Oil vs. Communities: The Case of Ecuador
Refusing to Be Ignored!
By Hwaa Irfan
It is funny how we develop perceptions of places, and the people that are in them, and how we perceive their position in life. We can choose only to see what we want of them, not realizing their loss. That loss is difficult to understand if one has never been separated from one’s belief system, especially if that belief system is shaped and nurtured by the very land you have been raised in – even that for many is not a big deal, because they have only known much less!
Yet, it was Jun 04th that marked something I never knew about, i.e. the uprising “levantamiento” of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador took a symbolic act to mark an anniversary. 20 years ago, on Jun 04th the presidency of Rodrigo Borja (1988- 1992) massive demonstrations blocked access routes to the capital of all the provinces and did sit-ins at several well-known country estates , across Ecuador, which set precedence for indigenous peoples of Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Mexico. It began with 2,000 native/indigenous protestors on a 250 kilometer march to Quito, an Inca city, the second highest capital city in Latin America at 9,500̒seeking amongst things a plurinational state. They marched passed the Andes, and passed through many communities. These communities not only offered material support, they swelled the rank of the protestors from 2,000 to 5,000.
The thing is:
“Not even military intelligence had a whiff of what was going to happen,” Andrés Vallejo, then minister of Interior, told IPS.
The uprising cut off access to the Pan-American highway, and even played and danced to music!
“It was because of the uprising that they began to recognize us as people, as human beings, and that we had a voice and we could take action,” Mayo told IPS.
The protestors marched to the presidential palace, which was surrounded by soldiers in riot gear, with dogs, horses, and tanks. Eventually, the president agreed to meet their representatives.
The power of the people is one not to be ignored in Ecuador, as three of the seven presidents that ruled from 1997 – 2007, One of those presidents was Gutierrez (a follower of G.W. Bush Jr. who pushed through a Free Trade Agreement that provided considerable concessions to oil magnates, and a war against neighboring Columbia) , had been removed as a result of the people’s insurrection. Guiterrez fled in a helicopter, and an interim government was put in place until Correa was elected.
Since the 1992 “levantamiento” there have been more protests which culminated in the increased inclusion of the indigenous people of Ecuador in local governments, but not on a significant scale. The year of the “levantamiento” was significant, because it also marked the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s descent on American soil.
March 2010 bore witness to further protests in response to the “neoliberal and colonialist” policies which have been marginalizing indigenous Ecuadoreans. The indigenous alliance CONAIE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, felt betrayed by President Rafael Correa, and economics professor, who came to power with their support after serving in a government whose neo-liberal policies he tried to overturn. Unfortunately instead of seeking consultation with indigenous Ecuadoreans who represent 40% of the population, the government has taken up a confrontational stance.
But who are they?
Ecuador is not an easy place to acclimatize to with some archaeologists still finding it difficult to grasp how the Incas could habituate the Andes, on so little oxygen at 20,000 ̒ up. Then there are the regional characteristics. For instance, for people of the rain forest, the forest is everything, requiring nothing from outside of the rainforest.
There is a basic commonality between peoples of the highland no matter which country they are from. The intricate and well developed roads were established long ago by certain tribes including the Incas providing access, which links them to other Ecuadorean communities with the help of the Quicha language, a pan-Ecuadorean language instituted by the Incas to ensure a common vision.
The peoples of the coastland tend to be the oldest communities of native/indigenous Ecuadoreans. If we dare to push past the romantic notions of a people, we might find truths that reflect our own ignorance about what it takes to make the world go round, and about their lives which we have unwittingly contributed to.
The Ecuador that one might find attractive consists of “frontier towns, coastal villages, rambling haciendas, brimming market places, and colonial cities” as described by IPS. Mingling with something “other” than what we are used to, the ways of the people, and the smells and sounds play on our imaginations. One of those sounds is the sound of Spanish, and we are all probably under the belief that that is their language which they speak so lyrically. However, native/indigenous Ecuadoreans are not one people, like the native/indigenous peoples of the U.S. and Nigeria. Native/indigenous Ecuadoreans amidst the multi-ethnic mix that paints its landscapes, still in part retain their own pre-Columbian language – pre-Columbian? Primitive? Can you imagine retaining the memory of your people?
That is what old languages do along with much knowledge that would have otherwise been lost. For those like myself who do not have an ancient language or know someone who speaks such a language this concept is difficult to appreciate world to the three dimensional i.e. a limited understanding of what we think we see with our own eyes. Modern languages evolves on a daily basis, reducing once expressive forms of the inner and outer A person who speaks an ancient language holds a different relationship with the environment. There is a greater sense of the interconnectedness of all things, and the inner informs the outer world. For those who have become unsuccessful at holding onto their own language, there is also lack of success of holding onto the full meaning of their own culture. They become vulnerable forces like colonialism. In “Rediscovering the Sacred”, Arnoldo Carlos Vento informs us:
“In Native-American tradition, there were no ideas of finality or fragmentation of the universe. This model is decidedly Western and has its beginnings with the Eleatic school of philosophy circa 500 BC. After 500 BC, the universe for Western man/woman no longer possessed the unity of the universe where all changes arose from the cyclic interplay of opposites, which was seen as part of that unity. Now there was a personal God standing above all other Gods and directing the world. This led to the separation of spirit and matter, a dualism that is characteristic in Western philosophy.51 For the pre-Columbian mind, none this personalization and fragmentation existed. Instead, they believed in a basic unity of the universe as well as an awareness of unity i.e. a mutual interaction of all things. Pre-Columbian man/woman unlike the Western model, were not isolated individual selves. Rather, the idea was in the end, to transcend the self and identify with ultimate reality. There was no division of nature into separate categories. It was fluid and had an ever-changing character”.
The difficulty comes when the above world view is struck brutally by a contradiction in extreme!
The native/indigenous people of Ecuador today who come from the above worldview consist of many “tribes/clans”. The major clans today are the:
– Tsachila, meaning the True People/Word, live in the forest at the foot of the western Andes. Their language is Tsafiqui. Up until the 1950s there were an isolated people.
– The Awa, meaning people live in Carchi, NW Ecuador. Known as Awa-Kwaiker, they speak Awapi which is related to Tsafiqui.
– The Chachi/Cayapas live by the rivers of Cayapa, Santiago, Onzole, and Canande, and their language is similar to Tsafiqui and Awapi. Traditionally they were hunters, gatherers, and fisher folk.
– The Afroecuatoriano live mainly in Esmeraldas and the Valley of Chota, and records show they have been in Ecuador since 1550.
– The Canar are mainly in the south, and prior to Spanish conquest were at the mercy of the Incas, but managed to maintain their own identity.
– The Saraguro are mainly in the southern province of Loja.
These are but a few of the major tribes/clans of the native/indigenous peoples of Ecuador.
The Wind of Change
The coast of Ecuador meets the Pacific Ocean in the west, with the Amazon on the east. Mainly mountainous, Ecuador has a 20,000̒ high ridge along its center, known as the Andes. Ecuador today is the third smallest country in Latin America, but before Christendom laid claim through the Doctrine of Discovery, Ecuador was under the rule of the Inca (Tahuantinsuyu) Empire along with present day Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina, and Chile. The Spanish claim to Ecuador began in the early 16th century by virtue of the Doctrine of Discovery. Winning prizes for the Spanish crown, Pizarro after his exploits with Vasco de Balboa was authorized and financed along with Diego de Almargo, and a priest Fernando de Luque by Spanish governor of Panama, Pedero Arias de Avila to explore the south of Latin America. After “discovering” and conquering Peru, further exploits were made. A few voyages later after landing in Ecuador, Pizarro turned to the royal Spanish court to petition King Charles I to authorize the voyage. King Charles I gave personal authorization to Pizarro and Almargo based on the gold coins Pizarro showed to him. Making an unwise decision, probably the only option open to him, Pizarro recruited family members among 180 men for a voyage which involved the procurement of gold, silver, and emeralds, resistance from the indigenous peoples of Puná, and the founding of the first Spanish settlement in Peru, San Miguel de Tangarará which was left in charge of Sebastián de Benalcázar. The Incas died off at the merciless hands of the deadly plague and small pox introduced by the invading Spanish, and then followed the Spanish swords and canons. It was Benalcazar who conquered north Ecuador.
The Jesuit Order had the most devastating impact on the native/indigenous peoples of Ecuador in terms of identity through conversion and subjugation. Under the guidance of the Catholic Church through the auspices of St. Thomas More, the Jesuit Order was to:
“…restore society to its Christian bases, adopting as supreme guide the norms of natural rights.”
Becoming part of the wealthiest landowners to land which was not theirs, except under the authority of the Catholic church, the Jesuits became a formidable economic power owning plantations, mines, ranches, estates and workshops in Columbia, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venuezuela. The steps involved “pacifying the people, and then enslavement, conversion.
Jesuits were finally expelled from all of South America in 1767 by Spanish interests. Once the Jesuits were removed, the native/indigenous peoples were faced with the Spanish, and thus their increasing dissatisfaction, which led to rebellions. The Quichuas, as highlanders played a strong role in these rebellions with the most significant rebellion taking place in 1871. One of the reasons for the rebellions was the hatred of the Spanish, and the exorbitant taxes which forced the native/Indigenous peoples to sell their land. All takes, went to the Church and the state. Exiled Jesuit Francis Xavier Clavijero saw the solution to be one of racial mixing:
“There is no doubt at all that the policy of the Spaniards would have been wiser if, instead of fetching wives from Europe and slaves from Africa…they had insisted on making a single people out of themselves and the Mexican Indians.”
The 19th century was marked by feudalism impoverishing the native/indigenous peoples, and making the land aristocracy even richer. This wealth base grew to include the farmers, due to Europe’s and the U.S. demand for cacao. This was all overturned in 1895 with a revolution led by Eloy Alfaro which ended the church/state relationship as in the French Revolution, but liberal reforms were made in Ecuador allowing for freedom of speech, legalized divorce, public schools and civil marriage.
Oil and the Oligarchy
The support that Correa gained from the indigenous peoples in his bid for presidency in 2007 was in reaction to the richest man in Ecuador, and member of the corporate oligarcy, Alvaro Noboa. Whereas Correa belonged to no political party, Noboa was a fully fledged member of the corrupt Partidocracia dominated by oligarchs who controlled Congress, the Supreme Court and non governmental agencies like the Federal Electoral Tribunal. The Ecuadorean oligarch like the U.S. oligarch rose to prominence on oil led by Texaco. Of the 23 years Texaco had drilled for oil in the Amazon rainforest, there were 17 million gallons of oil spilled, and 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater dumped.
The Partidocracia’s relationship with Washington and the Pentagon was unquestionable, with privatization of state initiatives, and drastic cuts to the social welfare budget. Becoming puppets of Pentagon, the Partidocracia signed a 1999 treaty with the Pentagon which allowed for a rather large U.S. military base, a center of intelligence operations on the Ecuadorian coastline of the Pacific Ocean.
Some of the revenue made from oil did seep through to finance infrastructural projects, food subsidies and some social programs, but the shock came with the collapse of global oil prices after 1982 which left Ecuador in debt to the equivalent of 60% of its GDP. The International Monetary Fund that aims to make poor countries poorer stepped in to lay claim to Ecuador’s economy to leave Ecuador forever in debt, and the poor poorer.
Without a care, these U.S.- based multinational oil companies as in Nigeria, exploited the tropical rainforest of Ecuador to the extent that they left devastation, contamination , seismic grids, oil wells, and open waste pits in their wake. Isolated communities were brutally torn apart suffering disease, displacement and harsh treatment because they refused to work for the oil companies. The rivers became so contaminated that the villagers could only eat fish from the tins, and not the rivers. In the Lago Agrio region of the Ecuador-Amazon border, 916 waste pits of crude oil has been left by Chevron (who took over Texaco) leaving the people suffering from a series of health problems including cancer of which there are 1,401 cancer deaths evidenced by a panel commissioned by the courts. Chevron has been charged with $27 billion cleanup bill. The legal argument rolls on as Chevron tries to avoid any element that might taint its reputation. ”
“As a congressman and an American citizen I feel ashamed.”
“Chevron owes the villagers a settlement.
“They have a moral and, I believe, legal obligation to settle this case” U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, who visited Lago Agrio told reporters.
Ecuador Explorer. Ecuador Culture http://www.ecuadorexplorer.com/html/people_and_culture.html
Abyala Pueblos del Ecuador / Peoples of Ecuador http://abyayala.nativeweb.org/ecuador/
Burbach, R. Ecuador: The Popular Rebellion Against the “Partidocracia” and the Neo-Liberal State. http://globalalternatives.org/rebellion_against_the_partidocracia
Countryside Studies. Ecuador. http://countrystudies.us/ecuador/5.htm
Ortiz, G. The Great Indigenous Uprising, 20 Years On http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=51687
Ortiz, G. Native Leaders Call for Anti-Government Protests. http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=50629
Smith, G. The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America and Liberation Theology http://academic.sun.ac.za/forlang/bergman/real/mission/h_rcc.htm
Vento, A. C. “Rediscovering the Sacred: From the Secular to a Post-modern Sense of the Sacred” University of Texas-Austin. http://eaglefeather.org/series/PreColumbian%20Series/Excerpt%20Rediscovering%20the%20Sacred.pdf
The Doctrine of Discovery
Oil vs. Communities: The Case of the Niger Delta
Al-Biruni’s “Economy of Nature” in Modern Biotechnology