Photo: Amazon Watch
By Kevin Koenig
Twenty minutes down a winding road outside the Amazonian town of Puyo a lone whipala on a hill waved in the warm forest air above the neighborhood known as Unión Base. A powerful symbol of unity, struggle, rights and resistance, the flag of Ecuador’s indigenous movement waved proudly above the headquarters of CONFENIAE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, in anticipation of the arrival of community representatives from all over the country.
By foot, canoe, plane, and bus, indigenous leaders from the Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific Coast, and everywhere in between poured into the CONFENIAE headquarters for a summit of the national indigenous confederation CONAIE and its political wing, Pachakutik. Amazon Watch was there, too.
So many leaders traveled from far and wide to attend the summit because they knew the importance of strengthening CONFENIAE after the government’s attempt last month to take control of its headquarters by force, evict the leaders and their families, and install a handful of pro-government figureheads as the “new” leadership. Not only that, the Ecuadorian government continues to expand oil drilling into frontier forests and has launched a new era of large-scale open-pit mining, while simultaneously cracking down on rights and land defenders. The country’s presidential race is also in full swing, with elections set for February 2017 that will usher in a new president for the first time in a decade.
Indigenous rights in Ecuador have been severely curtailed under the administration of President Rafael Correa. Many leaders and community members still face charges of terrorism and sabotage for exercising basic rights to free speech, assembly, and resistance – rights explicitly guaranteed in Article 98 of Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution – as part of multiple protests in 2015 against oil and mining projects, new land and water legislation, and constitutional reforms that could have kept Correa in power indefinitely.
Behind this blatant criminalization of protest is an attempt to intimidate and lock up the environmental and human rights defenders who protect the rights of nature by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, working to end large scale mining, and maintaining community control of water sources and land titles.
CONFENIAE’s headquarters is the cradle of Ecuador’s modern indigenous rights movement, in part because it is here that perhaps the country’s most historic march began. In 1992, thousands of indigenous people from all over Ecuador’s Amazon basin converged here to begin a 240-mile, two-week march to the capital city of Quito demanding land rights and recognition. This first uprising resulted in the title of close to two million hectares (almost 8,000 square miles) of rainforest lands for indigenous peoples.
CONFENIAE has been on permanent alert all month since the government’s attempted take over, and in permanent minga – a Kichwa word for collective work, similar to a barn raising – to repair the structures and make them livable and safe again. The successful defense of CONFENIAE’s headquarters helped spark new life into the movement, as evidenced by the turnout of over a thousand supporters for the minga to help reclaim this powerful symbol of the past and chart a path forward.
Fittingly, the gathering began in the twilight the evening before with a cleansing ceremony, a spiritual purification and ayahuasca visioning session. By dawn, hundreds had arrived by the busload. Over the next several hours they shared regional reports on threats to indigenous peoples and their lands and their own proposals for protection.
Among several resolutions, they ratified their resistance to the advance of the extractive industries – such as mining and oil – on indigenous lands, rejection of police and military presence in their communities, and demand for amnesty for the 120 people persecuted after the national strike in 2015 and the more that 700 who currently face charges or prison sentences for their activism during a decade of the Correa administration.
The afternoon’s much-awaited invitee arrived amid an Amazonian deluge. Paco Moncayo, a former Army general who later served as a popular mayor of Quito, recently announced his presidential candidacy with the Democratic Left party. The indigenous Pachakutik party has endorsed Moncayo, and in front of dozens of journalists and the indigenous movement leaders he agreed to their platform, pledging an end to the expansion of the extractives frontier. Whether he makes it to office – and if he then keeps his promise to keep the oil in the ground – remains to be seen. Similar political agreements and allegiances between the indigenous movement and other parties in the past have failed spectacularly.
In the face of direct attempts by the government to subvert its leadership and the continued encroachment of oil and mineral exploitation further into the Amazon, an organized, strengthened CONFENIAE is critical to the defense of Amazonian peoples and lands, and needs our support. Please join us in standing with them!
This post originally appeared on Amazon Watch’s website.