Ecuador Indians Fight for Forests

Activist groups resist destructive oil exploration and demand rights to ancestral lands

THE announcement came from Hans Collin on a sunny day in March. As president of Ecuador's state-owned oil company known as PetroEcuador, Mr. Collin announced from downtown corporate headquarters the discovery of new major oil fields deep in the Oriente, Ecuador's Amazon jungle.

Altogether, the discoveries could yield an estimated 900 million barrels of oil to bolster the country's current production of 330,000 barrels a day. Although one of Latin America's smaller countries, Ecuador is the second-largest oil producer after Venezuela. Half the Ecuadorean gross national product comes from oil revenues.

But hardly a groan of protest went through the modest offices of Indian rights organizations here in Quito and in the Amazon-basin cities of Tena, Puyo, or Lago Agrio.

The discovery of more oil simply heightens indigenous leaders' resolve to continue resisting exploration and pressing to modify destructive oil company practices. Widespread damage and many deaths have occurred because of oil exploration.

Over the past 20 years, the leaders of the Oriente's indigenous tribes - the Quichua, Cofan, Shuar, Siona, Secoya, Achuar, and Huaorani - have emerged in increasing anger from the rain forest. In the Andean highlands, indigenous leaders have battled for years to gain more land.

Together, in resistance to oil exploration, deforestation, and government-approved settlers in the rain forest, Indian efforts here and in other Latin American countries are beginning to alter the historic inequities of class and economic structure.

Today, more than ever, Indians are less likely to be seen as powerless and inferior in Latin America. They are demanding rights and constititutional status, both conditions long denied by the ruling classes. They are marching in protest and fighting for legal recognition of ancestral lands.

"Most Indians are coming out of the Middle Ages," says Ecuadorean sociologist Jorge Leon Trujillo, "and the question is, can they adapt before they are absorbed or destroyed? What comes next is not at all clear."

Historic racial and ethnic perceptions change slowly. Political power in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America remains chiefly in the hands of the white aristocracy of European stock and the mestizos (people of mixed native and European ancestry).

But two recent events in Ecuador have nudged a complacent power structure to acknowledge a new reality: Indigenous people from the jungle and the highlands are no longer passive.

For several days in June l990, CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorean Andes) and CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indian Organizations of the Ecuadorean Amazon) led a nationwide uprising demanding human rights and legal title to lands. Major roadways were blocked with logs. Quito was virtually shut down. Violent clashes erupted in parts of the country. The national news media covered Indian issues extensively.

Then in April last year, a 12-day protest march from Pastaza province to Quito organized by OPIP (Organization of Indigenous People of Pastaza) ended with more than 3,000 Indians camped in a downtown park. Leaders pressed the government to approve long-standing land claims and to recognize that Ecuador is a multinational country.

Thousands of people supplied the Indian encampment with food and bedding. In negotiations, the government conceded communal rights to the Indians for 3 million acres, home to 148 communities. Mineral rights were retained by the government, allowing oil exploration to continue in consultation with the Indian communities in order to control environmental damage. The land grant is the largest ever made to Indians anywhere in the Amazon basin.

But do the decisions signal deep change in Ecuadorean culture or merely shifts in the topsoil?

Ecuador is largely a third-world country where public proclamations by officials do not necessarily mean efficient compliance or follow-through. In Ecuadorean cities, phones still go dead in the middle of conversations. Electricity can be erratic. Many areas don't even have electricity. Entrenched bureaucracies ignore each other, or move slowly and inexplicably, or not at all.

"There is a different sense of time here," says Robert Drickey, director of the United States Peace Corps in Ecuador. "It's much more casual, and takes getting used to. To me culture determines reality. Ten years from now, I don't think you'll find much equalization of the classes here. There is a long tradition of aristocrats. They maintain status and wealth, and won't let much happen [to change this]. Indian groups are becoming recognized and more powerful, but I don't think they will ever be owners of

much of the country."

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