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Assessment for Lowland Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Lowland Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Ecuador Facts
Area:    283,560 sq. km.
Capital:    Quito
Total Population:    11,822,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Economic and political discrimination against indigenous people occurs in Ecuador and seems likely to persist in the near future. However, indigenous peoples throughout Ecuador have proved capable of sustained resistance to unfair economic and political policies, especially those that cut social aid programs. Based on previous organization of the Amazonian Indians, continued organization and mobilization appears quite likely; since 2001 they have continued to express their demands to national and international communities, though its effectiveness remains unproven as significant improvement in their situation has not happened yet. As the Ecuadorian government pursues implementation of economic reforms that cut social aid, indigenous groups in the Amazon are likely to organize, as they did when they backed out of a coalition with President Gutierrez in 2003 over his abandonment of promised economic policies. Continued commercial development of their lands can also be expected to ignite mobilization. These protests have escalated in some violence since 2001, and scattered violence is likely so long as oil companies continue to infringe upon indigenous land. Perhaps the most effective means to improve their situation in Ecuador is if the indigenous can continue to increase and maintain their role in the parliament.

Analytic Summary

Ecuador's Lowland Indians account for 2.5 percent of the indigenous population, or 1 percent of the total population. They reside principally in the northeast, on the upper tributaries of the Amazon basin (GROUPCON = 3). Ecuador's Amazonian Indians are generally hunters and agricultural workers, living almost completely off the land, in small bands. Their religion and traditions are a mixture of Roman Catholic and animist beliefs. Like indigenous people in Ecuador's highland Sierra, lowland Indians are poverty stricken and lack adequate health and education facilities. Tribal members who have had access to missionaries speak Spanish, but many Indians in the Amazonian region speak only Quichua (LANG = 2). Discovered by European settlers in the 1500s, Ecuador's lowland indigenous peoples include Aushiris, Cofanes, Quichuas, Secoyas, Sionas, Shuaras, Tetetes, and Zaparos. They collectively call themselves Runa and speak Quichua. They are the most isolated of all indigenous peoples in Ecuador because the jungle is not easily accessible. Some

tribes, such as the Woaroni, have moved so deep into the jungle that they are only seen in random sightings.

Ecuador's lowland groups have been organized on local, regional, and national levels, beginning with the 1964 Agrarian Reforms of the dictator Rodriguez Lara. These laws promoted colonization of the Amazonian region (MIGRANT = 2) under the institution of the Ecuadorian Institute for Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC). The first indigenous organization from the Amazon, the Federation of the Shuar Centers (c. 1964), formed in response to this process since these lands had been traditionally inhabited by indigenous communities. The Federation established community programs in bilingual education, healthcare and cattle ranching, outside of state-supported efforts.

The Ecuadorian military has strong ties to Amazonian indigenous communities, as many military personnel come from the region and own homes there. Many have been trained through the "civic action" program at the School of the Americas (USA) to work with indigenous communities and to develop links with them. Yet, the economic status of most Amazonian Indians is poor and does not seem to be likely to improve (ECDIS03 = 4). Since the 1990 uprising, Amnesty International has reported at times that "heavily armed paramilitary groups, acting with official acquiescence or the direct cooperation of local official forces" have been responsible for abuses against Indians. The human rights officer for the Imbabura Indigenous Federation was murdered, and indigenous leader Jose Maria Cabascango was tortured and threatened by police. Indians have been detained by police and tortured.

An oil boom in the 1970s eroded indigenous communities' hold on ancestral lands. The Organization of the People of Pastaza (OPIP) and the Federation of the Indigenous Organization of Napo (FOIN) were both formed in 1973. FOIN represents more than 60 Runa Indian communities, mainly provincial organizations throughout the Amazonian region. These organizations combine traditional Indian shamans with western forms (e.g., president, vice-president, and secretaries). Like the Federation of the Shuar Centers, these groups were primarily concerned with land struggles. In 1980, Amazonian groups united to form the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENAIE). The organization's leadership includes Shuar, Quichua, Achuar, Woaroni, Cofan, Siona, and Secoya tribal representatives. Its principle decision-making body is a Congress, held every two years. Through this alliance, Ecuador's lowland Indians have brought their issues to public attention, placing them on the political agendas of national and international groups. CONFENAIE has formed alliances with environmental and human rights organizations to force oil companies and the Ecuadorian government to negotiate development practices in the Amazon region. Again, land rights have been a central issue.

The national Indian organization of Ecuador is CONAIE, formed by the union of ECUARUNARI and CONFENAIE in 1980. Shortly afterwards, the coastal Indian communities formed the regional group COICE (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Coast of Ecuador); it later joined CONAIE. Since 1995, Pachakutik has been the political wing of CONAIE, representing both highlands and lowlands in the government, though it is not necessarily beholden to CONAIE. CONAIE has very strong leadership through its president and secretaries for various issue areas, such as human rights, women, health, and education. CONAIE has received resources from international groups including anthropological and environmental organizations, OXFAM, the Inter-American Foundation, the Rainforest Action Network, in addition to various community support organizations. Organized at local, regional, national, and international levels, CONAIE is able to acquire resources and mobilize effectively. Various international and transnational organizations have sought to help the indigenous communities save their territories in Ecuador – the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues and Amnesty International have both supported Indian environmental and human rights concerns, in addition to making international media announcements protesting abuses in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Environmental groups have criticized the World Bank for its new Global Environmental Facility (GEF) grant to protect Ecuador's forest and indigenous territories. Indian communities are also organizing international funds to persuade the government to agree to a debt-for-land swap.

The mid-1980s were difficult times; the governments of Hurtado and Cordero both violently suppressed land rights movements in the Amazon, destroying homes and murdering or disappearing activists. Despite such tactics, CONAIE mobilization grew. In 1987, a powerful earthquake in the region caused millions of barrels of oil to spill into tributaries, impacting 50,000 Runa. The Borja administration, elected the following year, made many promises to indigenous groups, even officially recognizing CONAIE as the representative of Ecuador's indigenous communities (GOJPA03 = 2). In 1990, a series of indigenous uprisings spread throughout the highland region, though with the support of Amazonian groups. Churches and regional capitals were occupied, widespread roadblocks and the voluntary closure of Indian-run markets dramatically reduced available food supplies. Organized by CONAIE, the protests effectively "shut down" the country for more than a week as a way to remind Ecuadorians of their dependency on indigenous farmers. The government responded by deploying armed troops throughout highland and coastal areas; because lowland Indians had played a smaller role in the protests, their region was relatively unaffected.

In 1992, indigenous groups in the Yuracruz region were awarded land but not funding, leading to a breakdown in negotiations with landowners, who hired private security officers to protect themselves from violent protests. These security forces were later accused of 14 murders and the rape of several elderly women; the government eventually intervened, negotiating a resolution to the land disputes. After Sixto Duran won the presidential election of 1992, he attempted to renege on a bilingual education agreement the government had earlier negotiated with CONAIE, only to back down after widespread protests. His administration attempted to implement a range of neoliberal policies, including agrarian reform that allegedly included an end to communal land holdings, though he later negotiated a funding program for the indigenous reforms. Over the next few years, Amazonian indigenous groups actively opposed oil exploration and extraction in their region (ECOSTR99 = 6), including a $1 billion lawsuit against Texaco, tried on behalf of the Cofan and Secoya in the United States. The issue of oil development in the Ecuadorian Amazon has generated sustained, sometimes violent, protest throughout the region and attracted a great deal of international attention, including support for indigenous groups from foreign NGOs. A $8 million lawsuit for "environmental and social damages" was thrown out of court in 1996. Several international and transnational organizations have tried to help these communities save their territories. Groups such as the Action for the Defense of the Tropical Forest from the US, The Future is in Our Hands from Norway, and Friends of the Earth from Britain have promoted boycott campaigns against Texaco and any other oil companies that drill in Ecuador. Furthermore, environmental groups have criticized the World Bank for its new Global Environmental Facility (GEF) grant to protect Ecuador's forests. Their demands are being made not only to national and international organizations, but also directly to multinational oil companies, which have also negotiated with the Indians. In 1997, an Argentine oil firm signed an agreement with the Achuar, promising to negotiate directly with them (rather than via the Ecuadorian government) in the future. Tension between oil companies and the lowlands indigenous has been ongoing and violent since 2001, with more militant indigenous groups attacking oil facilities and kidnapping workers (REB02 = 1). Economic conditions (in the sense of having effective power in economic policy) have worsened for lowlands, with many communities being effectively shut out of negotiations when it comes to oil companies using their land. In February 2002, a two-week protest against oil interests ended with the government declaring a state of emergency and the military being sent in to quell protests; four protesters died as a result, including two children (REP0102 = 3; REP1602 = 3; REP1902 = 1; REP2002 = 1).

The US-based Center for Economic and Social Rights has also studied the Amazonian region and supports indigenous efforts. The Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues and Amnesty International have supported Indian environmental and human rights concerns, in addition to making international media announcements against abuses in the Ecuadorian Amazon. A border war broke out between Ecuador and Peru in early 1995, with Shur and Achuar peoples involved or directly affected on each side. CONAIE reported that hostilities forced nearly 9,000 Shuars to evacuate villages along the frontier; twenty-eight were killed in the violence (MIGSTR99 = 8). The two governments negotiated a peace accord soon afterwards, with pressure from UNESCO and other governments. Indigenous candidates won a tenth of total parliamentary seats in the election of 1996, introducing the first ever indigenous representatives (POLSTAT = 2), and paving the way for 1998 constitutional reforms that explicitly increased minorities rights, although the congress has only been partially successful at passing legislation that implements these rights. However, the 1996 election also marked a split between highland and lowland Indians, with only the latter supporting Bucaram's presidential bid. The rift appeared healed by 1997, when indigenous groups across Ecuador mobilized to protest economic austerity measures and Bucaram's perceived corruption (COHESX9 = 5). Following a two-day strike and an unsuccessful state of siege, the president was declared mentally incompetent by the Ecuadorian Congress in early February. In 2000, indigenous protesters again attempted to reverse reforms ("dollarization" of the economy, in particular) and oust Bucaram's successor, Jamil Mahuad. They appeared to succeed when the military supported their claims in an effort to defuse protests. However, the military soon backed out of that agreement, reportedly after US officials threatened to withdraw foreign aid. Though Mahuad was forced to resign, his vice-president Gustavo Noboa was installed as Ecuador's head of state. He went on to complete the dollarization program later that year.

In recent years, indigenous have continued to increase their numbers in the government. In 2003, indigenous candidates to local and national governments garnered more than 12 percent of the vote. However, a coalition between President Lucio Gutierrez and indigenous groups (such as Pachakutik) broke down over disagreements on economic policy. Pachakutik organized protests (PROT03 = 3), though they did not result in either massive unrest or in the resignation of Gutierrez.


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** In addition to Reuter's News Service, InterPress News Service, and El

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