Decision Delayed Over Ecuador’s New Water Law

Ecuador’s National Assembly President Fernando Cordero closed a highly-anticipated plenary session last Thursday by declaring that the controversial new water law would not be voted on until there has been prior consultation with communities. Cordero’s unilateral decision means that final treatment of the law will likely be delayed for months.

Ecuador’s National Assembly President Fernando Cordero closed a highly-anticipated plenary session last Thursday by declaring that the controversial new water law would not be voted on until there has been prior consultation with communities. Cordero’s unilateral decision means that final treatment of the law will likely be delayed for months.

The proposed water bill has been a source of tension between President Rafael Correa’s governing Country Alliance movement and indigenous and campesino organizations for months. Indigenous and campesino organizations are concerned that it fails to ensure their direct participation in water management. They further complain that the law would not protect water supplies from industrial activities such as mining, nor reverse water privatization that has already occurred in the country. Various attempts at dialogue have failed to address their concerns.

President Correa has called indigenous concerns over the law “the position of cavemen that want to keep the country living in the past.” He has also continued accusing indigenous leaders of wanting to control water for themselves.

Mobilizations against the water law have gained strength over the past month and a half, and include a broad coalition of urban, campesino and indigenous organizations principally from the coast and the highlands. Indigenous organizations include ECUARUNARI and FEINE, as well as the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the National Federation of Indigenous, Peasant and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) which until recently has had close ties to the government’s political movement).

“Once again they aren’t going to consult us, and once again the consultation they carry out won’t be binding,” said Delfín Tenesaca, President of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI), during a press conference last week.

During the same press conference, President of the Ecuadorian Federation of Evangelical Indigenous People (FEINE), Manuel Chugchilán, indicated that indigenous organizations have already participated in efforts to include their proposals in new water reforms, but that they have consistently been undermined.

Most recently, since early May when the National Assembly began their final debate over the water bill, he noted that indigenous representatives have formed part of a technical commission to develop legal text to address key demands. However, holding up a copy of the amended bill that they helped produce, he lamented, that the president of the commission Jamie Abril – a member of Correa’s Country Alliance movement – ultimately presented a different version.

“There is no real, participatory democracy here,” he said. “They want to demobilize indigenous organizations and ignore our proposals.”

Now, even though it is a constitutional right of indigenous peoples to be consulted over legislation that could affect their rights, Cordero’s announcement last week will not easily bring Correa and indigenous and campesino organizations closer together. Earlier during the session, Cordero tabled a prior motion to the same effect, but it failed to pass. Despite this, Cordero has insisted that he is ordering the consultation process to be prepared.

For their part, indigenous leaders, who have never proposed that they should be the sole authority over the country’s hydrological resources, do not believe the consultation will be a genuine effort to receive and incorporate their input. Instead, they see it as a political move aimed at dividing their movement and buying time for the government to ensure that it has the votes needed to pass the currently proposed law.

Consult and conquer

Representatives of the government and governing party confirm concerns that the upcoming consultation will avoid dealing with dissenting popular leaders and be used to squelch dissent.

Assembly Member for the Country Alliance movement Rolando Panchana was most explicit about their intentions when he stated to the national press that “this consultation is going to serve to tell the truth to the grassroots, to inform them adequately and to combat this perverse manipulation that certain indigenous leaders are carrying out.”

Panchana’s comments reflect a national propaganda campaign aimed at delegitimizing indigenous leaders who are accused by the government of being funded by international NGOs and of wanting to impose their agenda on the country. Television advertisements suggest that the thousands of people who have participated in recent mobilizations are manipulated by corrupt leadership.

As a result, the government has indicated that it will bypass such leaders during the consultation.

“This new procedure,” said Coordinating Minister of Policy Doris Soliz last week, “will help establish a consultation much more direct and legitimate with the grassroots indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorian and coastal campesino communities.”

Given such comments, lawyer Wilton Guaranda believes it is quite possible that the government could use the consultation as a means to “divide the indigenous movement” and to simply “legitimize President Correa’s position concerning the water law.”

“Such a decision [to consult with indigenous peoples] should have been adopted by the National Assembly from the time that debate over the water law began” months ago, says Guaranda, recognizing the right of indigenous peoples to pre-legislative consultation. But coming this late in the process, he postulates that it will be a way “to justify that they are abiding by the constitution,” but fail to deal with key issues.

Possible scenarios include that the government will carry out the consultation process as a mere referendum, with a yes or no result. A genuine consultation, points out Guaranda, would consider a “full analysis of the law” that cannot be reduced to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but rather to arguments that need to be addressed over key issues in order for consensus to be reached and collective rights to be guaranteed within the law.

Furthermore, he suggests that the process could undermine indigenous and campesino organizations that lack the same capacity as the government to carry out a campaign at the local community level and speculates that the government could privilege community sectors already on its side. Were international standards for consultation to be considered, however, the consultation would include a broad range of community actors and “it would not be enough to go to the community level, rather state authorities would also need to address community representatives.” But this appears to be exactly what the government hopes to avoid.

In whose interest?

President of Acción Ecológica (Ecological Action) Cecilia Chérrez says that “the government has perversely distorted the situation” by wanting to give the impression that indigenous leaders “want control over water.” She points out that mobilizations for deeper reforms within the new water law have involved a broad range of popular sectors, from urban organizations in the country’s largest city of Guayaquil to rural water systems and broad bases within the indigenous movement. She says that popular sectors have never proposed that they should have exclusive control over water and recalls the tremendous inequalities that exist in terms of water management and distribution within the country, against which they are fighting.

“The latest reports about concentration of water supplies reveal a situation of profound injustice,” she says, noting the role that powerful economic groups play in rural areas where water supplies are dominated by large banana farmers and other agro-export sectors.

Although the current constitution and proposed water law explicitly prohibit water privatization and recognize the right to water first for human consumption and then for food sovereignty and environmental protection, she notes that mechanisms are still in place to protect dominant economic interests. Given allowances being made for large scale mining in fragile ecosystems and headwaters, as well as tolerance of private delivery of municipal water services, she still sees “clear levels of commitment between the government and economic sectors, including multinational corporations.”

As a result, she says, popular sectors do not yet feel assured that their needs will be met.

Wilton Guaranda also sees a need for continuing social mobilizations. However, in tandem, he hopes that the upcoming consultation might still be “an opening.” Noting that for some time, the government “didn’t want to accept that there was any popular discontent over the law,” he proposes that if social organizations demand a meaningful consultation that there might still be an opportunity for “real engagement between the legislature’s current proposal and demands of the indigenous movement… as well as other social sectors that are involved.”