Ecuadorians Protest New Water Law

“We’re crazy for water,” chanted about a thousand campesinos as they marched through the streets of downtown Cuenca in southern Ecuador on Monday. The march, called for by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), was part of a nation-wide mobilization against a new water law.

Image“We’re crazy for water,” chanted about a thousand campesinos as they marched through the streets of downtown Cuenca in southern Ecuador on Monday. The march, called for by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), was part of a nation-wide mobilization against a new water law. It included intermittent road blockades throughout the highlands over the course of the day that by all acounts were peaceful.

The protests took place amidst a heavy onslaught of insults and efforts to delegitimize their concerns, largely by President Rafael Correa. Correa told EFE news service that the popular movements are being used by the right to destabilize his government. He also interrupted national television programming over the weekend to urge Ecuadorians “not to let themselves be deceived by the same old manipulators…who benefit from chaos.”

However, despite Correa’s insistence that he would not be forced to dialogue, by day’s end the CONAIE had suspended protests to enter into talks with him. Campesino organizations in Cuenca also agreed to dialogue, while the Amazonian branch of the CONAIE reported that it remains mobilized, asking for its own talks with the government in order to address issues specific to the region.

The protests come exactly one year since Ecuador’s 2008 political constitution was passed, which recognizes the right to water, rights for nature and which declared the country a plurinational state. However, indigenous and campesino organizations involved in the protests criticize the government for having digressed from the highly lauded constitution. The constitution passed in a national referendum on September 28, 2008 with 64 percent of the vote.

Criticisms concerning the new water law, which was initially scheduled for first debate in the National Assembly last Saturday, apply to the privatization of water, limits on community participation in water management, prioritization of water access for industrial users and lack of sanctions for water contamination, and more. In anticipation of this week’s protests, the debate was postponed for several weeks.

In Cuenca, representatives of rural water systems from across the south-central province focused on  aspects of the water bill pertaining to water use for mining projects that are deemed a national priority. Some of the most advanced metal mining projects in the country are being developed within the páramo outlying the city. Páramo are fragile high altitude wetlands, or essentially a deep sponge composed of soil and vegetation that regulates the water supply for the city and rural populations involved in dairy farming and other agricultural activities.

ImageCampesino groups, led by Rural Water Systems President Carlos Pérez, proposed that mining should be prohibited in the páramo, which should also be off limits to other intensive activities such as farming and motorized sports. Communities within the vicinity of Cuenca have for years been opposing large scale gold mining projects belonging to Canadian-financed companies such as Iamgold and International Minerals Corporation.

These groups were also concerned about reduced participation for rural water boards in water management under the draft law, which Pérez says, “are organizations that have been created at the community level over many years of hard work,” questioning the state’s interest to now step in and overtake control.

Pérez is hopeful that they will have time now before the water law is debated for a national dialogue. However, he says, such dialogue will only be meaningful “if there is a serious commitment on the part of Assembly Members and the President, given our current lack of confidence in this government.” Pérez’s organization previously got involved in talks over a new mining law passed in January, which did not substantially incorporate their proposals. They hope the mining law will be declared unconstitutional by Ecuador’s Constitutional Court based upon an appeal they filed earlier this year.

Before yesterday the potential for dialogue did not seem promising. President Correa had repeatedly insulted indigenous organizations and their leaders, insisting that they “are lying” when they say the water law allows for privatization. He has cited both Article 3 of the law and the constitution which oppose commodification of the precious resource. He also accused leaders of the CONAIE and the highland indigenous organization ECUARUNARI of being part of a privileged class. Both groups rejected his insults and cite them as part of their rationale for Monday’s protests.

Assembly Member Lourdes Tibán from the indigenous Pachakutik movement also wrote an open letter to Correa on Monday, saying, “Enough of your insults Mr. President.” She criticized him for using the term “golden ponchos” against indigenous movement leaders, which she says was coined by the right-wing oligarchy more than 10 years ago, around the time that the indigenous movement was growing in political influence and participated in the overthrow of two governments.

She further observed that Correa has not made such accusations against indigenous members who are supportive of his political movement, despite personal achievements that have brought them a long way out of poverty and marginalization, including past employment with the Interamerican Development Bank in one case. The difference, she says, is political:

“You are very mistaken to think that the indigenous person who is servile is good, while the indigenous person who is critical of your government is part of the elite and a golden poncho," said Tibán. "If this is what you think, it is a very poor definition and an unacceptable perspective.”

She also did not hesitate to recall a recent scandal over President Correa’s brother who was revealed to have obtained tens of millions of dollars in public contracts over the last couple of years, and says his insults deserve to be tried in court.

Finally, Pérez publicly denied that his organization has any interest “in causing upheaval in the country” or in “overthrowing any government.” However, he indicated that they are serious about their demands and calls Monday’s march “just a warm up” for further actions which could escalate depending on how talks progress.

“If [the President] continues with his high-handed attitude and insults,” he concludes, “we know that he who sows wind, reaps tempests.”