Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2001 census, Afro-Ecuadorians were 604,009 or 4.9 per cent of the total population, whereas the 2010 census registered 1,041,559 people, or 7.2 per cent of the total population, classifying themselves as Afro-Ecuadorians. However, Afro-Ecuadorian organizations put Ecuador’s black population at 10 per cent, stating that official estimates are inaccurate due to problems with self-classification. Living mostly in the northern coastal province of Esmeraldas, Guayas and in other provinces in the south-central coastal region, around three-quarters of Afro-Ecuadorians now reside in urban areas. Although Afro-Ecuadorians have distinct cultural traditions, there is little popular recognition of their contribution to Ecuadorian society.
Slave ships first arrived in Ecuadorian ports in 1526, and slaves worked on plantations and in gold mines. Although slavery was abolished at independence in 1822, the descendants of enslaved Africans continued to suffer the consequences of that socio-economic system. One of the first Afro-Ecuadorian organizations, Asociación de Negros Ecuatorianos (ASONE) was founded in 1988 to reassert Afro-Ecuadorian dignity and to reverse the ecological destruction caused by lumber companies and shrimp farms of mangrove swamps vital to the coastal region. Afro-Ecuadorian consciousness became heightened in 1992 in response to the 500th anniversary of European arrival in the Americas, in which people of African descent were excluded from the narrative.
In 1998, leveraging international support and their connections with pan-Afro-Latin American networks, Afro-Ecuadorian organizations were successful in pressuring the Ecuadorian government to recognize them as a distinct ethnic group in the new constitution. Article 85 gives Afro-Ecuadorians rights to cultural patrimony and collective territory. Furthermore, in 1998 President Fabián Alarcón created the Afro-Ecuadorian Development Corporation (Corporación de Desarrollo Afroecuatoriano, CODAE), which became an official institution in 2002, dedicated to addressing issues facing the Afro-Ecuadorian population.
Starting in the late 1990s, there have been some significant changes in the situation of Afro-Ecuadorians. The 2001 census was the first in Ecuadorian history to include a question designed to account for the Afro-Ecuadorian population. Similarly, 2 October has been declared Afro-Ecuadorian Day. Nevertheless, many policy reforms have been largely symbolic. Although the Constitution guarantees collective rights for indigenous peoples, the articles related to Afro-Ecuadorians are ambiguous. Consequently, Afro-Ecuadorian NGOs worked closely with Afro-Ecuadorian Congressman Rafael Erazo to draft a law in 2006 further elaborating collective rights for Afro-Ecuadorians. In 2006, the government also established the Afro-Ecuadorian Development Council (Consejo de Desarrollo Afroecuatoriano, CONDAE) in order to create policies and strategies that are aimed at improving the lives of Afro-descendants in Ecuador.
On September 2008, Ecuador approved a new Constitution that highlights its identity as ‘multinational’ (Article 1) and, ‘pluricultural, and multiethnic nation’, (Article 380) and recognises collective land rights and self-governance for Afro-Ecuadorian communities. Despite these measures, significant changes in the situation experienced by Afro-Ecuadorian communities have not occurred.
While Afro-Ecuadorians fare considerably better than indigenous people on nearly every socio-economic indicator, they still lag behind their white/mestizo counterparts. Moreover, there is evidence that this group still faces regional inequalities and racial discrimination, particularly in urban areas. To some extent, racism against Afro-Ecuadorians has been supported by the philosophy of mestijaze (whitening), which asserts that non-white ‘delinquent’ races can be improved by racial intermixing.
In 2006 the existence of blacks in Ecuador was brought to centre stage when it was revealed that two-thirds of the Ecuadorian World Cup team was of African descent. This was the first time in history that Ecuador qualified for the World Cup. Despite the efforts and the dedicated work Afro-Ecuadorian organizations are doing, data show that the number of unemployed among Afro-Ecuadorians is higher than in other groups.
Afro-Ecuadorians have the highest unemployment level and are among the poorest of Ecuadorian social groups. Afro-Ecuadorian activists continue to be active in advocating for the rights for Afro-Ecuadorians as well as raising consciousness among the group. Key umbrella organizations such as the National Afro-Ecuadorian Confederation (Confederación Nacional Afroecuatoriana, CNA) and the National Coordinator of Black Women (Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Negras, CONAMUNE) have had a presence in domestic politics as well as international policy circles. Afro-Ecuadorian women’s organizations have been particularly effective, raising other important issues to address the specific, ongoing concerns of black women.