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After Crackdown, Protesters to March Again Against Ecuador's 'Extractivism' PDF Print E-mail

By Sandra Cuffe

Indigenous organizations and other groups will renew protests over government policies on Wednesday. The planned marches come on the heels of nation-wide protests in August that drew many thousands of participants and resulted in arrests and clashes with military and police forces.

  • An alliance of indigenous federations, campesinos, s, and other groups that oppose proposed constitutional reforms and government policies on a range of issues are planning a new round of protests on Wednesday across Ecuador.
  • Environmental issues are front and center, with protesters opposed to the Ecuadorian government's natural-resource-based development model, which they call "extractivism."
  • The protests are taking place amid a government-imposed nation-wide "state of exception" that suspends basic rights.

The streets of Ecuador will fill with colorful flags and footsteps again on Wednesday as indigenous organizations and other groups renew protests over government policies.

The planned marches come on the heels of nation-wide protests that wracked the country in August, drawing many thousands of participants. These resulted in arrests, clashes with military and police forces, and a crackdown on protesters. The government also imposed a nation-wide "state of exception."

Protests are being organized by an alliance of indigenous federations, campesinos (rural small-scale farmers and farmworkers), s, and other groups that oppose proposed constitutional reforms and government policies on a range of issues, from water governance to intercultural bilingual education.

Environmental issues are front and center. Protesters denounce the Ecuadorian government's development model based on natural resource exploitation, which they call "extractivism." A recent wave of new mining and oil-industry projects around the country has been met with fierce resistance, particularly on indigenous lands.

ceremony_press_conferenceA ceremony and press conference by indigenous groups marching to Ecuador's capital city of Quito during nationwide protests in August. Indigenous communities are calling for a halt to the expansion of oil industry activities in the Amazon, among a host of other demands. Photo by Carlos Rodríguez / Agencia de Noticias ANDES.

The upcoming marches will be preceded by a public gathering for discussion and debate in Quito on September 15, according to Severino Sharupi, the territory and natural resources coordinator for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). The confederation has been at the forefront of the alliance coordinating protest activities. Plans for September 16 include marches in the provincial capitals of each of Ecuador's 24 provinces.

"These are actions of mobilization and of rejection of the current government's policies, in the framework of the indigenous and popular uprising," Sharupi told Mongabay. "They will be marches in the cities with the goal of positioning the national platform of struggle, and also for our political prisoners and others facing charges."

Severino_SharupiSeverino Sharupi is the territory and natural resources coordinator for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), a group helping to organize recent protests. Photo by Micaela Ayala / Agencia de Noticias ANDES.

Twenty-four people who were arrested during the August protests remain in pretrial detention, according to a September 9 statement by the Legal Roundtable of the Uprising. This group, comprised of lawyers, organizations, and individuals, came together in the wake of the crackdown on protests in mid-August. More than 100 people face legal proceedings.

Past mobilizations by indigenous federations and social movements were instrumental in bringing down the governments of president Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and president Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005. CONAIE and a host of other movements and organizations actively backed Rafael Correa's bid for the presidency.

Since coming to power in 2007, Correa's administration has ushered in a progressive new Constitution and implemented important social policies that drew broad support from the population. However, other government measures have been met with mounting opposition. Over the past eight years, there has been a growing rift between the government and many social movement organizations.

The current wave of protests is due to a convergence of communities resisting mining and petroleum industry projects, workers opposing labor policies, and many other sectors opposing proposed Constitutional reforms that include removing presidential term limits. Recent polls indicate that a clear majority of the population favors a popular referendum on the issue of whether to permit indefinite re-election.

Following demonstrations off and on in 2014 and earlier in 2015, people took to the streets in August. Indigenous people marched hundreds of miles to Quito to protest mining and oil projects. Following the indigenous march, a wave of protests took place around the country.

Protests in Quito and in indigenous regions in southern Ecuador and the Amazon region in eastern Ecuador resulted in a crackdown by soldiers and police, who deployed tear gas and made raids and arrests. In some cases, clashes broke out between protesters and security forces. Protesters denounced the use of overwhelming force and beatings by security forces, allegations the government has denied.

marcha_federaciones_indigenasIndigenous federations have been at the forefront of recent street marches, such as this one in Quito in March 2015. Photo by Carlos Rodríguez / Agencia de Noticias ANDES.

On August 15, the government declared a state of exception amid the ongoing protests, as well as rallies in support of the government. The measure was officially in response to an increase in eruptive activity of the Cotopaxi volcano located 50 miles south of Quito, but it included the entire national territory of Ecuador.

The state of exception may last up to 60 days, mobilizes the armed forces, and grants security officials the power to suspend constitutional rights such as the inviolability of the home and the freedoms of assembly and transit. The presidential decree enacting the state of exception explicitly prohibits the suspension of rights and freedoms for any reason other than the response to volcanic activity.

CONAIE and other organizations denounced the broad geographic scope of the state of exception, arguing that it should have been limited to the areas surrounding the volcano. They see the measure as a move to facilitate the government's powers to quell rising social protest.

"The main objective of Rafael Correa was to try to bring down the forces of the uprising to stop the uprising from happening," said Sharupi.

As people prepare to hit the streets again on September 16, the expansion of extractive-industry activities around the country remains a key point of contention for indigenous, campesino, and environmental groups. Among their demands are the shelving of mining concessions and the 2013 mining law that facilitates foreign investment, and a halt to the expansion of oil exploitation in the Amazon region.

"The government's discourse is to move away from extractivism, but it is deepening extractivism," said Sharupi.

CotopaxiThe Cotopaxi volcano's increased eruptive activity was the government's justification for declaring a state of exception on August 15. The state of exception covers the entire national territory of Ecuador, mobilizing the armed forces, and granting security officials the power to suspend certain rights, such as the freedoms of assembly and transit. Photo by Carlos Rodríguez / Agencia de Noticias ANDES.

Oil fields and gold and copper deposits are located primarily in indigenous and campesino lands, said Sharupi. The government has been granting natural resource concessions to national and transnational corporations without consulting those affected or obtaining their free, prior, and informed consent as required by international law, he added.

Many environmental groups in Ecuador support the goals of the protests, even if they aren't active participants in the alliance coordinating them. Environmental organizations, community groups, and others have joined forces in a National Environmental Assembly to strategize about diverse issues, from biofuel plantations and food sovereignty to mining and oil extraction, and to advance concrete alternatives.

"Our focus is on how to get away from extractivism, from the extractivist model," José Rivadeneira, president of the Ecuadoran Coordination of Organizations for the Defense of Nature and the Environment (CEDENMA), told Mongabay.

"In terms of oil, it's centered basically on two points: the defense of Yasuní [National Park] against exploitation, and a halt to the expansion of the oil frontier into the southern Amazon region. On the issue of mining, it's focused on Ecuador not allowing large-scale mining," said Rivadeneira.

The environmental movement wants to revive certain elements of the 2008 Constitution that it regards as innovative and progressive but that have not been realized, including measures to promote food sovereignty and protect nature. Ecuador was the first country to incorporate Rights of Nature into its constitution, declaring that nature has the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles and empowering citizens to demand recognition of the rights of nature.

CEDENMA and other groups have been pushing for the government to drop the contested constitutional reforms and instead engage in a dialogue about shifting the country's plan for economic development.

mural_resistencia_localExtractive industry projects have faced fierce community opposition for years. A mural in the Intag region of Ecuador proclaims local resistance to mining. Photo by Pato Chavez.

Faced with growing protest, the government of Rafael Correa did announce a national dialogue in June, but the response was far from unanimous. Many groups are participating in the dialogue, while others, including CEDENMA and CONAIE, flat out reject the dialogue as too little, too late.

"What's happening is that the government is toughening its positions, to the extent that it will lead to a greater confrontation with movements opposing its policies," said Rivadeneira. "The dialogue proposed by the government lacks credibility, because [the government] increasingly divides social movements, disparages leaders, and takes a position of greater repression instead of openness to dialogue."

Given current conditions, Rivadeneira doesn't anticipate protests will wind down anytime soon.

"It appears that social mobilization will continue. There's no reason to decrease pressure at the moment because the population has acquired more confidence in its organizational process and demands participation in state decisions concerning economic and social policy," he said.