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A fragmented indigenous movement
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Government discourse welcomed, and at the same time dissented, by indigenous communities.

The national government has succeeded in fracturing the foundations of various sectors of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement through the cooptation of several of its leaders, either by appointing them as senior officials, or by agreements made with indigenous groups but separate from their regional and national-level organizations.

For their part, the indigenous population also has not been able to articulate a platform with which to confront the government that links its historic demands with the new problems experienced by their communities, where the government’s discourse is increasingly well-received.

In mid-September, the General Assembly of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, met in the city of Baños, located in the central province of Tungurahua. There were two issues at hand: the nomination of its longtime leader, Ricardo Ulcuango, as ambassador to Bolivia, and the agreement signed between the government and the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers, or FICSH, in which the government committed to building athletic facilities, roads, and sanitation infrastructures in the Shuar communities, though it is not indicated what FICSH has committed to this.

Ulcuango was vice-president of CONAIE and twice president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador, or ECUARUNARI. He is the main leader in Cayambe, in the northern highlands, one of the indigenous regions with the greatest capacity for mobilization. For that reason, it was surprising that in early August he received his diplomatic appointment.

ECUARUNARI reacted and decided on Aug. 17 to remove Ulcuango from the organization. The indigenous leader did not accept the decision and questioned its current leadership, accusing them of aligning with the right, of not understanding the changes currently taking place in the country, and of distancing themselves from their bases.

“The [organization’s] leaders are removed from their bases, from their real needs,” Ulcuango said in Cayambe during his swearing in ceremony as ambassador on Aug. 16.

Ulcuango is not the only indigenous leader to join the foreign service; in September, Segundo Andrango, of Cotacachi, Imbabura province, was appointed ambassador to El Salvador. This leader is also the father of Luis Andrango, president of the National Confederation of Campesino, Indigenous and Black Organizations, or FENOCIN, an organization aligned with the government but that at first was critical of laws regarding water, mining, and food sovereignty on the grounds that they are pieces of legislation enacted by the government without consensus from social movements or from those who use the river basins. FENOCIN is now unconditionally supporting the government.
Getting closer to the government
Francisco Shiki, FICSH president, justified the agreement signed with the government.

“Given all of the empty words and weak opponents, FICSH made the collective decision to maintain a dialogue and an agreement that benefits the Shuar communities,” Shiki told the CONAIE congress in Baños, at the same time as he threatened to impeach popularly elected Shuar leaders like Marcelino Chumpí, prefect of Morona Santiago, an Amazonian province with a majority Shuar population, and an assemblywoman from the same province, Diana Atamaint, if they opposed the accord.

Despite the criticism from other indigenous federations, FICSH maintained its position in the CONAIE assembly.

“As a community, we have to benefit from all of the government’s programs,” said Galo Puanchir, FICSH vice-president. “Communities don’t live off of speeches or words, but off of concrete actions.”

The decision made by FICSH divided the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, or CONFENIAE, a regional Amazonian organization belonging to CONAIE, because its president, Tito Puanchir, who is also Shuar, backed the signed accord while the Kichwa nation questioned it.

“CONFENIAE will ask CONAIE to formalize the dialogue with the government,” Galo Puanchir assured the assembly. But his statements were rejected by the leadership of the Federation of Organizations of Kichwa Nationality of Sucumbíos-Ecuador, or FONAKISE.

The Shuar and Kichwa of the Amazon are the two largest nations in CONFENIAE. Any discord between them paralyzes the organization because the other Amazonian nations are too weak to resolve an internal conflict within the regional body.

The CONAIE assembly could not respond to those problems and simply reasserted their historical struggle for the construction of a multinational state, the right to prior consultation, and the defense of water and land, in addition to expressing solidarity with the local struggles of indigenous organizations. As on prior occasions, the assembly concluded with a call to all social organizations for a “national march for the construction of real, profound changes in the country,” as expressed in its final statement — though there is no set date for that event.

For indigenous Amazonian leader Mónica Chuji, the acceptance of the government’s proposal among indigenous communities is a result of the indigenous movement not being able to connect its historic demands with the new issues facing the communities.

“Employment, migration, agricultural production and trade, education, and health are all subjects that should be included in the debate with indigenous organizations, and as long as that isn’t being done, the government will have the room to garner confidence within the communities and divide the organizations,” Chuji told Latinamerica Press.
The welfare state
The government’s proposal is much more concrete for the indigenous communities and this is where their distance from their leadership surges; what the government offers can be seen and measured, it has a physical presence, while the discourse of indigenous claims has been repeated for years and, despite the Constitutional progress achieved, for the communities it does not materialize into tangible results.

“The Constitution contains some of the laws the indigenous movement has proposed for years, but this new legislation seems to have no concrete benefit for the indigenous bases, not because it’s not there, but because it has not been tied to the daily life of these communities,” Chuji said.

The government, meanwhile, boasts a welfare discourse that is well received among the society’s vulnerable sectors, like the indigenous people, Nelson Reascos, dean of the Faculty of Sociology at the Catholic University of Quito, told Latinamerica Press. This rhetoric points to homogeneous social investments (education, health, housing, etc.) as a source of general welfare, regardless of social diversity and the acquisition of economic resources based on the depletion of natural resources.

“This welfare discourse is based on the offer of greater social services, like more houses, more schools, more hospitals; it’s something everyone can understand, while the discussion of multinationalism is an enigma for your average person,” Reascos said.

The general welfare discourse is dangerous, said Reascos, because it means being a homogeneous society with equal benefits, which contradicts the right to diversity.

“To achieve general well-being, anything goes, from the damage to the right of communities to live their own worldview, to the depletion of natural resources, through the repression of those who do not think alike,” Reascos said.

Chuji states that “articulating new resistance to put pressure on government to seriously fulfill the constitutional mandate involves articulating a new discourse that coordinates the historical demands of the indigenous movement with the new social dynamics, because it is necessary to respond to the needs of the younger generations”.

While this debate is not taken up by their national leaders, indigenous communities have begun to mobilize for local demands, such as opposition to environmental damage caused by the oil industry in Sucumbios and Orellana, the declaration of protected forest areas and the militarization of border, the lack of social investment in rural sectors of the Ecuadorian coast, and even anti-mining and protection of water.

These small outbreaks of resistance are ignored by the government, like the protest since Sept. 25 by the inhabitants of the Coembí Triangle in the province of Sucumbíos, along the border with Colombia, against oil contamination, or else they are delegitimized, as happened with the inhabitants of Kinsakocha, in the province of Azuay, who decided for themselves, by majority, to oppose mining.

Meanwhile, the fragmentation of indigenous leadership and the absence of a national agenda that incorporates the demands of the communities will continue to fuel the pervasiveness that the government has in the indigenous organizations’ bases.
—Latinamerica Press.


Kichwa communities in Puerto El Carmen, Sucumbíos, protesting the militarization of the border. (Photo: Janet Cuji)
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