The Ecuadorian indigenous movement and the current process of transition

Posted on Updated on

The indigenous movement and the current process of transition

Floresmilo Simbaña
Agencia Latinoamericana de Información, August 24, 2007.

This is a translation of one of the articles that appeared in the journal linked to in the previous blog entry, one that particularly concerns the indigenous struggle and movements, organisations and their elites in Ecuador – written from within the indigenous perspective. We let it speak for itself….

Currently, it has become commonplace to say that the indigenous movement, and more specifically the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), is going through a period of grave weakness and that it no longer has the capacity to mobilize people as it did in the 90s.

The most oft-repeated arguments for such assertions primarily center around three factors: a) reduced legitimacy due to participation by the CONAIE in the government of Lucio Gutiérrez, b) weakness and incoherence within the leadership, and, c) what some call “ethnocentric” tendencies based upon the proposal to have Ecuador recognized as a plurinational state.

While the aforementioned have some bearing on reality, these contentions and lines of analysis are completely insufficient for understanding the indigenous movement’s present situation, particularly if seen from outside of the general context of the process.

Without a doubt, the present CONAIE is not the same as that of the 90s, but neither is the national and international reality the same. When the CONAIE was formed in 1986 as the national representative of the twelve existing indigenous nationalities in the country[1], it received the socio-political and organic-structural inheritance of the rural struggles which took on the two “agrarian reforms” of 1964 and 1973. From 1990 and the first indigenous uprising, it took up the anti-neoliberal struggle, in the general framework of the popular sectors.

Until the mid 90s, the CONAIE targeted their efforts on resolving land and territorial conflicts that arose in the 60s; all or almost all caught up in lengthy, costly and difficult social and legal procedures. In the midst of an extended and ongoing process of mobilization and negotiation, most of these conflicts came to be resolved, in differing degrees and conditions.

An important turning point came about for the indigenous movement and the national sociopolitical situation pertaining to the rural area, in 1994, with the implementation of a new Agrarian Law which was advanced by the extreme right led by then-Member of Congress Jaime Nebot, with the support of the government of Sixto Durán Ballén. The main objective of this law was to create an open market for land, including that which was community owned, and to advance the privatization of natural resources, especially water. As an immediate response, the CONAIE launched their second uprising with which they managed to have the law withdrawn and to negotiate a new one. The Law of Agrarian Development that was finally adopted was substantially different from the first; leading to a stalemate in the conflict between the indigenous movement and those promoting neoliberalism in the rural areas, along with international capital.

Up until that moment, the political dynamics of the indigenous movement, in the conflict for land and territorial tenure, had led to direct confrontation with national capital and the state.

The ethnicist tendency

During the second half of the 90s, with the looming economic crisis and the rural sector once again “pacified,” indigenous and peasant communities were urged to produce. Under these circumstances, the State (in small measure) and primarily international cooperation agencies (NGOs) intensified the “investments” in micro and small-scale production. The experience of the Development Project for Indigenous Afro-Ecuadorian Peoples (PRODEPINE), created in 1997, is a fitting example. Financed by the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and, to a lesser extent, the State, funds for this project totaled $50 million dollars over ten years. But all of the related projects and initiatives entered into crisis because they failed to consider the full productive cycle: production, marketing, and reinvestment; with marketing, the most complex aspect, being neglected in particular. This problem was further aggravated by the flow of cheap products into the domestic market from Peru, Colombia and the US, primarily as a result of dollarization.

The State and successive governments of this period did not formulate policies to avoid the crisis within these sectors; ultimately demonstrating that capital is not interested in indigenous peoples and peasants as producers, but rather as consumers and as cheap and mobile labor (as migrants both domestically and internationally).

Within this context, the agrarian and artisan rural sector remained socio-politically in confrontation with the market, and as a result with the non-indigenous urban society, although not with the State or capital in a direct way. As such, the political-economic conflict became seen more as a socio-cultural problem, or, at least this is how some peasant indigenous sectors and organizations came to see the situation.

These overall general trends, including changes in the economic, political and ideological conditions[2], implied that within the CONAIE the historical tendency[3] became displaced from the majority of leadership positions. In 1996, the arrival of Antonio Vargas as president of the organization, and along with him several individuals and groups from indigenous organizations of the Coast, Amazon and even the Highlands, who were opposed to the historical tendency, represented this turning point. The position represented by Vargas reduced the cultural conflict to an ethnic problem, giving it a role that the project for pluri-nationality never imagined; in fact, the 1994 political project of the CONAIE defines the cultural problem first and foremost as “a structural economic-political problem, and therefore a national problem”; this implies that the cultural problem and the reconstruction of indigenous peoples will be addressed from a material basis, resulting from changing the capitalist system. For this reason, the political project of the CONAIE based upon its declarations, defines the organization as anti-capitalist.

This tendency that we will refer to as ethnocentric tried twice, in 1999 and 2002, through its top indigenous and non-indigenous officials and intellectuals[4], to reform or “up-date” the organization’s political project, by trying to distance it as much as possible from its radical and left elements. Theoretically this change meant redefining the cultural problem as an ethnic one, and not only from an analytical perspective; above all it meant a change of category, altering the basis upon which political action would be developed.

In large part, the historical direction of the movement also lost political control as a result of the crisis in general faced by the left, but its criticism continued to find expression in various ways. For example, in 2001, Luis Macas published an editorial blaming the leadership of the time and particularly those of the ethnocentric tendency for promoting neoliberalism through productive projects: “PRODEPINE has been consolidated within the internal organizational structures of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, becoming one of its greatest threats. This project is replicating the strategic objectives of the World Bank affecting the internal logic of one of the most important actors of the current period, the indigenous movement. This project is framed within the dominant parameters of development policy and dependency on aid, along with the creation of techno-bureaucratic structures which are being formed as power structures within the Ecuadorian indigenous movement. Technicians are being recruited from within the indigenous movement, being equipped with management and negotiation skills, transforming this project into a transmission belt between the World Bank with its neoliberal aims, and the indigenous peoples of Ecuador.”[5]

But this new context has not only affected the CONAIE. In this same period the National Confederation of Rural Indigenous and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) was left without the capacity for independent action. At the most it undertook minimal mobilizations against the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), in between organizing agricultural fairs.


The history and tendencies of the indigenous movement led to a digression from its historical struggle, and it is a return to this tradition that can put it back on track.

International capital urgently needs access to more natural resources, for its ongoing advancement and sustenance. In order to obtain them it will go to any length, even war and military invasion, such as in the case of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and now with its sights on Iran. In Latin America, it has resorted to aggressive privatization of extensive territories in every country.

In Ecuador, especially between 1996 and 2004, successive governments handed over more than six million hectares (or 15 million acres) of territory, mainly encompassing native forests and moorland, as mining, oil, water and hydroelectric concessions, as well as for “biodiversity management,” to national private companies and NGOs, and above all to transnational corporations. These concessions affected private, community and publicly owned property, directly and indirectly impacting indigenous and peasant peoples and communities. On top of this, the intention of the governments of Lucio Gutiérrez and Alfredo Palacio to sign the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US, led the rural sector to rise up again in another direct confrontation with capital (now openly at the international level) and the State.

The struggle against the FTA allowed the indigenous movement to reorganize with a more political focus; it weakened – although it did not defeat – the ethnocentric tendency and began to reorganize the left within the movement. We should mention that this is an incipient process which remains full of contradictions.

This new period resulted in the election of Humberto Cholango as President of the Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador (Ecuarunari) and Luis Macas as that of CONAIE, representatives from two generations of the historical tendency of the movement. Given this, the movement is undergoing an internal process of regrouping and reorganization, which has allowed new indigenous and non-indigenous organizations to join CONAIE, as well as for CONAIE to sign alliances with peasant sectors from the coast and the highlands, to further opportunities for strong theoretical and political debate concerning its project and pluri-nationality, as well as to promote the creation of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), which brings together organizations from Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. Also, a range of changes are taking place at the grassroots level, with new member communities and organizations whose social-productive foundation is community-based production and marketing, some with a preferential export-oriented focus. This was how the FTA was defeated.

The setback represented by the results of the 2006 presidential election[6] reflects the internal political struggle of a transitional process and not simply the weakness of the leadership or the candidate.

This article does not provide sufficient space to undertake an adequate analysis of the current situation. However, we note that the present period is marked by a setback in neoliberalism, the current government of Rafael Correa and a new period for the indigenous movement, indicating to us that we are facing a historical process of transition. Its ultimate orientation will depend upon the general direction taken by international politics, whose primary determining factors will be the response of the US and Brazil, also considering the role that Europe and even the Chinese might play; and in the middle of all this, the politics that Correa will follow as part of the regional trend of progressive governments, primarily including Venezuela and Bolivia; as well as how the indigenous movement consolidates its new political direction and strengthens its unity with the popular sectors to confront this process of change.

Historically, it has been demonstrated that all processes of profound change, and even more so if we are speaking of revolution, demands the essential participation of society as a whole, which implies the necessary unity of the rural and urban sectors. This would mean, within Ecuador’s current context, a renewed relationship between the indigenous movement and Correa’s government (which potentially reflects a resurgence of urban social-organizational processes). But this will greatly depend on how the current constituent process is addressed (during the electoral process, as well as in the proposals and actions taken by the Constituent Assembly). Above all it depends on the efforts made to dismantle neoliberalism in the rural areas, especially with regard to private land concessions, because it is impossible to consider constructing a democratic country that is just and equitable – and even more so if we say we want to construct 21st Century Socialism – with half of Ecuador’s territory in the hands of private companies and international capital. (Translation: ALAI).

Floresmilo Simbaña is a former leader of the indigenous movement and current member of the CONAIE-ECUARUNARI.

(This article is included in the August issue of América Latina en Movimiento, No. 423, focused on the theme “Ecuador en tiempos de cambio”, now in circulation:


[1] The 12 indigenous nationalities that historically live in Ecuador are: Kichwa, Shuar,Achwar, Waorani, Secoya, Zapara, Siona, Cofan, Awa, Epera, T’zachila and Chachi.


[2] We should recall that in these years, especially during the second half of the 90s, the crisis of the left as a political, theoretical and ideological current was at its deepest point, following the fall of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the USSR.


[3] This tendency is characterized by its left wing positions based upon emancipatory, libertarian politics which are critical of capitalism. Not only does the past leadership come from this line of thinking, but also the new leaders who are participating in one way or another.


[4] It is important to mention that these leaders received substantial political and even economic support from several sectors, beginning with governments, particularly under Buracam, Mahuad, Noboa and Gutiérrez, who gave them projects and positions in public office; but they were also supported by national and international NGOs as well as the mass media who created the fictitious “new leadership.”


[5] RAYMI News Bulletin. A publication of the Scientific Institute of Indigenous Cultures (ICCI). 2001.

[6] Editor’s note: Luis Macas ran as a presidential candidate in the election.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s