Defending Life in Ecuadorian Resource Politics

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

Efforts to secure water rights and resist extractivism united campesino and indigenous organizers.

Since his presidential inauguration in 2007, Rafael Correa has faced deepening criticism from indigenous and environmental sectors. Many argue that his policies, which develop and expand extractive industries, turn campesino and indígena territories and watersheds into sacrificial zones. While Ecuador was the first country to grant legal rights to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth in Andean parlance, Correa argued that the Pachamama must be affected “just a little” to fund social welfare programs, build roads, and housing for the poor.  Activists have appropriated the language of the Pachamama as a way to generate arguments about the spiritual and material importance of natural resources, a promising but complicated endeavor.

The “defense of life” coalition formed on the heels of a proposed controversial water law project in 2009. Correa’s administration framed the law as a redistributive action that would effectively end the monopolization of water resources at the hands of private individuals and companies. Campesinos, indigenous people, and environmentalists organized against the law out of concern that it would reduce campesino and indigenous peoples’ ability to manage and access water resources, treating them as just another private interest. The law allowed for contentious mining projects in critical watersheds and increased state control over autonomously managed communal water systems.  Water as life became the rallying cry of the movement, drawing attention to the complex inter-relationships between people and the environment. As one woman put it:  “water is the blood of our life, water flows through our veins, without water, there is no life. Without [agricultural] production, there is no life.”

The coalition’s strength came from an anti-mining movement in the Southern Andes. After several years of organized protests against Toronto-based IAMGOLD’s Quimsacocha mining project, campesinos from the parishes of Victoria del Portete and Tarqui mobilized quickly against the law, brokering alliances with key figures in the indigenous movement. Led by the communal water boards, the local movement was concerned that the Correa administration would use the water law to allow for mineral extraction in their watershed that provided more than 1,500 families with drinking and irrigation water. Framing the broad coalition around water helped activists to move beyond a single-focused project in their backyard to a larger movement against the extractivist development model. Moreover, it allowed them to link up with other communities who did not face the specific threat of mineral extraction but were nonetheless concerned about the commodification of water. Collaborations between water board leader Carlos Perez Guartambel and indigenous leadership called for incorporation of indigenous principles of reciprocity, or ayni, in the search for new development models and demanded that the government respect the rights of the Pachamama, now defined to include watersheds or the Yaku Mama (Mother Water).

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