Voices of Indian Leaders

THE growth of Indian federations in Ecuador springs from the struggle for land, human rights, and identity.

For years, Indians were not protected or recognized. In l972, President Rodriguez Lara said, "There is no more Indian problem. We all become white men when we accept the goals of the national culture."

Even Ecuador's well-intentioned 1973 Agrarian Reform Law put obstacles in the path of land distribution, because procedures were complex, expensive, and primarily protected landowners. After years of virtual slavery on the haciendas in the highlands and continued subsistence living in the jungles, Indians were allowed to form organizations at community levels.

Today's indigenous leaders have roots in those organizations and often are encouraged by activist Roman Catholic priests.

Generally supported by outside funds and often barely getting by, the federations are led by men and women deeply committed to their causes. They usually favor nature and family over commercial values.

Many leaders at all levels are not paid. If elected, they get food, housing, and emotional support from family and friends.

Except for the more sophisticated organizations like CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Ecuadorian Amazon), COICA (Coordinating Body of Indigenous People's Organizations of the Amazon Basin), and CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indian Organizations of the Ecuadorian Amazon), daily communication and travel are difficult. Some organizations have computers. OPIP (Organization of Indigenous People of Pastaza), in the province of Pastaza, has two small airplanes donated by a Belgian foundati on. OXFAM, based in Boston, Mass., has helped establish a $600,000 endowment fund for COICA, through the AES Corporation in Virginia.

When the various groups gather to discuss issues, marathon discussions often take place for days. Participants go home exhausted.

"We haven't had a chance to develop ourselves calmly," says a wistful Leonardo Viteri of OPIP. "The problems always come to us in a series."

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