WHEN 2,000 Amazonian Indians reached a communal field in this Andean town, many immediately fell to the ground and began rubbing their tired, sunburnt legs. Only hours later, the same Indians were dancing on the same ground, celebrating another night of a historic 300-mile march.
Ecuadorian Indians from three tribes are demanding that President Rodrigo Borja Cevallos grant them not only territorial rights to the country's last great stretch of pristine rain forest, but also permission to govern themselves within its boundaries.
Some 30,000 Achuar, Siwiar, and Quechua Indians are seeking control of 2 million hectares (810,000 acres) - about 80 percent of the eastern Pastaza province, a region of virgin jungle stretching eastward to the Peruvian border. The march is led by the Organization of Indian Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) and is supported by several international environmental groups that see Indian management as the best way to save the territory from destructive development.
"This would be the first Indian territory with a management plan not imposed by the state," says Gustavo Gonzalez, an environmental advisor to OPIP. "If the government accepts even part of it, it will have repercussions not only in Ecuador, but throughout the Amazon."
Until now, the most striking result of the proposal has been the Borja administration's decision to at least discuss it despite fears that Indians are trying to set up a "parallel state." President Borja said this week that he will meet with the Indians when they arrive in the capital, Quito.
For their part the Indians resting for the night in Salcedo showed no signs of weakened determination even after days of walking up steep grades from the jungle plains into the Andean highlands. They were confident that the stiffness of their legs was nothing compared to the heat and pressure Borja would feel once they reached the city and camped out in front of his palace.
"We will stay there until the president gives us what we want," said Margarita Lopez, an Ashuar Indian from Puyo, Ecuador's largest city in the Amazon.
Though Indians are a minority in Ecuador, accounting for about 30 percent of a population of about 10 million, Borja and other officials have learned to heed their warnings. The memory of a violent nationwide Indian uprising, or levantamiento, in June 1990 is still fresh in the minds of officials. Many admit that a repeat would hurt the chances of the ruling Democratic Left party in this year's presidential and legislative elections.
The last uprising ended when the government agreed to negotiations with Indian organizations. But since then the talks have made little progress in areas such as land reform and environmental protection, Indian leaders say.
Sensing the ruling Democratic Left party's fear of political damage, Indian leaders repeatedly have said the march is drawing overwhelming support from the public. Such support was indeed evident in Salcedo, about 60 miles south of Quito, where at least 1,000 people ignored a Good Friday church service to wait along a narrow street separating the gleaming white cathedral from the main plaza.
The crowd applauded sporadically as the marchers, many of them wearing facial paint, headdresses, and other traditional clothing, passed through town.
"We have been amazed at the clothing, food, and other collaboration given to us by people all along the route," says the march's chief organizer, Tito Merino, standing barefoot at the rest stop just outside of Salcedo. Such support, he says, has enabled the Indians to reject a government offer of aid.
"We want to show the president that we can manage things ourselves," he says.
That is exactly what the government does not want to see, officials say. They explain that Borja, while willing to give Indians titles to large stretches of land in the Amazon, is not about to grant their other demands - including autonomy in Pastaza and a constitutional reform that would make Ecuador a "plurinational" state.
"The countries that are being destroyed in the world right now are 'plurinational' ones such as Yugoslavia," says Diego Bonifaz, the administration official charged with coordinating negotiations with the Indians. "That possibility really frightens the majority of Ecuadorans who are not Indians."
Just as unacceptable, he adds, is the Indian demand for final say over any future plans to exploit Pastaza's resources. Earlier this week the Atlantic Richfield Company announced the discovery of an oil field in the region with 164 million barrels of reserves.
Most government officials agree with the Indians' assessment that three decades of petroleum exploration and exploitation in Ecuador have been an ecological disaster for the Amazon regions north and south of Paztaza. Not only have oil companies spilled millions of barrels of oil and saline water into rivers and streams, but settlers have used the roads built by oil companies to push further into the jungle. Such settlers are largely responsible for the annual clearing of 142,500 hectares (58,000 acres) o f Ecuadorian rain forest.
Indians place the blame not on the poverty-stricken settlers, but on the government's lack of a coherent forest protection plan.
"For the government, the Amazon continues to be a big green box full of so-called 'resources,' " says Wilfredo Aragon, another OPIP leader. "They think they can just turn it upside down and empty it out."
He and others point out that Indians view the land as a permanent, integral part of their lives and religion rather than a product to be exploited and abandoned.
While agreeing that the Indians should be consulted about petroleum and other projects on their lands, government officials maintain that Ecuador's growing population and foreign debt burden necessitate more oil development in the Amazon region.
"The activity is inevitable," said Fernando Reyes, a director of the environmental group of the Energy and Mines Ministry.
OPIP may be willing to negotiate because Indians, too, are politically vulnerable. Polls show two rightist pro-development presidential candidates, Sixto Duran and Jaime Nebot, leading the race with the first round of voting less than a month away.
"The Indian leaders know that it's possible that the next president won't care at all about protecting the Amazon region," says Mr. Bonifaz. "It's to their advantage to reach some agreement with this government as soon as possible."