Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Spanish (Castilian) 93 per cent (official), Quichua 4.1 per cent, other indigenous 0.7 per cent, foreign 2.2 per cent. (Quichua and Shuar are official languages of intercultural relations; other indigenous languages are in official use by indigenous peoples in the areas they inhabit.)
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic, with Evangelical Protestantism gaining numbers, including in indigenous communities), indigenous religions
Minority and indigenous groups include 14 distinct indigenous peoples – including Tsáchila, Chachi, Epera, Awa, Quichua, Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Zápara, Andoa y Waorani, and Afro-Ecuadorians (7.2 per cent). According to the most recent census in 2010, 6.8 per cent of the population of Ecuador self-identify as indigenous, compared to 6.1 per cent counted in the 2001 census. Yet many other estimates of the indigenous population are considerably higher: for instance, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE) believes that indigenous peoples comprise somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent of the total population.
Similarly, there is a large gap between the official figures for Afro-Ecuadorians (5 per cent) and NGO estimates (10 per cent). These differences have to do with questions of classification of Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples, including the self-identification of those who have intermarried with non-black or non-indigenous people, and those who live in urban areas.
Updated May 2018
During the past decade, indigenous organizations in Ecuador have become increasingly critical of government policies on water rights and exploitation of natural resources. In early October 2011 in the Andean highlands of southern Ecuador, Canadian company Iamgold’s Quimsacocha extraction project was voted down by a community referendum with 92 per cent of people voting against. According to the Ecuadorian government, however, the referendum was invalid because it was not authorized by state institutions. In contrast, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE) – the country’s most powerful and influential indigenous umbrella organization – not only actively supported the referendum, but also strongly advocated it should be replicated wherever communities are affected by mining. During 2011, other local governments also called for a total ban of mining activities in jurisdictions where such projects are located. The Andean community referendum – the first of its kind in Ecuador – raised basic constitutional questions regarding autonomy, the extent of state powers and the rights of local governments to control land use and regulate industries.
However, indigenous activists have complained that the government has been attempting to divide the indigenous movement over these issues. According to CONAIE, by 2011 there were 189 indigenous Ecuadorians charged with terrorism, sabotage and other public safety-related crimes and for protesting against the privatization of natural resources. These included the newly-appointed president of CONAIE, Pepe Luis Acacho, and two other prominent indigenous leaders who had been protesting against state control of access to water. Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador from 2007-2017, accused protesters of ‘standing in the way of development’ and argued that resource extraction revenues could be used to develop other economic sectors such as agriculture. Vague application of terrorism and sabotage charges against indigenous and environmental activists remains a key concern; new legislation which was said to narrow the scope of these terms was introduced in 2014, but cases against protesters were still going forward under the old framework.
Yet after his 2009 re-election, Correa spoke out vigorously on environmental justice. As in Bolivia, his administration pioneered the granting of special rights to ‘Mother Nature’ in the 2008 Constitution and made public gestures towards ending the extraction economy in a country where oil revenues accounted for more than half of the national budget. He offered to leave Ecuador’s largest oil reserves underground in the Amazon, foregoing an estimated US$9.2 billion in revenues, in exchange for international compensation and debt cancellation for conserving the biosphere. However, by early 2011 the prospects for such an arrangement had faded, and at the end of the year, the government proceeded with exploration plans in an area of pristine Amazon rainforest known as Yasuni-ITT and home to the nomadic Tagaeri and Taromenane – indigenous peoples who voluntarily reject contact with the outside world. This was considered by many observers to elevate the risk to indigenous communities of more environmental disasters like the Chevron-Texaco oil spills in the Amazon.
The difficulty of obtaining redress for such acts was underscored in June 2017, when the United States Supreme Court prevented Ecuadorian villagers from collecting a US$9.51 billion pollution judgment issued against Chevron six years prior by a court in Ecuador. Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco – acquired by Chevron in 2001 – drilled roughly 350 wells across 7,000 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest, accruing some US$30 billion in profits. In 1993 and 1994, lawsuits were filed by Amazon indigenous communities accusing Texaco of dumping 68 billion litres of toxic materials into Amazon streams and rivers that people used for fishing, bathing, swimming and drinking water. The lengthy legal battle with Chevron has been waged in several countries, and the plaintiffs are continuing their efforts no matter the outcome in the United States. For instance, a new lawsuit was filed in Canada by Ecuadorian villagers in 2012 targeting Chevron’s assets there; a further hearing is due to take place in October 2017.
Despite government efforts to encourage the involvement and integration of indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s education system, such as the 2011 Intercultural Education Law, Afro-Ecuadorians and indigenous peoples continue to be underrepresented in the education system. As of 2011, only 53.9 per cent of Afro-Ecuadorians and 50.8 per cent of indigenous peoples were enrolled in basic education, compared to 95.4 per cent of the general population. Though enrolment rates doubled in the preceding five years, only 17.8 per cent of Afro-Ecuadorians and 14 per cent of indigenous peoples were enrolled in higher education. Unequal access to education has also been reflected in literacy rates: around 8 per cent of the general population is illiterate while 30 per cent of indigenous peoples in Ecuador are illiterate.
Although health services continue to improve, the access to mainstream healthcare by Ecuador’s indigenous populations still presents challenges, especially for rural populations in the Andean and the Amazon regions. This includes lack of available health centres in or near indigenous communities, and inadequate access to medication. Ecuador’s health services are concentrated in urban centres while indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities are often isolated and sometimes only accessible by boat or forest and mountain footpaths. This makes emergency care almost impossible.
Some indigenous Ecuadorians are also unwilling to make use of healthcare services available to them. According to researchers, indigenous Ecuadorians in the Andean region regard health in the context of harmony between body, mind and environment. Under these circumstances they are much more likely to place greater confidence in their communities’ own traditional medical practitioners and use them as their first option. Up to the early 1990s, Ecuadorian law limited the practice of medicine only to persons holding qualifications from the University of Ecuador. Under the new more culturally inclusive Constitution, however, recognition and regulation of traditional indigenous medicine came into force in August 1998. Included are stipulations that the state acknowledge, respect and promote the development of traditional medicine, monitor its application and legally control the operation of traditional medical practitioners.
Health issues that affect indigenous peoples can sometimes be linked directly to the economic sector. This is most evident in areas experiencing resource extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon and studies have detailed the higher risk of health problems developing among residents who live near oil fields or even streams with high hydrocarbon concentrations. For instance, according to sworn statements filed by the plaintiffs in the long-running legal drama connected with the giant Chevron-Texaco oil spill, some residents contracted skin rashes while others experienced vomiting and fainting. They also claim children have died from unknowingly drinking contaminated river water.
Ecuador is bounded by the Pacific Ocean and neighbours both Colombia and Peru. The country consists of three regions: the highlands or Andean region, the Amazon region or eastern lowlands (Oriente), and the Pacific coastal region. Although there is an indigenous presence throughout the country, indigenous peoples are often identified either with the Andean or Amazonian regions as highlanders or lowlanders (Amazon dwellers). Afro-Ecuadorians are highly concentrated in the coastal region of Ecuador and thus are often identified with this part of the country.
The Spanish first arrived in the early 16th century and what is now Ecuador became part of the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru in 1534. Ecuadorians began the fight for independence in 1809 and in 1822 officially became part of independent Gran Colombia, along with Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. This conglomeration was short-lived and Ecuador’s full independence was declared in 1830. After a dispute with Peru over territory in the Amazon, Ecuador ceded 200,000 square kilometres of land in 1942 as part of the Rio Protocol.
Until the oil boom in the mid-1970s, Ecuador was one of the poorest countries in Latin America, largely dependent on agricultural exports, with very little industry. The oil boom launched the country into a decade of remarkable economic growth. The rapid accumulation of foreign debt brought about the promotion of industry by import substitution, massive public works programmes, and the mushrooming of the service sector and of the government. Although the agrarian reforms of the 1960s-70s promised sweeping land redistribution in the fertile highland valleys, such reforms were not fully implemented. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1964 and subsequent reforms treated indigenous people as poor peasants, emphasizing individual land titles and dismissing their demands for collective rights. In addition, such legislation encouraged the colonization of so-called ’empty’ forested lands, despite the fact that such territory had been traditionally inhabited by indigenous peoples for hundreds if not thousands of years. Afro-Ecuadorians were largely ignored by agrarian reforms because the land that they have traditionally inhabited along the northern coast was excluded from the legislation. Afro-Ecuadorians were treated by the state as assimilated settlers and not as traditional communities with rights to communal land.
The oil boom of the 1970s brought the hope of prosperity, but it would eventually present serious threats to minority and indigenous communities, as well as conflict with land reform policies. Although other oil subsidiaries had been active in the Oriente, it was Texaco’s arrival, preceded by the Ecuadorian military and evangelical missionaries and land-hungry settlers, which devastated the Siona, Secoya, Cofán, Huaorani and lowland Quichua. The penetration of oil companies in this area had devastating effects on indigenous peoples, causing the extinction of the traditionally isolated Teteté people and contaminating rivers. Medical studies showed that some 30,000 people had been affected by cancer and skin diseases caused by unsafe petroleum extraction.
Throughout the 1990s, Ecuador was forced to engage in a series of drastic policies and reforms to stabilize the economy and induce structural adjustments to cope with foreign exchange scarcity and a distorted, non-competitive economy. By the end of the 1990s, the country’s economy fell into a severe recession caused by, among other factors, the continued fall of oil prices.
In two lawsuits brought before US courts in the 1993 (by Ecuadorians) and 1994 (by Peruvians living downstream), indigenous communities and local ecological groups united to sue Texaco for widespread environmental harm, including contamination of rivers and rain forests. However, both suits were dismissed in 2002 by a US federal judge who concluded that the legal action was best pursued in Ecuador. A new class action law suit was brought in 2003 in Ecuador, supported by an environmental assessment in 2008 that the damages could amount to as much as US$27 billion. In 2011, an Ecuadorian judge ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and concluded that Chevron (now the owner of Texaco) should pay US$8.6 billion in damages. The case went through various appeals (and increases in damages) until the Ecuadorian Supreme Court upheld the judgement against Chevron in 2013, with damages now set at US$9.51 billion. Meanwhile, Chevron filed a lawsuit in US courts calling for an injunction to prevent the plaintiffs from enforcing the Ecuadorian judgement against the company. This suit was successful, with a US Court of Appeals ruling in Chevron’s favour in 2016; it concluded that the Ecuadorian judgement had been obtained with the help of fabricated evidence. In 2017, the US Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ petition to review the appellate court’s decision.
Throughout the 1950s Ecuadorian politics was plagued with problems of corruption, coups and general social unrest; however, stability was briefly returned in the 1960s and 1970s with military rule and with the introduction of a multiparty democratic system in 1979. Still, the persistence of weak institutions, party conflict and a deterioration of the economy propelled Ecuadorian politics into a perpetual state of emergency. Starting in the late 1980s, the most salient issue defining Ecuadorian politics has been neoliberal reform and the activities of international corporations in Ecuador.
One of the most important political developments in Ecuador was the founding of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE) in 1986. This confederation has been instrumental in pan-indigenous mobilization. A key player in Ecuadorian politics, CONAIE has demanded land restitution for indigenous peoples and envisaged a national economy based on territorial autonomy. Its sixteen-point demands included the right to practice traditional medicine, to bilingual education and to indigenous control of archaeological sites. Whereas issues of ethnicity and multiculturalism had traditionally been marginalized from Ecuadorian politics, they have come to take on a central role. Ecuador’s indigenous populations have been key players in opposing neoliberal reforms and thus have been central to popular and sometimes violent uprisings. In May 2015, CONAIE established a new thirteen-point plan which included demands for the protection and defence of indigenous territories, prior consultation on the Water Law, rejection of the criminalization of protest, and rejection of the continued expansion of natural resource extraction.
The 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution includes the concept of sumac kawsay (good living) which confirms the right of all people to ‘good living’. Part of this includes recognises the right of allowing ecosystems to flourish – making Ecuador the first country in the world to recognise rights of nature to exist and persist. This concept is based largely on traditions of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples and emphasizes the importance of an intercultural dialogue. The Constitution guarantees the right of indigenous peoples to learn in their own language and culture, while the 2011 Intercultural Education Law further encourages the involvement and integration of indigenous people in the country’s bilingual and intercultural education system.
Although Afro-Ecuadorians have not been as visible in Ecuadorian politics as their indigenous counterparts, they have gained more visibility through the presence of black politicians and Afro-Ecuadorian NGOs. In 2006, the government established the Afro-Ecuadorian Development Council (CONDAE) in order to create policies and strategies that are aimed at improving the lives of Afro-descendants in Ecuador.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Asociación Latinoamericana para los Derechos Humanos
Conferation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE)
Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE)
Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica
Federación Ecuatoriana de Indígenas Evangélicos (FEINE)
Organización de Pueblos Indígenas de Pastaza
Confederacion De Nacionalidades Indigenas De La Amazonia Ecuatoriana
Federación Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas, Indígenas y Negras (FENOCIN)
Instituto Científico de Culturas Indígenas
Asociación de Mujeres Saparas de Ecuador (ASHIÑWAKA)
Sources and further reading
Corkill, D. and Cubitt, D., Ecuador: Fragile Democracy, London, Latin America Bureau, 1988.
Field, L., ‘Ecuador’s pan-Indian uprising’, NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 25, no. 3, December 1991, pp. 39-44.
Martin, Pamela. ‘Loco in the Andes: Ecuador, Democracy, and Globalization,’ The Globalist, http://www.theglobalist.com/, April 2005.
Martin, Pamela. The Globalization of Contentious Politics: The Amazonian Indigenous Rights Movement, Routledge Press: New York (2003).]
Urban, G. and Sherzer, J. (eds), Nation-States and Indians in Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994, pp. 53-71.
Whitten, N.E. and Quiroga, D., ‘Ecuador’, in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, Minority Rights Publications, 1995.
Yashar, Deborah J. Contesting citizenship in Latin America : the rise of indigenous movements and the postliberal challenge. Cambridge University Press, 2005.