A New Wave of Criminalization Against Social Movements in Ecuador

Ecuador’s anti-mining and indigenous movements are denouncing renewed attempts by the Correa Administration to criminalize dissent. Over thirty people, including top leaders of the national indigenous movement, are being investigated for allegations including terrorism and sabotage as a result of their participation in protests related to controversies over gold and copper mining, as well as water and indigenous rights.
Ecuador’s anti-mining and indigenous movements are denouncing renewed attempts by the Correa Administration to criminalize dissent. Over thirty people, including top leaders of the national indigenous movement, are being investigated for allegations including terrorism and sabotage as a result of their participation in protests related to controversies over gold and copper mining, as well as water and indigenous rights.
President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) Marlon Santí and several others were summoned just days after a Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) was held in northern Ecuador at which indigenous rights were at the top of the agenda. The CONAIE protested the June 24 and 25 summit, questioning why ALBA would address indigenous rights without representation from important indigenous organizations such as theirs.
Coming on the heels of an eleven-day march from the Amazon to the capital of Quito in commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the first major indigenous uprising in Ecuador, several thousand people participated. They wanted to deliver a communiqué to indigenous President Evo Morales of Bolivia who was present for the ALBA meeting, detailing their concerns about being excluded, as well as worries about market-based solutions to climate change and continued dependence on extractive industry that President Correa is pursuing and which they fear puts at risk at risk the lives and livelihoods of affected indigenous and campesino communities. When it became clear that they would not be able to meet with Morales, they retreated and gathered in a nearby park.
According to lawyer and professor Mario Melo, who cites documents pertaining to the preliminary investigation, Santí and others have been accused of terrorism and sabotage for breaking through a police line and for a pair of handcuffs that allegedly went missing during the scuffle. Incredulous that this would be enough to warrant a charge of terrorism, Melo believes that the criminal investigations are meant “to intimidate and demobilize the organizations and their leaders.” (1)
National Assembly Member of the indigenous Pachakutik party Lourdes Tibán also questioned how it is possible that the indigenous leaders could be charged in this way when the National Assembly just passed a resolution to declare June 21st a civic day of commemoration for “the great contributions that the indigenous movement has made over the last twenty years.” She recalls a situation from 2007 in which a provincially elected leader from the Pachakutik party was similarly charged following protests related to redistribution of oil revenue and then later found innocent. (2)
Marlon Santí calls the rationale for the investigations “ridiculous,” but affirms that he will participate in the legal process. (3) He adds, however, that “there are underlying issues to be debated and we won’t be silenced by these investigations.” (4) Tensions between the national government and the national indigenous movement have been building over the last couple of years. In recent months, the CONAIE, in alliance with other indigenous organizations including the National Federation of Indigenous, Campesino and Afro-Ecuadorian Organizations (FENOCIN) and the Ecuadorian Federation of Evangelical Indigenous (FEINE), have been in an ongoing dispute with the national government and legislative assembly over a proposed new water law. (5)
For his part, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa accuses the indigenous leaders of violence, saying, “It’s impossible to dialogue with [such people].” Although Correa spearheaded the Declaration of Otavalo, (6) signed by ALBA leaders, which promises to build societies that respect the rights of indigenous peoples and those of African descent and which ratifies their commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he dismisses CONAIE’s demands, saying they just want to bring him down. He warned CONAIE’s leadership against interpreting their charges as political persecution and says, “Here, like in Venezuela and Bolivia, there are various groups conspiring against our governments.” (7)
The number of people facing serious criminal investigations, however, has grown in recent weeks. In addition to national indigenous leaders under investigation, about thirty activists and community leaders in central and southern provinces are being processed for similarly grave allegations in relation to longstanding conflicts with Canadian- and now Chinese-financed gold and mining companies. In two cases, charges of terrorism and sabotage pertain to recent protests against gold mining operations. Another case from 2006-2007 involving twenty activists was also reopened.
Going back on past advances
The situation represents a step back for the small Andean nation that enshrined the right to protest, rights for nature and the right to water within its 2008 Political Constitution. It is also fitting to recall that the National Constituent Assembly granted amnesty in March 2008 to over 350 activists facing a range of criminal charges as a result of their opposition to mining, oil and hydroelectric projects. Political allies, however, such as then President of the National Constituent Assembly Alberto Acosta, who helped bring about the amnesty and who backed struggles for expanded rights within the constitution, have grown distant from Correa’s Alianza Paíz (Country Alliance) political movement.
Ecuadorian human rights and environmental organizations deemed March 14, 2008, when the National Constituent Assembly issued the amnesty, a “transcendental day.” (8) The then Constituent Assembly President Alberto Acosta called the decision “a very clear message that the manipulation of the justice system in order to exert pressure on certain social processes cannot be permitted.” (9) The official press release referred to activists as “compatriots” who are “leading protests in defense of their communities and nature, in the face of natural resource exploitation projects.” (10) Today, Alberto Acosta, also past Minister of Mines and Energy under Correa, calls accusations of terrorism and sabotage against activists, “tremendously shameful,” adding that “they have no basis in justice or a democratic judicial system.” (11)
Also under renewed threat are organizations that support social movements who question the country’s economic development model. In March 2009, the Quito-based environmental organization Acción Ecológica (Ecological Action) had its doors temporarily closed when the government revoked its legal status, sparking national and international outcry. More recently, during a national radio address earlier this month, Correa issued a new warning to organizations that receive international support: “These little gringos (North Americans) come here with their bellies full to convince the indigenous that they shouldn’t extract oil, nor operate mines. They give them money, achieve their goal and then go, leaving the indigenous more poor than ever before.” Correa suggested that those who intervene in the indigenous movement’s struggle could be expelled from the country. (12)
Correa’s suggestion that Ecuador will be left impoverished without mining echoes earlier public relations campaigns by Canadian-financed mining companies in Ecuador, such as Corriente Resources (recently sold to a Chinese joint venture) whose “Fair Deal” and “Poor without Copper” slogans were once broadcast on prime-time television and distributed with in national publications. The difference today is that Correa promotes greater state control and redistribution of benefits.
Vague promises that gold and copper mining will be environmentally responsible, however, still fail to reassure indigenous and non-indigenous communities at the local level who are concerned about the potential impacts of gold and copper mining on forests and water, and thus on their lives and livelihoods. In other words, they believe that with mining they could be impoverished. “I’ve heard Rafael Correa’s discourse,” said Marlon Santí in a recent interview with Canadian researcher Jeffrey R. Webber, “that we’re sitting on a mountain of gold and that it would be stupid not to exploit it. But this is short-term thinking, thinking only in the present. What about our future?” (13)
Entrenches conflicts
Unfortunately, rather than helping to address points of difference over natural resource management between the indigenous movement and the central government, and between local conflicts and national economic imperatives, the current wave of criminal investigations against social movement leaders like Santí represents a further entrenchment of these conflicts. With the balance of power currently in state and company hands, whereas mining companies for instance are guaranteed protection of their operations under the new mining law, these accusations serve to marginalize the voices of indigenous and campesino organizations that historically have had to struggle for any rights that they have won, urging them to keep fighting.
Jennifer Moore is a Canadian independent journalist who has been reporting from Ecuador for several years.
  1. Melo, Mario, 1 July 2010, “Organizaciones Indígenas ecuatorianas en indagación previa por el delito de terrorismo”
  2. CONAIE, July 1st 2010, “Pachakutik denuncia criminalización del movimiento indígena”
  3. CONAIE, July 1st 2010, Video recording of press conference; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ghx_Zkj5Wgs
  4. CONAIE, July 7th 2010, Video recording of press conference in Quito, Ecuador; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1Bnt4TBFHM
  5. See Upside Down World, May 7th 2010, “Ecuador: The Debate in the Streets” https://upsidedownworld.org/main/ecuador-archives-49/2483-ecuador-the-debate-in-the-streets- and Upside Down World, May 18th 2010, “Decision delayed over Ecuador’s new water law” https://upsidedownworld.org/main/ecuador-archives-49/2495–decision-delayed-over-ecuadors-new-water-law for more information
  6. ALBA, June 25th 2010, “Declaración de Otavalo: Cumbre ALBA-TCP con Autoridades Indigenas y Afrodescendientes”; http://www.alianzabolivariana.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=6544
  7. Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU), Accion Ecologica and the Regional Foundation for Human Rights Assistance (INREDH), March 14th 2008, “Carta de Reconocimiento”
  8. Alberto Acosta, March 13th 2008, Press conference
  9. Sala de Prensa Jose Peralta, March 14th 2008, Boletin 633, “Alrededor de 357 ciudadanos se beneficiaron de este recurso”
  10. Upside Down World. Jeffrey R. Webber, July 12th 2010, “Ecuador’s Economy Under Rafael Correa: Twenty-First Century Socialism or the New Extractivism? – An Interview with Alberto Acosta”; https://upsidedownworld.org/main/ecuador-archives-49/2586-ecuadors-economy-under-rafael-correa-twenty-first-century-socialism-or-the-new-extractivism–an-inteview-with-alberto-acosta
  11. Hoy, July 10th 2010, “ONGs que intervengan en política serán expulsadas, dice Correa”; http://www.hoy.com.ec/noticias-ecuador/ongs-que-intervengan-en-politica-seran-expulsadas-dice-correa-418108.html
  12. Global Research, Jeffrey R. Webber, July 13th 2010, “Indigenous Struggle, Ecology, and Capitalist Resource Extraction in Ecuador”; http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=20118