Ecuador: The Debate in the Streets

Amidst deep tensions over Ecuador’s new water law, currently in its final debate within the National Assembly, campesino farmers in the southern province of Azuay celebrated a moment of victory on Wednesday night. The President of the Provincial Court overturned a preventative prison sentence against five community leaders who had been detained and charged during peaceful road blockades the day before on lack of evidence.

Amidst deep tensions over Ecuador’s new water law, currently in its final debate within the National Assembly, campesino farmers in the southern province of Azuay celebrated a moment of victory on Wednesday night. The President of the Provincial Court overturned a preventative prison sentence against five community leaders who had been detained and charged during peaceful road blockades the day before on lack of evidence.

Among a jubilant crowd in front of the city jail, the wife of one of the detained said, “Among so much injustice and criminalization of our struggle, we breathed a bit of justice.” Wife of the President of the Community Water Systems of the province of Azuay, Verónica Cevallos added, “President Correa wanted to send us the message, ‘Be quiet, enough already.’ … But instead, our euforia and mission to defend our land and our Pachamama (Mother Earth) have been unleashed.”

This week marked the sixth year in a struggle that communities, such as Victoria del Portete and Tarqui, have been leading against gold mining in their upper watershed. They want mining prohibited in headwaters and related ecosystems, a proposal not adopted in the official water bill.

Between choruses of “The people united will never be defeated,” and “Let’s go, dammit! We won’t give up, dammit!” the President of the Rural Parish Council of Victoria del Portete, Federico Guzmán – who was also detained and charged with sabotage this week – thanked supporters. He commented that the reason he was jailed was because he was “acting in defence of water so that people in the city can drink safe milk and eat nutritious meat and eggs.” He concluded, “We’re not going to back down.”

Protests across the south-central province of Azuay have been taking place concurrently with thousand’s-strong indigenous mobilizations in Quito to ensure a serious debate over the water bill and to have indigenous and campesino-backed proposals included. No other law has caused so much upheaval among campesino and indigenous organizations since the small Andean nation’s new mining law was passed last year.

Struggling to be heard

“We want the government to listen to us,” a woman yelled, during a futile debate with a group of police officers along a stretch of highway edged with dairy farms just south of the city of Cuenca on Tuesday. Police, who had failed to clear protesters from the road with tear gas, said the communities should hold a march instead. The woman, along with several others, responded in a chorus of groans. They said they had held marches and that they had not brought about results.

A strong voice for historically marginalized campesino and indigenous sectors in water-related decisions is a key issue separating social movements from the official block represented by President Correa’s Country Alliance movement. Popular sectors want a greater say at both the local and national level.

Dr. Carlos Pérez, President of the Community Water Systems of the province of Azuay (UNAGUA), participated in the Tuesday protest until he was forcibly detained at about eight in the morning. In an attempt to protect him, his mother, age 79, was dragged along the ground.

Pérez explains that at the local level they want the right to prior consent for communities whose water supplies could be affected by other water uses, such as mining. At the national level they are proposing an Intercultural and Plurinational Committee to become the nation’s top water authority.

He says they envision this committee as having diverse membership from different levels of state and civil society. “If power is concentrated in one person,” he says, “it will be this person that has the ultimate say.” This is a situation they want to avoid, particularly given differences here between communities and the state over mining concessions in the upper wetlands, known as páramo.

“If there is a plurinational committee made up of seven people from municipalities, rural parishes, rural water systems and indigenous communities,” he says, “then it won’t be one person that decides, but many. And many heads are better than one.”

The structure proposed in the official water bill also includes an Intercultural and Plurinational Committee. However, in the proposed structure, the representative of the National Water Secretariat has a deciding vote. The head of the National Water Secretariat is named by the President of the Republic.

Pérez is also concerned that the proposed water bill will be used “to demobilize communities.” Although not opposed to cooperation with the state or state responsibility to ensure the right to water, he worries that municipal governments or the water secretariat will use any variety of criteria to determine that community water systems “are incapable of managing water supplies” in order “to turn them over to local governments.”

The official water bill proposal does recognize rural community water systems as historic actors in water management in Ecuador. It even calls them a part of national heritage and the country’s collective memory. However, it prioritizes coordination at the local level between the National Water Secretariat and local state entities and charges local governments with the role of stepping in to resolve issues with community water systems where deemed necessary.

Pérez’s concern about possible interference is particularly comprehensible given both the important role that rural organizations have played in rural water management, as well as given a context of ongoing repression and conflicts between organizations such as his and the state with regard to controversial issues, such as gold mining in sensitive ecosystems and headwaters.

To privatize or not to privatize

Further south along the highway, away from the dairy farming communities of Tarqui and Victoria del Portete, another concentration of men and women make this coastal-highland connection nearly impenetrable until early evening on Tuesday. Protesters report that confrontations took place with police early in the morning. But at mid-day, police officers are snacking on potato chips while a couple of hundred people mill around large rocks scattered across the thoroughfare in Girón. 

A representative of the People’s Assembly in Defence of Nature, Abel Arpi, talks with the press between taking phone calls. He alleges that the proposed water bill will not effectively address water privatization in Ecuador.

He claims that the water bill lacks mechanisms to redistribute water in the interests of rural communities, such as in Azuay province, where three percent of water concession holders have been shown to control about seventy percent of available water. He also criticizes the water bill for failing to take decisive action against foreign-controlled water delivery services in the city of Guayaquil where thousands lack access to safe water supplies.

“The constitution clearly says that water management should be exclusively public or community-based,” says Arpi. “But now they say that these concessions are going to remain. What kind of redistribution of water is this?”

Father Teodoro Delgado, a local priest who practices what he calls eco-theology, accompanied protests on Tuesday. He echoes Arpi’s concerns, saying that he would like to see a mechanism in the law “that would revert all water concessions to the state and to then be democratically redistributed in favour of  communities, taking into consideration priorities for water use, first for human consumption, secondly for agriculture, and then for other uses.”

Failing to see “a will for such redistribution,” he concurs with Arpi that the law could sustain the current scenario in which very few water users control most of the country’s water resources.

The commission responsible for preparing the report for final debate has challenged such allegations arguing that the proposed law explicitly prohibits privatization of water and ensures that water management will be public or community-based. The proposal additionally indicates that an audit will be carried out of existing water concessions during the coming year to determine which should be reverted to the state in order to ensure the right to water.

However, Assembly Member Jaime Abril who headed the commission that prepared the majority report has made qualified remarks with regard to their decision not to revert privately-held water concessions, such as in the case of Interagua in Guayquil.

Guayaquil’s public water corporation has had a contract with former-Bechtel subsidiary, Interagua, since 2001. Three national state institutions have audited this contract, which entailed a $40 million dollar loan from the Inter American Development Bank. The Comptroller General (Contraloría General del Estado) determined that the Ecuadorian population has paid roughly the same amount of money servicing its debt to the IADB as Interagua has gained in capital over the last decade. Furthermore, whereas Ecuador still owes about $27 million dollars on the original loan and Interagua’s services have been shown to be severely lacking, the Commission for the Integral Audit of Public Credit determined in 2008 that the debt is “unnecessary, illegitimate and counterproductive with regard to the interests of the citizens of Guayaquil.” Various civil society organizations see the new water law as an opportunity to cancel this contract.

Assembly Member Abril has said, by deciding not to do this that they are still working within the constitutional framework, which permits the state to allow private participation in strategic sectors such as water under exceptional circumstances. They have proposed, however, that the municipality of Guayaquil be given a year to further evaluate the contract and to determine whether or not it is within the city’s interests.

Unresolved tensions

The buoyant mood in front of the jail on Wednesday night stood in stark contrast to the dismal feeling among a small group of family members and friends that attended the initial hearing of the five detained community leaders on Tuesday. 

The Tuesday proceeding was held in a plain basement courtroom in which cameras were prohibited, the five were quickly pressed with charges for sabotage of public services. The public attorney expressed that she had not had time to gather evidence nor to visit the scene in which police were allegedly injured and transit signs purportedly damaged. However, based solely upon police testimony, she and then the judge determined that the five men should be charged with aggravated sabotage of public services, a crime which carries possible sentences of eight to twelve years in prison. Although the men were then released from their preventative prison sentence on Wednesday, all five face an ongoing legal process.

The People’s Ombudsman for the province of Azuay (Defensor del Pueblo), Jorge Luis Hidrovo, was present at both hearings. He was surprised at the “lightness” with which the case was treated by the first judge and called the charges “disproportionate.” He perceives a lack of effort on the part of the government to try to reach consensus with indigenous and campesino sectors, which have constitutional and internationally recognized rights to be properly consulted over legislation that could affect their rights.

Verónica Cevallos is not optimistic that things are going to change in the short term. She anticipates a tough fight ahead and says, “We’re going to continue to see serious persecution.”

However, looking beyond any gains they may or may not make with the upcoming passage of the water law, she considers the cheering crowd on Wednesday night in front of the jailhouse following her husband’s release and indicates that they are willing to face what might come. “This is beginning of an even stronger fight,” she states looking around, “and this is the best evidence that we’re united, albeit as humble campesinos, but for a just cause.”