticket. This was a coalition of popular organizations that included CONAIE, Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales (Coordination of Social Movements), and other smaller political movements.

Aside from Macas' election, in 1996 and in 1998 Pachakutik won several positions ranging from town council to congress. In 2000, Packakutik held six seats in the 121-member congress. Four of these six deputies considered themselves to be indigenous. Nina Pacari, the first indigenous woman to participate in the reform of the constitution (1998) served as the vice president and was the best-known Pachakutik member of the congress.

In the election held on May 21, 2000, in which local offices where decided, Pachakutik won twenty-three mayor's offices out of 215. Six of the nine women who ran for minor local positions were victorious. These women, all of them Quichua from the highlands, attributed their success to the political training of the women's school, run by ECUARUNARI, a branch of CONAIE. This school was the brainchild of an illiterate Quichua woman, Dolores Cacuango, who fought for indigenous rights in the 1940s.

The outcome of this election helped solidify CONAIE's political base. As Miguel Lluco, the national coordinator of Pachakutik-Nuevo Pais, pointed out, the indigenous people are showing that they have the power not only to mobilize but also to win elections, without the expensive advertising that characterize the right-wing parties. Moreover, the indigenous people are proud that they have risen to the challenge that the current president, Gustavo Noboa, asked them to meet: to win power through elections.

CONAIE Flexes its Muscles

Two major political events have shown that the indigenous people's movement has come of age. By organizing mobilizations and establishing Pachakutik, CONAIE has demonstrated that it has become a major player in the country's political arena. This strength has led to its participation in the overthrow of two governments over the course of three years. The first was the government of Abdalá Bucaram in 1997. In this instance CONAIE was just one of many sectors of the society that joined forces to oust the sitting president. The reasons were complex, but a major point of contention was the neo-liberal program that Bucaram wanted to implement. The second case, the overthrow of Jamil Mahuad in January 2000, saw CONAIE take a lead role in the removal of an unpopular government. This second case is all the more impressive in that in the absence of a coalition between CONAIE and elements of the military, the government would in all likelihood have survived. In November 1999 CONAIE put the president on notice that conditions would have to improve or they would take to the streets. The military had also been pressing Mahuad to resign. In December 1999 several groups, including CONAIE, middle-ranking military officers, priests, and merchants gathered to discuss the situation. When Mahuad announced the dollarization of the economy, CONAIE and the middle-ranking military officers agreed to organize the mobilization that overthrew the president.

Each of the groups participating in the uprising had different motives. According to the newspaper Hoy, Colonel Gutierrez participated in the uprising because he learned Mahuad was going to cut the military expenses in the budget. Gutierrez, however, claims that he participated in the insurrection because he believed that the main role of the military was to defend the national sovereignty. Mahuad, according to Gutierrez, had demonstrated that he was not interested in the needs of the majority of Ecuadorians. Therefore, Gutierrez, as a representative of the military, believed he had to stop the planned dollarization of the economy. CONAIE and Gutierrez claimed that they were not interested in taking power and that their main concerns were more profound: They were interested in making Ecuador aware of serious societal problems that need to be changed. Gutierrez asserted that was the reason the junta of National Salvation, formed by Antonio Vargas, Colonel Lucio Gutierrez, and Carlos Solorzano lasted only a few hours. Gutierrez also stated that in order to maintain the military chain of command, he turned power over to General Carlos Mendoza, who claimed that he never intended to remain in power but only joined the triumvirate as a means of buying time to avoid bloodshed and ensure a peaceful return to constitutional order. The military transferred power to vice president Gustavo Noboa, who decided that dollarization would remain an ongoing project. The indigenous people left Quito, and they have since been talking of finding alternatives to dollarization.

Recent History and the Future

At this point, CONAIE and the communities it represents seem frustrated. They have endured a decade of economic stagnation in which their population has suffered. They have seen the subsidies for food and fuel upon which they depend disappear and the savings flow into the pockets of corrupt bankers who then fled the country. They are now faced with the conversion of their economy to a dollar-based system in which external shocks can only be met with increased unemployment and higher prices. Their patience is wearing thin, and they are watching the new president very closely. A major mobilization was planned for the middle of June 2000. The mobilization occurred but was not as large as expected. CONAIE has refocused its efforts on achieving a plebiscite that would allow Ecuadorians to vote on dollarization, dissolution of congress, and amnesty for the soldiers jailed in connection with the short-lived coup. This has been one of their demands since February 2000.

The indigenous movement in Ecuador began haltingly in the 1940s as regionally fragmented organizations concerned mainly with local and land issues. It received guidance and support from both the Catholic Church and the Communist Party. With the formation of CONAIE, however, these fragmentary organizations began to unite around issues common to indigenous people regardless of their regional roots, yet land reform remained the priority.

Over time, however, CONAIE began to broaden its concerns and incorporate cultural preservation and promotion into its agenda. It was the driving force behind the bilingual education movement. As cultural issues became more important to CONAIE, awareness of these issues among the membership increased. Cultural preservation and promotion renewed pride among the indigenous people and led them to see the value contained within their customs and traditions.

CONAIE began pressing for wider societal acceptance, and recognition of this value began to challenge the commonly held assumption that indigenous culture was something to eradicate in the name of assimilation and progress. This led to an increased need for indigenous people to participate in the political process. The movement slowly reversed its prior stance of non-recognition of and nonparticipation in the political process to become an active and increasingly powerful player in Ecuadorian politics. In keeping with its contemporary focus on cultural recognition it has succeeded in achieving changes to the constitution that acknowledged the indigenous people as both collectives and individuals and recognize the pluri-national nature of Ecuador's society. Constitutionally, indigenous customs and traditions now stand on a par with those of European and mestizo culture.

Luís Macas, one of the founders of CONAIE and head of the Scientific Institute of Indigenous Cultures (ICCI) is now calling for the creation of an indigenous university. Until now CONAIE's leaders have been educated abroad or in the mestizo universities of Ecuador. Creating their own university would further strengthen the movement by reinforcing pride and expanding the ranks from which future leaders would be drawn. CONAIE's leaders believe the movement is expanding both its power and its objectives, and it will continue to gain strength. The perpetual state of economic crisis in which Ecuador seems to find itself will continue to provide fodder for the growth of this movement.

This increased political participation has resulted in indigenous candidates succeeding at the ballot box in races ranging from minor local offices to the national congress. The indigenous movement has been an important player in the overthrow of two recent governments. Now it has challenged the current president, Gustavo Noboa, to consider the needs and demands of the indigenous population. This challenge has been backed by warnings that what happened to the two previously elected presidents could happen to the current president as well. Noboa has returned the challenge by calling on the indigenous movement to gain power through the ballot box, not the street. The movement has shown its ability to do both. Which it chooses remains to be seen.


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1940s The Ecuadorian Federation of Indigenous (FEI) is formed.

1970s Many indigenous people migrate to the cities in response to changing economic conditions, including the corporate takeovers of their land.

1974 The Confederation of Quichua Communities in Ecuador (ECUARUNARI) is founded.

1980 The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) is established.

1986 CONAIE organizes. The Institute of Indigenous Cultures is established.

1990 The first CONAIE uprising involves the takeover of a church and the disruption of roadways.

1993 CONAIE sues Texaco in U.S. federal court.

1995 Pachakutik, the political organization of the indigenous people, is formed.

1998 The Ecaudarian constitution is amended to recognize Ecuador as a state of many cultures and ethnicities.

1999-2000 The program for the dollarization of Ecuador begins.

2000 CONAIE-sponsored protests against dollarization result in the overthrow of the elected government of Jamil Mahuad and the brief takeover by a junta.


At the start of 1999 Ecuador faced tremendous economic challenges. Petroleum prices had plummeted, El Niño had wiped out many of the banana and coffee plantations, shrimp had been afflicted with a disease known as mancha blanca, and tourists were being robbed more often. Ecuador was left with virtually no exports, and the trade deficit began to grow. Any economist could have predicted that the sucre was bound to depreciate under these conditions. Few could have predicted the extent of the depreciation and the negative impact this would have on the economy and, in particular, the banking sector. In 1999 thesucre depreciated 104.4 percent and in the first ten days of January 2000, another 24.9 percent—894.5 percent on an annualized basis—before President Jamil Mahuad announced his plan to dollarize the economy and fixed the exchange rate at 25,000 sucres to the dollar.

Dollarization of an economy means adopting another country's currency. In this case, Ecuador decided to adopt the U.S. dollar as its own legal tender. Everything in Ecuador is in the process of being converted to dollars. Bank accounts have been converted from being expressed in sucres to being expressed in dollars. Dollars are circulating in the economy and must be accepted as payment for any purchase. Prices are now expressed in dollars. An educational program is underway in which the citizenry is being taught what U.S. currency looks like and how counterfeit bills can be recognized.

By adopting the dollar as its currency Ecuador abandoned its ability to use monetary policy as a tool of economic stabilization. The supply of money in the economy will now be a function of the country's trade surplus and its ability to attract foreign capital in the form of loans and investment. External shocks, such as changes in the demand for Ecuadorian products and natural disasters, can no longer be combated by increasing the money supply in order to decrease interest rates. Ecuador also lost an important symbol of national sovereignty.

Many see the removal of monetary policy from the hands of political appointees as the answer to Ecuador's financial turmoil. They point to Panama, which also uses the U.S. dollar as its legal tender. Over the past twenty years Panama has had an inflation rate lower than the United States. Its interest rates are among the lowest in Latin America and significantly lower than Ecuador's. If Ecuador could achieve the same results it could lead to sustained economic growth. So far the results of dollarization are mixed. There is some evidence that faith has been restored to the badly battered banking system. Increased deposits are being recorded for the first time in months. Inflation, however, does not appear to be decreasing. Low inflation is the key to lowering interest rates and reactivating the economy.

Dr. Luis Macas and CONAIE

Dr. Luís Macas, a Quiche Indian, is the founder of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and the first indigenous person elected to Ecuador's National Congress (Disputado Nacional). A lawyer by profession, he uses his knowledge of national and international law to support the human rights of indigenous people.

Dr. Macas founded CONAIE in November 1986, to promote the rights of indigenous people, foster unity among the indigenous nations, preserve native language and culture, and to promote a sustainable natural environment. Dr. Macas's work often focuses on the connection between social justice and ecology.

The indigenous inhabitants of Ecuador face widespread poverty and discrimination. As a colonized people, they have been subjected to forcible evacuation for centuries. Recent decades have seen the loss of much of their farming areas, as native homelands are sold to companies, such as mining and oil corporations, by the Ecuadorian government. As a result, one of CONAIE's main objectives has been to promote agriculture geared toward self-sufficiency through indigenous peoples' control of their own land. One of Dr. Macas' greatest successes was negotiating the transfer of three million acres of rainforest back to indigenous control.

Dr. Macas resigned the presidency of CONAIE after his election to the Disputado Nacional in May 1996. He is the recipient of prestigious international awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize.

An Educated Bias

In addition to founding the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians, Dolores Cacuango is remembered in Ecuador for establishing the first bilingual schools in 1944. It was a remarkable achievement, one still heralded by current Ecuadorian activists, because Cacuango's actions legitimized for the first time education for the indigenous population in their native tongues. Seeing the Quichua children struggle to learn in Spanish, Cacuango first lobbied the Ministry of Education to offer classes in Quichua. When they ignored her repeated requests, she founded the first of four schools that offered classes in both Quichua and Spanish. Cacuango, like many activists before and after both inside and outside of Ecuador, filled a need that the ruling government was incapable or unwilling to meet and, by doing so, gave a new generation of activists the skills required to be heard by those in power.

The education of children is accomplished in most countries largely through the efforts of national public education systems. In many instances, however, national systems are inadequate or disintegrate for a variety of reasons ranging from natural disaster to political turmoil. How each country deals with such a breakdown impacts the form and methodology of future instruction. EDUCO, a communal education movement that was established in El Salvador, began when parents hired their own teachers for schools that had been closed during the country's 1980-92 civil war. Educators in South Africa created the non-governmental organization OLSET, the Open Learning Systems Education Trust, to rebuild the educational system devastated by the apartheid political system. Like Ecuador's Popular Radio Schools, OSLET also uses the radio to reach rural students isolated by distance. In Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee runs parallel to the national education system and educates over one million children annually. Community efforts such as these are often more successful because they respond to local, rather than national, needs and are flexible enough to adapt to the students at hand. However, because they are responding to local pressures, national education standards can become difficult to enforce, and content can fall victim to local bias.

The most dramatic example of this is currently in play in Afghanistan where the Taliban, an orthodox Muslim government, came to power in 1996. During Afghanistan's war with the former Soviet Union and the civil war that followed, the public education system collapsed, leaving open only private schools that were primarily religious. In addition to teaching a very strict interpretation of the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, the schools advocated the creation of a radical Muslim government. The Taliban is a coalition of these students educated in south Afghanistan. Ironically, one of the Taliban's first moves after coming to power was to send the female students home. Though the United Nations got the Afghan government to agree to open separate schools for women, the curricula of these schools is strictly limited and many have been subsequently closed.

Most governments recognize how empowering education can be and the potential threat or benefit an educated populace holds for governments democratically elected or militarily imposed. Burma just reopened its colleges and universities after a three-year shut down because the government viewed them as breeding grounds for dissent. Political activity of any type is banned on the campuses of universities in Belarus; and in Ecuador, recently elected indigenous legislators credit the work of Dolores Cacuango and others with giving them the skills they needed to achieve political office.

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The Ecuadorian Indigenous People's Movement: Autonomy and the Environment

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The Ecuadorian Indigenous People's Movement: Autonomy and the Environment