Indian Leader's Goal Is Land
Restlessly on the move in his effort to organize communities, Miguel Angel is dedicated to improving life for his people
OTAVALO, ECUADOR — THE dark-haired boy rises from his desk in the schoolroom and comes to the doorway. His smile is shy, almost confused. Standing there is his father, Miguel Angel, a Quichua Indian with a long braid down his back.
Weeks have passed since son and father have seen each other. Miguel touches the boy on the shoulder. The boy looks up in awe, or shy strangeness, as if his father is just this - a man in a doorway. This awkward meeting outside a school room in Imbabura province, Ecuador, lasts two minutes. The father is quickly gone. The desperate needs of his people keep him from his family.
As the elected president of an Indian organization known as FICI (Indigenous and Compesino Federation of Imbabura), with a hand-lettered sign on a side-street office here, Mr. Angel's passion is to acquire more land for his people.
Partly for safety, he seldom spends the night in the same place twice as he moves through the villages of the Andean highlands in a province 100 miles north of Quito, Ecuador's capital.
Although he is in his early 30s, Angel's tenacity and personal political beliefs echo an older, leftist Ecuador in which socialist and communist unions were the main opposition to government policies. In that Ecuador, before attention shifted to the newer issues of oil exploration and colonization in the rain forests, 2 percent of landowners of highland haciendas controlled 66 percent of the arable land. Angel knows that the figures have not changed. Today, 90 percent of small farmers own less than 10 he ctares each, often on the steepest slopes.
In his efforts to change the imbalance, Angel has been harassed, threatened, held captive, and spied upon by the military and the police. For the past 10 years, he has been a community organizer.
Once he was taken to a big hole in the earth by soldiers and told he was going to be buried alive. "But the whole community surrounded the [military] truck," he says. The hole stayed empty.
The Indians in the highlands have lived in poverty for centuries. Angel wears shoes borrowed from his brother and owns virtually nothing but his clothes. President of FICI is not a paid position. His strength, intelligence, and persistence command the respect and care of the people he serves. Support flows both ways.
Because of Ecuador's Agrarian Reform Law of l973, indigenous communities can form associations and file a claim with the government to obtain land that could be used for farming.
But the Agricultural Development Law of 1979, which favors landowners, restricts agrarian reform and makes it difficult and expensive to file such claims.
For the past three years, the local military base has refused to relinquish any of several thousand acres for local native farmers to plant food.
"The Army uses some of the land for grazing horses," Angel says, pointing to a rolling hillside beyond a barbed-wire fence. "We've said that this land should be farmed for food to eat. People are fundamental here, not horses. We live in poverty while they feed their horses."
Angel and others have talked with military authorities in Quito several times. "The minister of defense said he would investigate the issue of land," Angel says, "but it has been three years. A legal challenge is very expensive."
Military intransigence stems from general hostility toward any challenge to its authority, Angel says, particularly from Indians. In political and ideological terms, he suggests, "the slaves are turning against the master."
Angel is the son and grandson of Indians who worked all their lives as virtual slaves on a hacienda.
"If there is no land for indigenous people," he says in his subdued, direct manner, "then there is really nothing else, no other way to survive."
But Angel knows there are more punishing ways to survive; Indian men and women from the highlands increasingly migrate to the cities for jobs. With few skills to offer and multiple temptations to face, many are disillusioned and defeated.
"The power of the Indian movement," Angel says, "is the power of community. What happens in capitalism or the mestizo world is that when you are 15, suddenly you are independent. Family is lost. Community is lost. Individualism doesn't work here; community does."
Angel visits a small community close to the military base. Standing in front of a windowless community center with a dirt floor, Juan Jose Simbaua, the president of the community, explains the problem his village of 170 families faces.
"We live in critical poverty without work and water," he says. "We've asked that the military sell us the land, and they threaten us and say the blood will run if we try to buy the land. Some of us were caught on the land [trying to survey it] and brought to the Army barracks and kept overnight. They told us not to get involved, because there will be blood. If they are going to kill us, it doesn't matter. We are not going to give up."
IN front of the community center, village women have gathered to learn how to knit sweaters. Traditionally, men are the weavers and knitters in the highlands, and women embroider only for their families. "Our husbands can't get work," one of the women says, "so in this association, we organize to help them by starting to make sweaters to sell."
Another community leader explains that all the roads here were built by the community, not by the government. "We put up the electricity poles too," he says, "but if they fall, sometimes we don't have electricity for a week."
A few miles away, in the tiny village of Punguhuacu, inside a mud house with a dirt floor, another group of 20 women has started a bread-baking cooperative to raise money to buy land from a nearby hacienda.
With a gas-fired oven provided by a Dutch foundation, the women bake loaves of wheat bread to sell in Otavalo and other cities. Angel's wife, Maria Lola Criollo, is president of the cooperative. The mud house belongs to Angel's parents.
On the way to visit Mario Acosta Luna, the commander of the police in Imbabura province, Angel says that respect for Indians is growing. "Marches and protests in Ecuador are having an effect," he says.
Just a few years ago, entrance into the commander's office was impossible. Now Angel sits with Mr. Luna, sipping coffee, both men being much too polite in front of a reporter and photographer, discussing the importance of dialogue between Indians and the police.
"There must be a sharing of ideas so that everyone advances," the commander says. "I've always talked with all sides. The police are not repressive in Ecuador. We are a preventive element, but when things get out of hand, we use other methods, but only to prevent worse problems."
After the afternoon meeting, Angel concedes that Luna "has done some things for Indians. But the police, in conjunction with the military, are a repressive instrument," he adds.
As the sun goes down, Angel rejects the suggestion that the odds against him look overwhelming.
"Yes, I get tired," he says, "but this is my responsibility." Asked where he will spend the night, he replies with a smile, "I'm not telling you."