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Building A Network

new internationalist
issue 186 - August 1988

Jungle today, oil palms tomorrow.
Edward P. Leahy / CAMERA PRESS
Building a network
From the Amazon Basin to the majestic Andes, Ecuador's Indians are demanding
their rights. Paul Little assesses the growing strength of these new Indian alliances.

Six Indian nations inhabit the thousands of square miles of tropical jungle in Ecuador's Amazon Basin. For countless generations their mobile lifestyle has been in harmony with this fragile ecosystem. They survive by hunting, fishing and collecting wild forest foods. They also till small plots which they shift from time to time to protect delicate jungle soils.

Now Ecuador's Indians are running into trouble. The cutting edge of industrial development is quickly disrupting their settled, centuries-old lifestyle. In the capital, Quito, these remote lands are considered 'vacant' and ripe for 'development'.

Most of Ecuador's oil, which accounts for more than 65 per cent of its export income, is pumped from this region. In addition, vast sections of jungle have been stripped of lumber and African oil palms planted. The African palm tree produces oil which is sold in lucrative export markets, but the waste products from processing have contaminated both rivers and soil, killing fish and plants for hundreds of square miles. As a result the Indian land base is rapidly being destroyed and their survival threatened.

The Indians are being encouraged to take the tough, unskilled jobs on the palm oil plantations and to give up their nomadic lifestyle. Along with new cash crops have come new settlers. The Ecuadorian government is encouraging 'mestizo' (mixed race) colonists to migrate and settle the area while the state-run development bank offers them credit to clearcut the jungle and establish cattle ranches.

At the same time scores of American-backed evangelical sects have penetrated the region in an effort to Christianize and 'Westernize' the Amazonian tribes, part of the overall effort to turn them into 'useful' consumers. The missionaries also see the communal ways of the Indians as obstacles to progress and are doing their best to stamp them out.

These intrusions have not been met meekly by the Amazonian Indian nations. Last year a band of about 50 Huoarani Indians garnered national attention when a Catholic bishop and a nun were captured and killed. The two were self-appointed intermediaries between the Huoarani and the oil companies that were planning to expropriate the Indians' land. Their arrival in a company helicopter was seen as another threatening encroachment and their speared bodies were found two days later. For an isolated group of Indians on the verge of extinction this was a desperate attempt to defend themselves.

Other Amazonian Indians who have more contact with the dominant society realize that violent opposition is a dead end. Instead they've chosen to organize politically as their basic means of resistance. Though separated by enormous distances, mutually unintelligible languages and different histories, they realize they can only survive if they join forces.

In 1980, several Indian organizations representing people from the Shuar, Huoarani, Secoya, Siona, Cofan and Quichua nations, formed the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Amazon (CONFENIAE). In eight years they have tried to get legal recognition of their traditional lands as their inalienable territory. They have also denounced the intrusion of multinational companies and colonists into their homelands.

Meanwhile, 10,000 feet above sea level the Quichua Indians of the Andes Mountains face entirely different problems. The traditional culture of these people (the northern half of the great Inca empire) was shattered by the Spanish Conquest over 450 years ago. They were forced to work on large plantations (huasipungos) for a wealthy Spanish landowner in return for a few acres of land.

This system continued for centuries. In fact it wasn't until the land reform acts of 1964 and 1973 that Indian people gained ownership of the small plots of land their families had farmed for hundreds of years. The fertile land in the valley bottoms remained in the hands of rich landowners.

Today nearly a third of Ecuador's ten million people are Quichua Indians. Over the last two decades there has been a massive Indian migration to the cities in search of work. Like native people throughout the Americas the Quichua are at the bottom of Ecuador's economic ladder.

In the 1960s and 1970s to broaden their support in Ecuador, Quichua groups began seeking alliances with progressive non-Indian organizations - especially those on the Left. The Indians were pushing for the recovery of their language and customs, while their leftist collaborators were insisting they suppress these efforts in favor of 'class struggle'. They did and the result was Indian peoples were pushed toward more rapid assimilation into the mainstream.

Sensing the downward spiral, a new generation of Indian leaders in the 1980s did a U-turn and began asserting their rights as full-fledged 'nationalities'. The power base was built on the strength of community values and cooperation that have always been at the heart of Quichua culture. When a devastating earthquake rocked Ecuador in March 1987, many of the hardest hit areas were poor Indian communities. With minimal help from the government, they rebuilt their villages house by house using the traditional communal work sessions or 'mingas'.

This sense of community has given birth to a new sense of pan-Indianism; indigenous nations are looking beyond their own societies in order to find a common strategy of struggle. As Shuar Indian leader Leonardo Viteri explains: 'Though there are many different Indian nationalities in Ecuador, we consider ourselves to be one people. We face the same problems, we suffer from the same unjust policies of the government.

This understanding led to an historic congress in November, 1986 when leaders from all ten Indian nations met together to establish the Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE).

The new federation calls for self-determination and sees the recovery of Indian lands as the first step. CONAIE is also attempting to build contacts with Indian organizations in other parts of the Americas to broaden support and exchange ideas.

In Latin America alone, there are more than 400 distinct Indian nations with a combined population of over 30 million people. CONAIE believes increased communication between these groups will foster cooperation on issues of continent-wide importance. They are currently trying to organize a Latin America-wide Indian protest against the 500th anniversary of Columbus's 'discovery' of the Americas.

In developing a common strategy some differences of opinion have emerged in Ecuador's pan-Indian movement. Some groups argue that seeking power within the current system is the best way to influence government decisions. Others want to build an independent Indian power base. In spite of these divergent tactics, both groups want a federated Ecuadorian republic of nations in which all languages, cultures and customs will be respected and their domination by the Spanish-speaking mestizo society will end.

Paul Little is a Quito-based journalist with a special interest in native peoples.

Photo: Paul Little Neptali Ulwanga, a 67-year old Quichua elder
and leader from the Andean Indian village of Pesillo,
Ecuador talks to NI about Indian philosophy
and the need to care for the earth.

Indian religion in Ecuador has always been based on belief in Mother Nature - Mama Pacha as we say in Quichua. We worshipped the sun, the moon, the stars, the rainbow, the snow-capped mountains, the free-flowing rivers and the snake. When Catholicism arrived we were told not to believe in material things; we should only believe in spiritual things.

But for us, Heaven is nothing more than the empty atmosphere. And Hell is more a way of being: it is suffering in this life and this world. For us the real sinners are those who oppress, and kill and make war.

But the Church didn't conceive of sin in this way. They didn't say war was a sin, or capitalism was a sin or being wealthy was a sin. Rather they said the rich and powerful were a second god.

Today, Indian people have made the priests and nuns see they have been lying to us. We have told them sin is when the rich oppress the poor.

All of humanity depends upon the Mama Pacha. Those skyscrapers you see in Quito are not built on air; the factories there use raw materials taken from the land. If it was not for the land, those factories and industries would not be worth anything.

Mother Nature is our true and complete educator. We do not need tractors, fertilizers, or insecticides. Those things are destroying the land - plants, animals and people are being totally contaminated.

Mother Nature used to produce healthy abundant fruits and grains. In the past we used natural fertilizers; we needed only to work the land with love and affection. Today the land will not produce unless you dose it with fertilizers. The land is wearing out, the soil is sick and old.

Interview conducted by Paul Little

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New Internationalist issue 186 magazine cover This article is from the August 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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