Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Quichua are a diverse group inhabiting both highland and lowland regions of Ecuador. Since Quichua has historically served as the lingua franca among indigenous communities, speakers of this language represent a variety of different ethnic groups.
The Quichua are arguably the single largest indigenous people in the world. They are known for their important contributions to architecture and elaborate roads from the pre-colonial period. In Ecuador alone, there are at least 15 sub-groups of the Quichua. With a unique tradition of making textiles, starting in the 1920s the Otavalo Quichua created a model of indigenous capitalism that has afforded them a better socio-economic status than other indigenous communities in Ecuador.
In 2004, representing 18 Quichua organizations of the Napo region, the Network of Quichuan Nationalities of the Amazon opposed a series of policy talks aimed at increasing oil production. In May 2006 Quichuan organizations were instrumental in a series of protests and road blocks leading to President Alfredo Palacio’s ordering of US oil giant Occidental to leave Ecuador. The company subsequently turned to a World Bank arbitration panel with a claim of US$3.2 billion. In November 2015 the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (Icsid) ordered the Ecuadorian government to pay US$1 billion to Occidental; in January 2016, the two parties agreed to a US$980 million compensation payment.
Quichua continue to play a central role in a significant development of indigenous peoples’ rights, for instance in the noted Case of the Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku V. Ecuador. In 1996 Ecuador signed a 20-year contract with an Argentinean oil company, Compañia General de Combustibles (CGC), which had been granted governmental permission to search for oil on Sarayaku ancestral lands without informing or consulting the community. In 2002 the project started and in 2004 CGC planted mines which destroyed part of the forest and put at risk indigenous people’s lives. In 2010 the case was brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights which reached a decision in 2012. According to the Court’s judgment, Ecuador violated the right to free, prior and informed consultation (expressly recognized in International Labour Organization Convention No. 169, to which Ecuador is a party) as well as the right to communal property and cultural identity and the right to life and physical integrity.
Although the Quichua have enjoyed some political power through the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE), segments of the population continue to face serious socio-economic challenges. In the highlands, Quichua farmers have been compelled by their worsening economic situation to earn their livelihood as day labourers in commercial agriculture or as seasonal migrant workers. Similarly, lowland Quichua continue to suffer from high rates of poverty, little access to education and inadequate health services. The growth of the eco-tourism industry has benefited the Quichua community to some extent. However, international companies without indigenous representation continue to dominate the tourism industry.
The Ecuadorian government indicated in 2014 its intention to allow expansion of oil extraction on Quichua ancestral land in Napo province. Quichua leaders have made clear their opposition to oil companies carrying out their activities on this land.